A colleague, who forms part of the team of teachers I train and help to develop on a regular basis, recently asked me quite an insightful question:
If a trainer or an observer is so experienced and well-trained in their field, surely they don’t need a lesson plan to understand each stage of a lesson.
However, the paperwork that comes with observations is a formality which is universally followed: it doesn’t matter if you’re being observed by the Academic Director of a large Language Teaching Organisation with several sites across a country, or by a Senior Teacher in a school, it is a given that you will hand in a lesson plan before being observed.
Having initially agreed with the teacher’s assertion, this led to the inevitable subsequent question:
Why is it necessary to hand in lesson plans?
Can an observer really watch a lesson and truly know what is happening at each stage? Can the stages of the lesson be correctly identified, labelled and commented on without a lesson plan?
To answer these questions, a colleague and I decided to conduct a little experiment. I went into one a lesson and completed the following task:
- Wrote down interaction patterns
- Made a note of the tasks
- Determined the purpose of each stage
- Gave each stage a label and an aim
What came out this was perhaps quite predictable: I was able to collect all the necessary information to determine the aims and the procedure of each stage of the lesson.
After the lesson was over, my notes were compared with the teacher’s original lesson plan, which the lesson was delivered from and which I had not seen, and my observations and the plan correlated well.
Although this was an interesting experiment, it still left us with the same query:
What is the purpose of lesson plans?
A True Record
During an observed lesson, the observer makes a note of what is happening at each moment. These notes include:
When the stage begins and ends
Who is talking to who and who is doing what
Looking at what the activity at hand involves
What all this eventually results in is a record of what happened at each stage of the lesson i.e. a plan of the lesson.
However, given that the observed teacher has already handed in a Lesson Plan with all of this information, what is the purpose of making these notes, especially as it seems to be simply duplicating information that is already available?
First and foremost, it must be made clear that what is planned and what happens in a lesson rarely add up. In fact, what is planned and what is executed are two very different, yet strongly interconnected, skills of teaching.
By writing down what happens at each stage of the lesson, this provides both the observer and the observee with a written record of the actual lesson itself, regardless of what was intended to happen.
Since the Lesson Plan provides the observer and the observee with a record of what was intended to happen in the observed lesson, and the observer’s record of what actually happened serves as the true record of the lesson, then where is the connection? Why do we need both of them?
When planning any lesson, a teacher makes a series of decisions. These decisions cover a variety of aspects of the lesson, including the following:
- Decisions about materials
The teacher might have to decide what materials best help the lesson to achieve its aims. If working from a coursebook, they might also have to consider whether the material in the coursebook is sufficiently appropriate to achieve the lesson goals.
- Decisions about lesson aims
For most teachers, this decision ties in strongly with the decision about materials, though it probably shouldn’t, as the lesson aim or aims should be determined in advance and then appropriate materials either found or designed to meet those aims – not lesson aims being designed around materials. Regardless of this, the teacher will have to decide what it is this particular lesson for this particular group of learners is aiming to achieve.
- Decisions about lesson structure
There are a number of ways a lesson could be structured. For lesser experienced teachers, the most likely lesson structure is PPP, as this is what they were taught in their initial teacher training course. More experienced teachers will probably call on a variety of lesson structures, using them according to what they feel best fits the lesson aims. A more experienced teacher will use a PPP approach for specific reasons and a TBL approach for other reasons.
It is very easy to come to the conclusion that the teacher makes a variety of decisions during the planning stage and the lesson plan gives the observer some insight into those decisions.
However, what shouldn’t be forgotten is the fact that teachers make a significant number of decisions during the lesson itself. While following a lesson plan, a teacher might decide to drop a stage, move stages around or even scrap their lesson plan altogether. These decisions are based on what is happening in the classroom during the lesson: the teacher calls on their pedagogic experience to date to make calls on what is best for the learners during that lesson. The record of what actually happens in the lesson serves, in the eyes of the observer, as evidence of those in situ decisions.
When the decisions made during the lesson are compared with the decisions made during the planning stage, it is the differences in these two records which reveal the most interesting features of the teacher’s pedagogic abilities.
Without the lesson plan and without the record of what happened during the lesson, the necessary information would not be available to make this comparison and to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities.
This post later led to a discussion on the TEFL Show podcast series: