This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as handy reminders for colleagues somewhat longer in the tooth.

So far in this back to school series we’ve covered establishing clear routines, building relationships and an awareness of the need to make language and literacy explicit in lessons. This next post concerns itself with the time consuming business of planning.

As a new teacher, lesson planning seemed to suck up almost all of my available time and energy. Looking back over those frenetic early years it’s become increasingly clear that I wasted an awful lot of effort designing activities rather than considering what my students needed to learn.  That is to say, I put most of my effort into things that had only a marginal impact on students’ learning.

Teachers’ time is precious and time spent cutting out card sorts is time you can’t spend doing something more productive. If you want to spend hours producing beautifully crafted resources that’s fine; your personal life is your own. But before you do consider these points:

  • Is it going to encourage students to think about the content of lesson, or will it be a distraction?
  • Is there an easier way to get them to think about what’s important?

If you’re happy with the answers to these questions, go right ahead.

But what about those who work in an environment where someone with a very light (or non-existent) teaching load thinks that detailed planning for every lesson is a good thing? Well, I’d remind that Ofsted (who are often used as an excuse) have made it clear for sometime now that they have no expectation of teachers writing lesson plans; they only want to see evidence of a planned lesson. I’d also point you in the direction of some fascinating research which demonstrated that teachers who were given less time to plan lessons were more sensitive to the needs of their students. Less may very well be more.

The first piece of wisdom I’d like to offer is that planning individual lessons is largely a waste of time. I know, I know – this probably runs counter to everything you might have heard teaching, and of course I’m not advocating pitching up in class with no idea what to do. No, what I’m suggesting is that we should always focus on the long view – how will this lesson connect to last lesson, and next lesson? How, in short, will you take your pupils on a journey from being novices to mastery of a new concept?

To that end I offer this model adapted from the Teaching & learning cycle on Lee Donaghy’s blog:

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 19.09.23

If you want to read more about how it works, please cast your eye over this series of posts:

Teaching for independence: thinking, memory & mastery
Independence vs independent learning
Great teaching happens in cycles
Stage 1: Explain
Stage 2: Model
Stage 3: Scaffold
Stage 4: Practise

But of course, all this is by the by when you’re wracking your brains on a Sunday evening wondering what on earth to do with Year 8 next week. Here then are my top 5 suggestions for making lesson planning more streamlined and less stressful.

1. What will they think about?

There’s a direct relationship between what pupils think about and what they remember. Or, as Daniel Willingham puts it, “Memory is the residue of thought.” So if we consider what pupils will actually be thinking about, rather than what we hope they’ll be thinking about, we’ll increase the likelihood of them remembering what we intend they learn. This means we should beware activities. Activity packed lessons can be the enemy of learning. A useful rule of thumb is to reduce lessons to the fewest activities needed to explain, model, scaffold or practise whatever it is you’re focussing on. Headteacher, John Tomsett says, “Fewer activities, deeper learning.”

2. Marking is planning

Every time you mark pupils’ work should be time spent working out whether they can do what you think they can and what they need to do next. Instead of just writing comments about on their work, ask them individual questions, and set focussed tasks for them to complete in at the beginning of next lesson. Developing this as a routine has a direct impact on your planning as you know that time spent marking will be time your pupils spend working.

3. What’s the story?

Lesson content is full of potential conflicts and fertile questions. If you can give lessons a narrative structure you can make it much more compelling. Structuring lessons like this makes content more memorable. As Dylan Wiliam says, “Getting students engaged so that they can be taught something seems much less effective than getting them engaged by teaching them something that engages them.” The idea that the content of our lessons needs to be made relevant to pupils is hugely problematic. A Shakespeare sonnet, quadratic equations and Hinduism are not necessarily going to seem relevant to many pupils – does that mean we should avoid teaching this stuff? Of course not. Instead it means working out the narrative or point of conflict within these topics so that we can get pupils to think about big, important questions.

4. The ‘1 in 4’ Rule

Let’s be realistic, nobody can churn out activity packed lessons five or six times a day, week in, week out. Working yourself into the ground benefits no one. In any given week I would usually spend a disproportionate of my planning time on one or two lessons, but most will be put together in 5 minutes or less. My formula is that if every fourth lesson for every class is a corker, all will be well. Students are forgiving creatures. They will happily dine off a barnstorming lesson for a week. Plus, if a lesson’s worth its salt, surely it ought to produce work that is marked and then becomes next lesson’s menu anyway?

5. The problem with progress

True progress cannot happen in a single lesson but if everyone knows the learning destination we can judge how close we are to arriving. If you’re clear about what you want pupils to master, it should be straightforward to check whether they are making progress towards this goal. But just because we’ve taught something and pupils appear to have ‘got it’ does not mean that learning has necessarily taken place. Just because students have been able to respond to classroom cues doesn’t mean they will have retained what has been taught, and pupils can only be said to making progress if they still know next lesson what they learned last lesson. We all forget at a fairly predictable rate and so each lesson should refer back to previous lessons and test what pupils have remembered and are still able to do.

On of the most counter-intuitive findings from decades of research into learning and forgetting is that by making the process of learning trickier and slowing down pupils’ current performance, we increase the likelihood of them retaining and being able to transfer between different contexts. If you’d like to know more about this, try this post.

And with that, good luck. You need to know that planning will get easier and less time consuming the more you do of it.