FE Lesson Planning in the Real World

‘How to plan a teaching session’ is a perennial topic for debate in my own College, and also in the wider Further Education world.  There have been numerous articles in the TES on the subject, and even in my own College the re-invention of lesson planning is something that has almost become an organisational habit over the last twenty years.  There are a number of questions worthy of consideration regarding lesson planning, particularly as the College is at a point where it is reconsidering the best models for teaching and learning based on the needs of twenty first century learners, the local and regional economy, the best available research and the opportunities afforded by technology to support teaching and learning.  The purpose of this blog is to start a debate about what lesson planning is, what works best, and the time and effort required to plan good teaching and learning.

So why then do we undergo a process of lesson planning?  If after self-searching the answer falls in the region of ‘because Ofsted require it’ or ‘because we might be observed in the near future’ or ‘it’s a requirement of compliance in College’, then we collectively may need to revisit our approach.  For clarity, Ofsted do judge whether sessions they observe have been well planned; however they consider ‘evidence of planning’, and do not prescribe particular forms, lists or approaches.  In order to provide a good experience for learners throughout their programmes, and to enable them to develop their knowledge and skills, each session must have a defined purpose along with appropriate targeted learning acquisition and improvement; these are the aim and objectives, and surely must constitute the minimum planning for any session.

In totality, the learning sessions must grow knowledge, understanding, skills, approaches, attitudes and wider attributes, and it is essential that the process of planning ensures the learners become competent and confident in line with the requirements defined by their qualifications’ frameworks.  The ‘plan’ which embodies this is the scheme of work.  It contains the essential elements of what will be delivered (session title/topic) and what measure will demonstrate progress in the sessions (learning outcomes/objectives).

If a scheme of work is essential to ensure a coherent programme of learning over time, then what other processes are involved in lesson planning?  This is where it becomes necessary to further define what is meant by ‘lesson planning’.  In my own opinion, lesson planning is the thought process (often quite challenging!) behind exactly what is going to happen in the session in order to ensure the learning objectives are met, and how this will be measured.  One of the burning issues here is what needs to be written down, and for whose benefit?  Again, in my own opinion, once the broad content of the session is committed to the scheme of work, the most effective course of action is to spend as much of the available planning time as possible preparing the resources, whether that be constructing a presentation, producing hand-outs, finding reference materials, preparing practical activities etc.  Any time spent undertaking a descriptive writing exercise prior to undertaking this work may not be the best use of that time.

I have often observed sessions in which I have been presented with an Extended Scheme of Learning, and inwardly winced when considering the amount of time it would have taken to produce this.  And then been frustrated that the quality of the lesson may not have been as good as it may have been if the Teacher had spent more time actually preparing it than writing about it.  The original purpose of the Extended Scheme of Learning was that it could give a general overview of a number of sessions on a single sheet.  Unfortunately, as soon as the format had been released, it morphed into an unwieldy single-session plan with lists of activities, lists of differentiation methods, lists of assessment methods and lists of resources.

And now for the part which may be seen as contentious and instigate much debate; if so then I am pleased as that is the purpose of this article.  I am talking here about Differentiation.  I am going to make some preliminary assumptions here – firstly that I am not talking about a practical workshop in which learners are working independently on developing their own projects, and secondly that the classroom situation I am describing does not contain learners across a large range of levels (e.g. three or more).  I see lesson plans time and again which in the Differentiation section contain a list of possible methods of differentiation, which are straight from the text book.  What is missing is how a differentiated approach may apply.  My own hypothesis is that in an ‘average’ group of reasonable size, most learners will tend to learn in a broadly similar way most of the time, with some minor variation in preference.  Therefore good whole-class teaching aims the teaching at the whole class; the objectives should be achieved by all learners.  If there is a learner in the group who, for some reason, requires a particular approach e.g. an adjusted hand-out, some personal support etc., this can be indicated on a plan where necessary, and should be informed by the Class Profile.  It is not possible or necessary to write fifteen different lesson plans for a group of fifteen learners!  ‘Stretch and challenge’ may manifest itself in the degree to which the learners achieve the objectives, or go beyond in the case of the most able learners.

So if I was to propose a minimum level of planning (in terms of committing to documentation), it would be the following list:  Title, Objectives, Resources/links.  The key element missing from here is structure.  However the structure of the session may be contained within a presentation.  My favourite approach for a linear session is that each structural element exists as a header on a Powerpoint; if this is the case then there is very little need to write anything down as the planning effort is going where it is most effective.  The Objectives, the starter, the delivered material, the assessment points, the follow on/homework can all be incorporated into the presentation.  Why do anything else?  If the Scheme of Work contains the items indicated over a period, then it is straightforward to work on the Powerpoint and other resources, particularly if a standard template is used.

I hope this article has provided some food for thought.  For many years I have been of the opinion that Teachers need to teach more and write less. That isn’t to say that there is not a necessary amount of administration linked to a Teacher’s role, there evidently is. But surely the sensible approach is to ensure that the administration undertaken is that which is necessary, and that the approach to teaching ensures that all effort goes into learners having the best experience.  I look forward to debate on this subject with anybody who would like to engage.

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