This week Steven Miles, Headteacher of Daubeney Academy in Bedford, shared with us his insight into what goes into making the perfect lesson plan. Having years of experience behind him and working in an Ofsted rated Good school that is a part of the Challenger Multi Academy Trust, Steven shares his thoughts on the recipe for the perfect lesson plan which seeks to improve both academic achievement and character development.
The Recipe for the Perfect Lesson Plan
Over the course of the two and a bit decades that I have been a teacher I have always been on the lookout, not only as a classroom practitioner, but also as a middle and senior leader in a number of schools across England, for the perfect lesson.
I suspect also that this search for perfect planning, teaching and learning that has reached the pinnacle of what can be achieved in a classroom will continue for the remainder of my career, and very likely for the careers of my counterparts in schools all over the world. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with striving for something that is excellent, of course. As a Headteacher, this is exactly the attitude that I want to see from all members of our school community, not only teachers but students, parents and other professionals.
With this endless search for the perfect lesson plan, however, there needs also to come a healthy dose of realism, a sense of calmness if things don’t go as you wanted them to, a willingness to let learning happen with a degree of organic spontaneity, and an acceptance that a perfect lesson plan does not always lead to a perfect lesson.
On paper, you may have covered (in your mind, at least) all the bases, but there are so many variables at play before and during a lesson actually takes place that you couldn’t possibly accommodate them all into your plan. Teachers have no control over the Facebook post that went viral on the evening before the lesson which has led to a simmering stand-off at the back of the room, nor can they be expected to prepare for the crash in energy levels in the student at the front whose can of Monster for breakfast has now left his or her system, and if a wasp is to enter the room during the summer term then the plan can simply be torn up and thrown out of the window from which it so aggressively entered! However, the one thing that a teacher can control in a room is their own attitude, mood and approach to the students – the “weather in the room”, as Haim Ginott once so eloquently noted.
In a good lesson in a good school, students are known and known well by the classroom teachers and it is effective relationships that give teachers confidence that their well-planned lessons will translate into excellent learning. When relationships, so often developed outside of the classrooms in corridors, dining halls and playgrounds, are right and routines are solid, plans can be made with confidence and the effects of the ever-present external factors can be kept to a minimum.
Strong relationships and a sound understanding of the needs of the individuals within a group (evidenced by a seating plan that shows a knowledge of the class that a succession of England managers have not demonstrated with their midfield selections) also enable a teacher to plan in advance what questions to pose to which students and how to offer feedback to those whose personalities demand a different approach.
In our school, we try to keep it simple and when we are watching each other teach as part of our continuous programme of classroom monitoring we look for evidence that a teacher poses more profound questions to students with high prior attainment and more shallow questions to those who aren’t yet able to access learning at that particular level. Over time, of course, scaffolds can and should be rebuilt to meet the changing needs and what was right in Year 7 will quite often no longer be appropriate in Year 11, assuming that the hard work further down in the school was applied consistently and has paid off. In any class, there are a wide range of abilities, personalities, moods and attitudes; a good teacher knows the class in front of them and plans appropriate support and challenge in a way that will not only keep all of the plates spinning but also send some of them flying on their own.
When learning is happening within a group, there is a tangible buzz in the room and these are the moments that I continue to savour the most. Often, the most exciting of lessons come from the most simple of plans. Over the years, several lesson plans have been circulated online and then adopted by schools as the de rigueur means of preparing for learning to happen. However, as with most off-the-shelf models, they are often assigned to the dustbin of formerly-good-ideas if a community doesn’t wholly accept or use the plan itself.
Recently, I have visited schools where there is no guidance of what kind of plan to write for a lesson and where you could visit 6 lessons in a day and see 6 completely different formats. In my experience, it is not only good practice but also more likely to lead to good learning amongst the students if a school agrees on a simple and fully understood model that is to be used by all. That way, you get the consistency of approach that provides the structure in which individuality and creativity can flourish; it doesn’t work the other way around, you don’t get a consistent approach if each classroom operates as if it was a separate shop in a sprawling shopping mall.
For a good lesson to take place, teachers need it to be well-planned and well-thought out in advance. A good (or better!) lesson, however, doesn’t need to be perfect and teachers don’t also need to be aiming to produce perfect lesson plans for every lesson. Quite often, less is more and an excellent plan is not an excellent checklist.
My advice to my amazing colleagues in our school and to anyone else in any other setting who has given up a valuable moment to very kindly read this blog is this:
- Keep your plans simple and build from a foundation that both you and your students understand (if you have to explain what you’re doing a few times, it’s probably not working!).
- Take your time when you are planning and thinking and plan for the same time to be given to your students when they are learning (it’s rare that anything good is ever done in a hurry, no matter how much content you feel you need to get through as quickly as possible!).
- Plan for learning to not only be limited to the classroom and for it to continue after the lesson has finished (in our school, our teachers use our #DeepenYourLearning hashtag when aiming to extend learning via our online accounts so that students can share our love of learning).
- Get to know your students and show that you value them as people and that you care about their learning and, most importantly, stop thinking that there is such a thing as a perfect lesson (or, indeed, a perfect lesson plan!) and that you need to ever try to be perfect!