Know your destination: a defense of thoughtful lesson planning

person reading map

Walk to work every day? You probably follow a straightforward route. You might pause to read a sign or notice a view, but your path won’t deviate much: you’ve got to get to work.

An aimless Sunday stroll is another thing altogether. Ambling along the sidewalk and following your whimsy could take you in countless different places. The point is to experience the journey.

Which of these metaphors describes your approach to lesson planning and teaching? Which is best?

The TESOL profession seems to be undecided on this latter question, with surprisingly passionate debate on both sides. Advocates of outcomes-focused lesson planning say that paths should lead to destinations: we should know where we’re headed in a lesson, articulating clear objectives to help us achieve our aims and gauge our success.

A very different approach is less- or unplanned teaching, in which teachers enter the classroom without a pre-set agenda, focusing instead on needs and opportunities that arise.

The anti-planners’ perspective

The latter philosophy has gained traction in recent decades, and often involves abject derision of the former. See, for example, this handout from popular TESOL trainer Jim Scrivener (2009), which frames written lesson plans as “traditional” and says things like this:

“As experienced teachers we mainly need to prepare but not plan.”

“An experienced teacher still needs to prepare thoroughly – but may actually hamstring themselves by planning too much.”

“Weak teachers may use written lesson plans as a way of avoiding developing as teachers.”

And the linchpin, revealing his underlying philosophy?

“Good teaching is essentially process-orientated not product-oriented.”

With that last claim, Scrivener sums up his point: good teaching looks more like a Sunday stroll than a Monday walk to work.

But does it?

The planners fight back

In ELT Journal last year, teacher trainer Jason Anderson (2015) echoed Scrivener in a criticism of outcomes-based lesson planning. He called for an “affordance-based” approach that replaces a focus on outcomes with one on opportunities (p. 228).

The October 2016 issue of the same publication includes a response from May Pang, Assistant Professor at the Education University of Hong Kong. Pang agrees with Anderson’s emphasis on the importance of lesson-plan flexibility and teachers’ openness to responding to opportunities that arise. But she questions his dismissal of learning outcomes, arguing that these are “fundamental in curriculum design” (Pang, 2016, p. 445):

“Planning for teaching is an endeavour in structuring experiences for learning. It involves identifying certain aims or targeting outcomes; and it is often aligned with the design of learning processes and activities that lead learners to achieve these objectives,” (p. 445). 

Pang criticizes Anderson’s “polarized” “‘either-outcomes-or-process’ dichotomy,” suggesting that this stance “reveal[s] insufficient understanding about lesson planning and teacher development,” (p. 446):

“In relation to lesson planning and thus the reasoning behind teaching, he seems to be giving up intended aims or objectives totally, arguing instead for unintended or unpredictable opportunities for learning. Such a strong view against the role of outcomes in planning denies not only what a professional can shape in the learning process but also how a competent teacher can mediate learner needs in the process of instruction,” (Pang, 2016, p. 446).

In short: Pang and others who value thoughtful lesson planning are pushing back against the idea that having a plan will paralyze teachers, “hamstringing” them from responding to the needs of the moment. They’re saying that having a destination in mind won’t prevent a meaningful detour.

Why context matters

Of course, what’s missing in this dialogue is a focus on context. Jack Richards’ (2013) wonderful framework for “forward,” “backward” and “centrally” planned curricula suggests that some contexts, such as relaxed general-English language schools, follow a more centrally-planned approach: the teacher and students can collectively determine what to focus on, and this allows teachers to explore minimal-planning approaches such as those advocated by Scrivener and Anderson.

Other contexts, such as high-stakes English for Academic Purposes instruction, may follow a more backward-planned curricular approach. This means that planned outcomes have informed course design, and scaffolded objectives already exist for lessons and units. Thoughtful lesson planning in these contexts will be critical to ensure that aims are met.

Our takeaway

The extent to which a teacher can scrap a lesson, redefine a learning outcome, or experiment with minimal planning will depend on their curricular context. And when this freedom is present, it is worth considering for possible exploitation. But for most serious TESOL environments — particularly in EAP — lesson planning is the necessary work of the professional educator. Those who reduce written lesson plans to the purview of the novice are denying the value of looking at a map before setting out on a journey. Feeling one’s way along may seem brave and original, but it can also get you lost. Better, we think, to have a map and know when you’re taking a detour, so you can keep moving in the general direction toward your destination.

But it’s maps we want, not blind following of GPS instructions. So with that plan in hand, good teachers always remain open to emerging language, needs and opportunities. Students are individuals; our focus should always be on where their personal ZPD’s are stretching. We can notice those needs and meet them, while progressing toward our objectives as well. Goal-oriented lesson planning needn’t hinder that support. Rather, it can provide shape to it: a sense of shared destination.

References

Anderson, J. 2015. ‘Affordance, learning opportunities, and the lesson plan pro forma’. ELT Journal 69(3), 228–38.

Pang, M. (2016). Companion guides for lesson planning: a planning template and the lesson plan pro forma. ELT Journal, 70(4), 444-454. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccw053

Richards, J. (2013). Curriculum Approaches in Language Teaching: Forward, Central, and Backward Design. RELC Journal, 44(1), 5-33.