This much I know…. about lesson planning

This is another guest post, this time by John Tomsett, a Headteacher at the Huntington School in York.  John has been an English teacher for 24 years to date and offers great advice through his brilliant blog here.

In this post John talks about lesson planning and has included three attachments below to help his fellow teachers:


2. Six Key Tips on using Lesson Progress Maps

3. Fullan on checklists

I have been teaching for 24 years now and at the age of 47, this much I know about lesson planning…

Ask any set of students for the five key features of a good teacher and they will give you essentially the same answer: good teachers are enthusiastic; they make lessons fun; they know their subject; they respect us as adults; they help if we don’t understand. All lesson planning should derive from this knowledge.

Teaching is simultaneously simple and complex. To cater for the different needs of each student in a class of 30 individuals is a hugely complicated task, yet there is a small number of core teaching practices, like effective questioning, which are essential to all good lessons.

You have to know who is in front of you. We have begun using reading ages in Year 7 and Year 10 as a key indicator of academic capacity; just that one piece of information on our set lists is really helpful for lesson planning.

We are in danger of strangulating creativity in the classroom. Over the past twenty years we have made tremendous progress in teaching and practice in our state schools has never been better; however, over-planned lessons are a curse. One candidate for a post at Huntington had a lesson plan a full nine pages long. He could not teach because he was too obsessed with what his plan said he should be doing every two minutes. And more experienced teachers are losing confidence because they think there is some secret formula for teaching great lessons for which they have not been trained.

Our Lesson Planning proforma is called a Lesson Progress Map, (attached)which sounds like jargon, but is explained by the idea of getting from York to Leeds. I’d normally use the A64, but sometimes it’s blocked so I have to go via Tadcaster and Boston Spa, but I’ll get to my destination one way or another and the same applies to lessons – I know where I want to end up, but I’m not sure, when I start the lesson, which route I’m going to take.  I make sure I have several paths I can follow on depending upon the way the students’ learning takes shape during the lesson. In September we will use one Lesson Progress Map per lesson, every lesson, so that they are common practice and not just the lesson planning form we use when OFSTED arrive. We are making our own teacher planners rather than buying commercial versions. (Below you’ll find “Six Key Tips on using Lesson Progress Maps” which I have just written for teachers at our school which might prove helpful in ensuring the LPMs enhance your teaching.)

I love Michael Fullan’s thoughts on the power of the humble checklist, (attached) which was the inspiration for the checklist at the top of our Lesson Progress Map, and which I think is a powerful element of the proforma. Certainly, our Teaching Assistants have never felt more involved in the learning process.

Lesson objectives or learning outcomes? I do not think anyone really knows. I sometimes ask this question at interview and one candidate admitted he did not know and was fed up with his PGCE tutor insisting he writes both on his lesson plans. This TES forum exemplifies the confusion: We just use the phrase: What do you want your students to learn in this lesson?

Why did we adopt the term plenary to describe the end of the lesson? Its etymological root hardly suggests its meaning in the context of lesson planning. I think this is another term which has made the lesson planning process sound unnecessarily complex. Activity to ensure that you and the students both know they have made progress seems a better way of describing what we need to plan for at the end of the lesson.

I do not want to see timings on lesson plans. I see too many car crash lessons where the teacher knows some students have not understood a key point but s/he drives on because s/he feels compelled to stick to the timings on the lesson plan; it is so unnecessary.

Plan the accurate targeting of your questions. I had a telephone conversation with Dylan Wiliam in 1998 the week after “Inside the Black Box” was published. He said, “In England we spend preparation time marking, in Germany they practise the exposition and in Japan they think up good questions.” He still repeats that mantra and he is dead right about the importance of good questioning.

We have granted colleagues professional permission to ditch some of the nonsense around planning lessons and use their skill during the lesson to make decisions about what to do, when. Have a peek at OFSTED’s definition of Good teaching to see why that is SO important – “Teachers regularly listen astutely to, carefully observe and skilfully question groups of pupils and individuals during lessons in order to reshape tasks and explanations to improve learning.”

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