A lesson plan is not a planned lesson

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This article is about planned lessons not lesson plans. I do not advocate spending your evenings and weekends writing detailed pro forma. Life’s too short and you need to strike a work/life balance if you’re to survive your probation.

Although a lesson plan may help you in your NQT year (a written plan can be something to lean on in the hurly burly of the classroom), having a lesson plan does not equate to teaching a well-planned lesson.

Indeed, the more detailed a lesson plan is, the less likely you are to deviate from it. And yet the best teaching is fluid, it responds to the here-and-now circumstances of the classroom. The best teachers, meanwhile, are attuned to the dynamics of the classroom: they know when the pace is too fast or slow, when pupils are bored or stuck, when, in short, the lesson isn’t working and it’s time to rip up the plan and wing it.

So hear this: do not lock yourself away with your teacher planner, writing reams of notes about what you intend to teach and how you’ll differentiate, about how you’ll embed literacy and numeracy, and utilise ICT, and promote fundamental British values, and… well, you get the idea.

Instead, spend some of that time assessing your pupils so you know where the gaps in their knowledge are and – therefore – where to pitch your lessons. Spend some of that time writing big questions that will pique pupils’ curiosity, promote deeper thinking, and inspire independent learning. And spend the rest of the time relaxing and switching off.

One final caveat: when you engage in lesson planning activity, think not “what will pupils do in this lesson?” but rather “what will pupils think about in this lesson?” – and perhaps “what do I need pupils to know by the end of this lesson?”

If you do the former, you’ll likely focus on activities and tasks, on time-filling, and then on resource-creation. You won’t focus, or focus sufficiently, on what pupils will learn. And that’s dangerous because pupils only learn what they are made to think about and they only think about what they actively pay attention to.

It’s easy to divert pupils’ attention onto the wrong things – such as on what a poster should look like rather than on what content should be included – or overload the limited space in their working memories by getting them to pay attention to too many things at once – like how to conduct independent research and report its findings as well as on the facts being researched.

Only once you know what pupils will think about and therefore learn should you consider what they will do. And when selecting learning activities, you should decide on the best – which is to say most expedient – way of getting them to encode new information.

Sometimes this will be through the artful use of direct instruction – simply telling pupils what you need them to know. Sometimes, it will be through the modelling of excellence, deconstructing and reconstructing examples of the finished product. And sometimes it will be through classroom discussion and debate, fuelled by great questions.

Supporting cognition

When planning lessons, then, we need to ensure that pupils will know something at the end that they didn’t know before, and/or be able to do something they couldn’t before. We also need to ensure that they will be able to apply that knowledge and/or those skills at a later time – such as in an exam – and in a range of different contexts. This requires a complex cognitive process that, broadly speaking, occurs in four stages: Attention, Encoding, Storage and Retrieval.

1, Attention

There are two main types of attention:

Goal-oriented attention is gained through motivation, curiosity and other self-driven forces and is retained through intent.

Stimulus-oriented attention is gained through the sensory stimuli that surround us (our response to sights and sounds) and is retained subconsciously, thus over-riding our goal-oriented attention.

These goal-oriented and stimulus-oriented attention-grabbers operate at the same time and our ability to regulate them, i.e. to stay focused on our goal-directed attention and limit the influence of our stimulus-driven attention, is one of the keys to learning.

2, Encoding

When we are exposed to new information we process it then attempt to connect it to existing information. We try to assimilate new knowledge with prior knowledge in an attempt to provide a context within which to make sense of it.

The richer – sensorily and emotionally – the new information is, and the deeper the existing information is engrained, the more strongly new information will be encoded in our long-term memories. We can infer from this that effective learning is the result of two things:

Multi-sensory and emotional experiences – the richer our sensory-emotional experience of new information, the more deeply we will encode it. For instance, if we are made to feel something, we are more likely to encode new information. So rather than tell pupils something, let them see it and feel it.

Making ideas concrete makes them more credible.

Contextualised information (prior knowledge) – when we have previous experience of something, we can encode new information about it more effectively and more richly.

Keene and Zimmerman (1997) say we should teach pupils to make three types of connections: to connect new information to their own experiences, to other information they’ve studied, and to the wider world.

3, Storage

Memories fade away if they are neglected but can get stronger with repeated use. Making new associations with prior learning strengthens our memories because the number of connections we make influences the number of times memories are revisited, which in turn influences the length of time we retain a memory.

When we connect different pieces of information with each other, we retain them for longer, because we retrieve them more often. It follows that the more often we connect what we are teaching today to what we taught previously, the better the information will be learnt. Equally, the more we connect what we’re teaching today to contextual information the better our pupils will learn.

4, Retrieval

Roughly, we forget half of the information that enters our working memories every hour, and two-thirds of the information we process disappears every day. But there are things we can do as teachers to help our pupils retrieve important information more easily.

One is to plan learning in such a way as to allow purposeful practice, which is to say the opposite of cramming. Rather than focusing on one topic for a long period of time and never returning to it again, purposeful practice focuses on each topic for a shorter period of time, but returns to it several times with increasingly lengthy gaps and in-between studying other topics.

In practice, this means we should plan opportunities for our pupils not only to revise information they have previously learnt, but to re-organise that information by writing about it or talking about it. Our pupils will forge new connections if they retrieve information from long-term memory and re-encode it with new information.

Learning outcomes

Once we are clear about how learning happens, we need to set out what we expect pupils to learn in each lesson or sequence of lessons. One way to do this is to write and share learning outcomes.

Learning outcomes – and indeed shorter-term task instructions – must be specific. Learning outcomes and the criteria against which pupils will be assessed must be joined-up.

The assessment criteria must also be shared with pupils before they embark on a task and, ideally, pupils should be involved in agreeing that success criteria. A class discussion about “what a good one looks like” not only makes it clear how pupils will eventually be judged, it also ensures that pupils take ownership of the task and have a vested interest in completing it to the best of their abilities.

The assessment criteria should allow for a degree of creativity and flair and not be too prescriptive, and feedback should be formative, focused on what pupils need to do to improve, rather than summative and final.

Once the learning outcomes have been articulated, pupils should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What do I have to understand by the end of this lesson/unit/module?
  • What am I expected to produce in order to demonstrate my understanding? What will that understanding look like in practice?
  • What knowledge/skills should I currently possess or will I need to acquire in order to meet the assessment criteria and demonstrate my understanding?
  • What resources and assistance will be available to help me?
  • How does the work I am doing today relate to what we did previously?
  • How will the work I am doing today help me to meet the final assessment criteria?
  • What aspects of today’s and future work demands the most attention?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in my current performance? What can I do to improve?
  • How will my final work be assessed?

A word of advice: sharing learning outcomes and assessment criteria does not mean that every lesson must start with a set of objectives scribed on the board which pupils have to copy down. In fact, it definitely does not mean this. Lessons are artificial blocks of study not a complete learning sequence.

Not every lesson, therefore, needs to start with objectives and there is nothing to be gained by getting pupils to copy verbatim from the board. Rather, the direction of travel should be shared with pupils when you begin a new topic or module, then periodically repeated and reinforced.

How to write learning outcomes

Learning outcomes should be measurable statements that articulate what pupils should know and/or be able to do by the end of a lesson or sequence of lessons. The best learning outcomes are pupil-centred rather than teacher-centred, and are specific and measurable, thus providing a means of determining the content, organisation, and assessment of the lesson or topic.

Learning outcomes can help pupils to acquire foundational knowledge and can improve their short-term retention, as well as improve higher-order cognitive processing such as the application of knowledge and the transferability of knowledge, not just its initial acquisition. The best learning outcomes can actually shape what pupils learn because when pupils are clear about what they’re expected to know they can direct their attention towards those ideas or concepts.

Once you’ve written your learning outcomes, check their validity by asking yourself these three questions:

  • Does this learning outcome identify what pupils will be able to do after the lesson?
  • Does it focus on specific and concrete actions and will I be able to observe that pupils have achieved the outcome? Is it clear to me how a pupil’s achievement of the outcome will be measured?
  • Does the outcome align with the level of knowledge expected of pupils at this stage?

How to share learning outcomes

Sharing the learning outcomes at the start of a lesson or sequence of lessons is an important element of direct instruction, because knowing the learning outcomes in advance helps pupils to practise metacognitive skills and to become more self-regulated.

Having clear learning outcomes helps pupils to narrow their focus to the most important knowledge and skills, and outcomes can help pupils to organise their notes, track their progress towards meeting the outcomes, and improve their self-study.

Perhaps the most important aspect of sharing learning outcomes, though, is checking that pupils understand them. To be certain of this, it’s important to engage pupils in class discussion. For example, you may ask pupils what they think the learning outcomes mean. You may ask how they will know that they’ve achieved the learning outcomes and why they think it’s important to do so. You may also ask pupils how the learning outcomes relate to what they’ve previously learnt.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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