Messy Planning: Part One

Earlier this week I tweeted one of those tweets I write to generate attention:

Since then, a number of people have got in touch with me to ask either one of three questions:

1. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

2. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?

3. If you don’t use PowerPoint, what do your lessons look like?

I’ve called this series ‘Messy Planning’ because to some, my approach to lessons seems unorganised and unplanned. As if I rock up to school and just wing it. Partly because I want to convince myself that my methods aren’t as haphazard as they seem to others, partly because I’m sick of people telling me I never plan lessons, and partly in an attempt to reassure other messy planners, I want to answer each of these questions, in three separate blog posts, the first of which begins shortly.

Before I go on though, I want to clarify a few things:

• I have absolutely no problems with people who plan lessons using lesson plans.

• I have absolutely no problems with people who choose to use presentation software in lessons.

• From a teaching perspective, I think PowerPoints can be really bloody useful, particularly if you are new to teaching, or you are a teacher teaching a new topic or subject. The act of learning new information and transferring it into presentation form can be really useful in consolidating information. Also, slides are great prompts for discussion and questioning in class. Of course, the capacity to show diagrams to assist explanations is also very useful. However…

• …From a learning perspective I don’t know if PowerPoint presentations are always really bloody useful. Often, slides are overloaded and teachers lacking in confidence can put unnecessary cognitive load on students’ working memory by reading aloud, information that is there in writing on the slide for students to read. Also, over- reliance on slides can indicate to students a lack of confidence which may negatively impact student-teacher relationships, an important facet of learning.

Anyway. Let’s go.

Question One: If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

Put simply, I don’t plan lessons because learning doesn’t occur in those arbitrary units of time we decide to call ‘lessons’. Students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments dependant on the differing levels of pre-existing knowledge they bring to different lessons depending on the different variables impacting on their different lives at any given moment. Honestly, because of this, planning ‘lessons’ seems futile to me.

I choose to take some of the pressure off. Instead, I focus on the long game which sees the end of a unit of work as its end point. (And even then I keep in mind that the real end point is the end of the year, meaning that even once a unit is complete, I’ll have to keep revisiting that unit’s material in future units.) Below, is a picture of my ‘Brain Bank’ for Year 10’s study of An Inspector Calls:

It contains the most basic information I want all students to know as a minimum. This is the closest I come to writing anything down when it comes to planning. Then, knowing that this is the information I want to impart onto the students, I go into the lesson and begin teaching.

So what do I actually do?

I allow the texts-and the students’ responses to the texts – to dictate the pace and direction of my lessons. I do this because students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments … So every time I begin a new text for study, all I do (after a lesson providing some contextual background) is go into the class and start reading the text. I don’t write down on a PowerPoint slide or on a piece of paper, specific moments at which we’ll stop and do a task. Rarely do I employ the use of pre-prepared diagrams to elucidate understanding. I certainly never approach a lesson with the intention of ‘getting to a certain point’ in the text.

I just start reading.

I start reading the text and what happens in the lesson is determined by what I, as an expert in my subject, judge students to understand or not understand about what we’re reading. This isn’t to say I don’t have a plan. I do; it’s just in my head. For many of the texts I teach, I am now in my fifth, sixth or seventh year of teaching them. I know them inside out. Over the years I have developed a repertoire of analogies, explanations, and allusions to ensure students learn what’s important. I know when and how to draw upon these depending on the level of understanding of the individuals in front of me; I know the quotations to interrogate, the scenes to dwell on, and the critics to cite.

What is it that has imbued me with this power? Well, it’s what I get up to in my free periods, which you can read about in the next instalment. (Clue: It’s not creating lengthy PowerPoint slides.)

Messy Planning: Part Two can be found Here


Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

3 thoughts on “Messy Planning: Part One”

  1. Great post. I often feel I ‘under plan’s compared to many colleagues but I don’t see the point of creating hours of paper work to not refer to it! Thanks for sharing.


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