Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Lesson Planning Is like a Marriage

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Lesson Planning Is like a Marriage

Article excerpt

Teachers make the mistake of lesson planning on their own - but it is better when done in partnership with students, argues Clare Jarmy

Imagine the scene: an appointment at a marriage counsellor's practice is beginning.

"Where's your wife?" asks the marriage counsellor. The husband looks confused, and says that he wants to fix the marriage. What has his wife got to do with him doing that?

Plainly, this situation is ridiculous. While there are things the marriage counsellor could do in this situation, such as getting the husband to think about what might be upsetting or annoying his wife, fundamentally something has gone wrong. You can't fix a marriage on your own.

It is obvious why this is: a marriage is interpersonal - it exists in the relationship between two people. It is more than the sum of its parts. Marriage only makes sense when thought about in terms of relations.

Strong relationships

Which brings me to the subject of planning lessons. Convention suggests that lesson objectives, planned activities and exam board specifications should be imposed on students by their teachers. It is the teacher's responsibility to devise what the students are going to learn, and how they're going to do it.

I would argue that, like the husband who goes to marriage counselling alone, we have got this all wrong. We need to let students "plan" lessons with us.

Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, encouraged us to think of learning as interpersonal and relational: learning comes out of interaction within a social context.

He argued that the teacher is the central support in guiding students from the kinds of tasks they can do already and from the kinds of tasks that are so far beyond them that they're unachievable. For this to happen, the relationship between teachers and students needs to be strong so the next step can be made in the learning. Obviously, where the next step lies might be different for each child: effective learning means that teachers need to respond to each student.

Just as with marriage, in education the magic happens in the relationship between the people involved.

Yet lesson planning is something we do alone. This means that, although we know that excellent lessons are relational and responsive, our lesson planning isn't.

Of course, there is a good reason why we're the ones planning the lessons: students don't know what they are about to learn. And when we plan, there is always theoretical responsiveness; we plan for how we think the students will respond. A teacher who is approaching bearings with a group that she knows struggle with the spatial parts of maths might get students to stand up and point, as a way of making the idea come alive.

'It's our lesson'

Yet, as Robert Burns might have written, "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' teachers gang aft agley". Frequently, we are faced with the dilemma of sticking to what we planned or responding to the direction in which the students are taking us.

I believe we should take the latter approach - we should not just allow students to take us off-plan, we should encourage them to do so. The lesson is our lesson, not my lesson. And co-planning in this way ensures that effective learning takes place.

So why don't we do it?

A PGCE student told me about planning her first starter. It was a card sort that she had taken hours to prepare. With a heavy heart, she said it had "gone a bit wrong" when the students focused on only some of the cards. To her, it felt like the planning had been wasted because the students hadn't responded in the way she expected.

This doesn't just happen to new teachers. Frequently, we plan for observed lessons, but then panic when a student leads us down a tangent or when a task doesn't achieve what we think it should. …

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