The map is not the territory
Steve Brown recently made a case for anti-planning – essentially the unconditioning of teachers who have ended up believing that lesson planning is good practice. Now, I suspect that I am about to get seriously pedantic and I have every reason to think that on points of substance, Steve and myself are probably thinking along the same lines. So it needs to be said explicitly that this blogpost is more inspired by rather than a reaction against. What happened was that I read Steve’s posts and found myself nodding along with what he was saying. Then I wondered. Then I doubted. And now, because I am writing this inspired blog post, I took a position.
To be explicit from the outset, I am f**king convinced (baddaboom) by the idea that we are not particularly well-served by the type of lesson plans that Steve refers to at the outset of his article – the type that trainee teachers are obliged to complete in order to demonstrate their prowess in planning a unit of teaching. But these lesson plans are not entirely worthless: they provide comfort to the novice and to the person required to certify the novice’s ability.
Steve also takes lesson plans to task because they are not directly correlated with lesson success. He puts forward the argument that carefully planned lessons can be a disaster and, completely unplanned lessons can end up being very successful. I nod; you’re probably nodding; who wouldn’t nod? But, of course, it is equally true that unplanned lessons are not directly correlated with lesson success. In fact, if anyone ever finds the one elusive variable that is equated with lesson success, I think we are all going to hear about it. So to argue that lesson plans are pointless because unplanned lessons can also work is countered by the argument that unplanned lessons are pointless because planned lessons work too. This is an example of how ELT suffers from an overreliance on anecdote and shies away from evidence-based practice.
It is quite understandable, perhaps, because evidence-based practice makes us confront a lot of tricky questions. For one, what does lesson success actually mean? If we define it as the successful achievement of lesson outcomes, then unplanned lessons cannot be successful because of their very nature. Lesson success may be judged by participation, perhaps? But in order to determine the level of participation, we need to have some idea of the things we are going to look to measure…we probably need to have thought about this beforehand. And it is likely that the observable things we are going to measure will vary from activity to activity. So we will need to consider performance indicators for each activity. This is beginning to sound like a lot of planning! Invariably, I think, we judge lesson success by how we feel about the lesson. Now we are on shaky ground indeed.
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons list six cognitive illusions that humans suffer from: the illusions of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, potential and intuition. The illusion of attention means that we can literally be blind to things that we are not expecting to see. My first minor accident while driving was caused by me pulling out in front of a vehicle that had emerged from a street I had been entirely unaware of. I didn’t see the car even though I was looking in that general direction. The illusion of memory is the belief that things happened the way that we remembered them and that memory is a factual recording of events as they transpired. The illusion of confidence tells us that we know what we are doing and we are good at our jobs. We can be trusted to know what works and what doesn’t work. We are good, fair-minded and impartial. Because of this, we are confident that when we decide that something went well, it did. However, what we know, suggest Chabris and Simon, is also an illusion. And the best way to counter the illusion of knowledge, they suggest, is to admit that you “are probably wrong”. You can only ever know something objectively if you seek out disconfirming evidence and can explain it with your knowledge. The illusion of potential is essentially the illusion that there is a source of greatness that is just waiting to be tapped and, as long as we can find the way to tapping it, we will be great. You may have heard of the Mozart Myth (“play Mozart to babies and watch as they conquer the world”) or have succumbed to the nonsense of “Brain Gym” (“90% of our brain is lying dormant…”). Great lessons don’t just happen; they are made to happen – usually as a result of thousands and thousands of hours of practice. The illusion of intuition is pretty self-explanatory – essentially it says that whenever we just feel that something is right, all sorts of bullshit detectors should start blaring.
Chabris and Simon also discuss a seventh illusion – such a considerable one that I am surprised that it is not part of their canonical six. The illusion of cause is a hard-wired illusion that leads us up untold garden paths. Essentially, the illusion of cause leads us to believe that because Event Y happened after Event X, it is safe to conclude that Event X caused Event Y. So, I went into a class wholly unprepared and it turned out to be one of the best classes I’ve ever taught (did it???). Logically, I conclude that teaching unplanned can lead to some of the best classes ever taught. And yet…to quote my two muses: “the only way – let us repeat, the only way – to definitively test whether an association is causal is to run an experiment.” And, I would argue, until the results of that experiment prove it beyond all reasonable doubt, we need to treat all anti-planning cases with the same precaution that we would treat all abandoned cases in a major air terminal.
So. Is there a case for lesson planning? Arguably not. Certainly not that I am aware of – largely because we don’t –or can’t- do experiments in education! However, the biggest argument for lesson planning is that it is part of what most teachers are expected (and paid) to do. There is an expectation that a teacher will use resources that are best equipped to help their learners learn and this, it is argued, will require that the teacher looks at the materials that they are planning to use, will think about how to use them most efficiently, will determine how to tell if they are working effectively and will use the emerging data to plan next steps. Dogme teachers will presumably use the learners and their lives as the best resources. But even this is based on those six or seven illusions. What they then choose to focus on in their classes is also based on these illusions. and how successful they are is –once again- quite illusory. Andrew Walkley makes a similar point in one of the more cogent criticisms of Dogme: there is a risk that dogme teachers will end up focussing on language that might seem relevant but isn’t; or will teach language that intuitively seems correct but isn’t. The way around this, he says, is to make sure that you are using materials that have been put to the test prior to the class and which draw out salient items of language that are known to be accurate. This cannot really be done unless some planning is involved.
Steve worries about the concern that having written a plan, the teacher will feel obliged to stick with it. In this case, I am afraid to say, the discerning Director of Studies will have to accept that they have hired a duff teacher and they will have to be pretty quick to organise some decent development for the poor individual. This is the equivalent of those drivers who drove off cliffs into the sea because their satnav told them to; or the generals who sent their poorly-equipped and outnumbered troops into the valley of death despite all of the data suggesting that it was probably better to regroup and rethink. The map is not the territory – in order to survive in this world, we need to be prepared to adapt to circumstances as they unfold. However, the solution to unexpected events possibly stymying the wide-eyed teacher is not an argument to throw away lesson-planning; it is an argument to teach more planning. It is evidence that the teacher doesn’t understand what a lesson plan is; it is evidence that a teacher doesn’t understand the value of the planned assessment of learning; it is evidence of the teacher’s inability to re-plan.
Steve refers us to further reading (and listening) about lesson planning. The points being made elsewhere include some distinction being drawn between planning and being prepared. I ‘m not sure how useful this distinction is. It strikes me that preparation = planning (+experience). For the time being, I am going to stick with planning. Planning for me means looking at the text that I am going to be using and combing through it for potentially useful chunks of English. These will be noted and will form the body of content that I hope to transmit throughout the lesson. I will plan ways of manipulating these chunks and of testing the extent to which students can reproduce them accurately and appropriately in the contexts that I have planned in advance. I will also plan ways of testing their ability to recall these chunks at later dates. This does not preclude any spontaneity in my classroom – I do not subscribe to a Canutian approach to learning. But those moments of spontaneity will serve primarily to provide further texts that I will then go away and plan the exploitation of.
Finally (Finally!!!), a word to beware of self-serving bias. It is easy to see the attractiveness of the assumption that lesson planning is unnecessary. It frees teachers up from a constraint that many of them feel is unpaid, difficult, frustrating and less attractive than spending their time doing other things. These things may be true, but they do not in themselves justify the abandonment of planning. If we aspire to professional status, if we assume that as teachers we are deserving of some respect, if we believe that teaching is more than being exceptionally capable of lubricating social discourse, then surely we have to accept the need to make planned decisions about what to focus on and what not to focus on? Surely we accept the need to plan how we are going to determine if a student is progressing or not progressing? Surely we need to give some prior consideration to how to create an effective learning environment? What sayeth you?