The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

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?


28 May 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. I was planning to weave a response around a short quote by the late Leo van Lier. But, on reading the good Leo, there is nothing I can add to this (so much for my plan!):

    “Classroom work is partly preplanned and partly locally constructed. I have pointed out that the preplanning is usually done by the teacher on behalf of the learners, and that local assembly, or improvisation, occurs because plans are never watertight, as ‘light relief’, or because the learners do unexpected things (perhaps because they are insufficiently aware of what is ‘supposed to be done’). It is predominantly during unplanned sequences that we can see learners employee initiative and use language creatively, and for that reason it might be suggested that less or no prior planning should be done. There are indeed teachers who take a radical view, and leave it up to the learners to decide what is to be done in a lesson. However, it might be too rash to assume that all provision of structure and sequence by the teacher is counter-productive….

    “In the world outside classrooms we very often plan our encounters, and we feel that this helps us to control the outcome. This is obviously true when we go for job interviews, loan applications at the bank, visits to parents-in-law, and so on. It is also often true in more casual encounters, for example when a colleague or friend comes our way, and we have about twenty paces to take before reaching greeting distance. Few encounters ever take place according to plan, but we do find the plans helpful nevertheless. The cognitive work we do to plan conversations and social transactions is complex and skilful. It utilises fully whatever linguistic and pragmatic systems and mechanisms we have mentally available. It is likely that this work can be extremely beneficial for language learners, and indeed it may be a crucial vehicle for learning. It can be observed that children in learning their first language often plan conversations and game-like interaction long before they are skilful users of complex syntax. Parents and caretakers help them in this planning by providing prototypical structures and gradually handing over slots and roles…”

    van Lier, L. (1988) The Classroom and the Language Learner, Harlow: Longman, 215-216

    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 28 May 2013 | Reply

    • I should pay for the education I receive at your hands! Coming at this from the perspective of a manager, I think my unease is with the way that unplanned moments can quickly transmogrify (as Calvin and Hobbes would have it) into an abdication of teaching. While I have no doubt that learning can emerge from unplanned moments (we are hardwired to impose understanding on our environment), I am less convinced that teaching emerges.

      Thank you for bringing Leo van Lier to dignify this blog (which is most certainly unworthy of his presence).

      Comment by thesecretdos | 31 May 2013 | Reply

      • I will send my bank account details off-list. 😉

        Just one thing I had meant to say: the dichotomy between planning and not planning should not be construed as a dichotomy between, say, dogme and coursebooks. Or, put another way, planning and coursebook use are not synonymous. Or put yet another way, coursebooks are not necessarily the best antidote to winging it. Oh, damn it, what am i trying to say? If I were a DoS I would not mandate coursebooks simply through fear of my teachers seeming unprepared. If anything (here goes) coursebooks actually militate against planning – in any real, learner-responsive, way. Is that vaguely coherent?

        Comment by Scott Thornbury | 31 May 2013

      • Scott, your phrase “the dichotomy between planning and not planning” leads me to ask: must planning/not planning BE dichotomous? Could there be something in between?
        Just a thought…

        Comment by stevebrown70 | 31 May 2013

      • Absolutely, Scott. But similarly, I don’t think (that you think that) dogme and planning are anomalous. I see some validity in Andrew’s suggestion on his blog that one of the benefits of coursebook use is that they provide ready-made texts for teachers to explore prior to the class and select language areas for exploitation (or elements that are potentially exploitable for focus). Dogme does require a teacher to think a lot more on their toes and there is a danger that we are all susceptible to biases that mean we fail to exploit to the full potential.

        Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Jun 2013

  2. Thank you for the mention and obviously I agree with what you’re saying here! I’d say what you describe of your own teaching represents preparedness as opposed to the more conventional plan that trainees are required to do. It describes noticing language that’s there and thinking of how to draw attention to it, or being prepared to explain / exploit it, if the learners show interest in it. I would add there may be questions around this language that might generate new language and / or further discussion (perhaps not in the coursebook). It also might be thinking about chunks that people might say in response to speaking tasks in materials. Planning in this way may allow us to be more alert to a bigger variety of possibilities and make better choices when being spontaneous. In contrast, the plans that are criticised (or the ones I would criticise) focus too much on task and activity.
    The other point I would argue (kind of following on from Scott / van lier) if the criteria for success is completing the plan or (one step down from this) acheiving pre-stated aims, then the problem is the assessment criteria rather than the planning. I have sometimes thought that criteria for assessing lessons should be “I presented some new and useful language, made sure students got information to understand and use it, and gave students opportunity to do something with it”. Clearly, it is not exactly obvious if it was new, if it was useful, if sufficient information was acquired and opportunity given, but it seems to me the discussion around these issues would be better and it could embrace a wider variety of lessons and may encourage a broader view of anguage.

    Comment by Andrew Walkley | 28 May 2013 | Reply

    • “Criteria for assessing lessons should be “I presented some new and useful language, made sure students got information to understand and use it, and gave students opportunity to do something with it”.

      Quite brilliantly expressed. I will keep this in mind and run with it in future blogposts! It is remarkably simple, unambiguous and easy to understand. It also forms the basis of what language teaching is probably all about. It mirrors the P-P-P approach which, although discredited, must have something to justify its persistence. Perhaps what it has is a logical unity: give someone something, help them to use it and see if they are capable of using it independently. The debate, it seems to me, should be more centred around “what is the something that we give the students?”

      Your work, along with Hugh’s, @muranava’s, @leoselivan’s and others, has -for now, at least!- convinced me that the something should be lexical chunks. Intuitively (caveat emptor), it makes sense because chunks are memorisable and require much less dependence upon the so-called higher thinking skills. Their inclusion into the emerging interlanguage is thus relatively straightforward. That said, I imagine that the grammaticians would say much the same thing about their particular fetish: all the students need to do is memorise the structures and they will be able to speak perfectly. We “know” this to be wrong, so perhaps the lexicans are equally mistaken. Has any research been done into this? Has anyone else who reads this blog heard of @bengoldacre’s plans for Randomise Me ( This offers us some interesting opportunities for exploration of dogme, of the lexical approach etc.

      These are interesting times for me – provoked entirely through Twitter, blogs and the work of others. Thanks are due to you, Hugh, Scott, Swan, Hoey (thanks for the book reference) and many, many others.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 31 May 2013 | Reply

      • You make me nervous, all this talk of PPP and memorizing chunks.

        With regard to the latter, memorization of chunks will only get you so far. As I blogged, once, ‘if automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity’.

        Rather than think in terms of chunks, it might make sense to reconfigure the syllabus in terms of constructions, i.e. conventionalized pairings of form and function:

        “Adult language knowledge consists of a continuum of linguistic constructions of different levels of complexity and abstraction. Constructions can comprise concrete and particular items (as in words and idioms), more abstract classes of items (as in word classes and abstract constructions), or complex combinations of concrete and abstract pieces of language (as mixed constructions). Consequently, no rigid separation is postulated to exist between lexis and grammar.”

        (Ellis, N. 2011. The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system. In Simpson, J. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge).

        Now, whether constructions should be presented by the teacher (a la PPP) or discovered (by the learner), I think you know which side I’m on. 😉

        Comment by Scott Thornbury | 31 May 2013

      • Bloody hell – majesterial!! I think that’s putting things a bit strong. What I would also say is that while this formula may include PPP type lesson it doesn’t have to. the ‘presenting’ might simply be drawing attention to a variety of things in a text and explaining basic meaning or translating it, the information might be an explanation or some further questions around usage or a task which may draw attention to those elements, the doing something with it might be talking about it, translate it (if not done before), memorising it, creating a story out of it, creating a mind map from it, using it in some role play. Nor does the doing all have to be done at the same moment. revision exercises from this point of view are not teaching something new, but can be seen as a continuation of a previous lesson. Nor is there one right answer about what to teach. The what is the central question for me and I think just makes for a more varied and interesting teaching life especially when focused on lexis and how it is used.

        In terms of claims of a lexical approach regarding memorization and its effectiveness, I think we have to be clear that with ANY method used, learning a language takes an enormous amount of time and effort and students will get things wrong. The difference I’d make is that memorizing a grammar rule will enable you to recite a grammar rule which will hardly help you in conversation, whereas memorizing for example Have you been to or That sounds great. will have a much more communicative utility. Learn say 4 more very common present perfect sentences may also help you to access the ‘rule’ more easily – and if it doesn’t? Well you still have the phrase which you may be better able to hear as you learnt it in a chunk and therefore better able to attend to other aspects of the what’s going on around it. To me this is going to be the biggest help at low levels where students exposure to forms and basic chunks in conversation is absurdly restricted. When it comes to words and their primings, e.g. watch or run, then teaching or memorizing one priming (watch TV / run for the bus) will obviously not mean that a learner will be accurate when they attempt creativity or the priming from their own language is still dominant (I go to watch play football my son / He was running too fast and crashed the car). The point about priming and the lexical approach is as much about the idea that watch TV or run for the bus will be more quickly recalled than if we teach those words in isolation plus grammar rules. On top of this, grammar rules can’t account for why we say run for the bus rather than ran to the bus or why we watch TV rather than see TV when the two words are immediately collocated (we can say Did you see the TV news yesterday? but the colligations are different). However, for me we should see this native-like accuracy as an additional by-product – it’s the processing speed and the opening up of possibilities by providing chunks with grammar that has not been ‘taught’ yet which is the central point of a lexical approach and priming. I would be happier that a teacher has taught Have you (ever) been IN Paris / Germany etc? than leave this out of any materials for 200 hours of teaching and then when it was taught only explored have you been – yes I have / No I haven’t. The same would be true for any collocation or chunk – we need to be careful to avoid replacing a tyranny of accuracy and over-correction applied to grammar with one applied to collocation and chunks. That’s not to say we shouldn’t ignore such ‘inaccuracies’ or attempt to improve our ability with language over time as teachers, just acknowledging that there is as Hoey suggested no single unified English.

        I’m glad the conversations have sparked your interest in teaching again – it works both ways!

        Comment by Andrew Walkley | 31 May 2013

    • Presumably you don’t like plans that focus heavily on task and activity because they imply that not very much actual teaching will take place – fair enough. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. How about a plan that has no specific language content? This doesn’t mean that no language will be taught, it just means that the language taught will be the language that comes up in the lesson, not some language that the teacher previously identified (and therefore to some extent detached from the students). The tasks are designed to get students generating language, and wherever they reach their limit of output, that’s where the teaching takes place.
      This would address my concern that narrow, specific, language-focused aims set the teachers and the students down an irreversible path that can’t be deviated from without jeopardising the “success” of the lesson.
      I’m probably talking about emergent language here – Scott Thornbury would know 🙂

      Comment by stevebrown70 | 31 May 2013 | Reply

      • Perhaps it’s because the focus on tasks and activities implies that not very much language learning will take place and there will be too much focus on teaching! To my (current) mind, a lesson plan that has no language plan cannot be delivered by a language teacher. I’m not (currently) convinced that we can rely on the teacher to come up with particularly useful language teaching on the hoof and (based on my own ineptitude) I think there is a danger that what comes and gets dealt with can sometimes be too ephemeral to revisit.

        Task-based teaching is focussed, of course, on the idea that language is a skill that can be pushed and pushed and then scaffolded. I am not (currently) convinced by this assumption. I am leaning (a bit too perilously for some) towards the idea that language acquisition happens once in a person’s life and can then be put to good use in different languages at different times. This requires less of a focus on skills-based work and more of a focus on knowledge-based work. I don’t think, for reasons put forward by Andrew above, that grammar teaching is particularly productive, so the kind of knowledge I think a teacher should be peddling is lexical.

        Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Jun 2013

  3. You’re right that we probably are thinking much along the same lines. I’ll probably post something more substantial later, but for now I’ll say this:
    -Yes, a planned lesson can be successful. But so can an unplanned lesson. I’m not saying unplanned lessons are necessarily better than planned ones, just that planning a lesson does not in any way guarantee that it will work out well.
    -I think you refer to Chabrol and Simons in order to point out that lots of things that we think are the case are not in fact the case. No disagreement there, and (depending what you believe to be the case) some of these points could be used to strengthen my argument.
    -The whole thing about how to measure success in a lesson is probably what the whole thing boils down to. I think my problem is really related to the fact that lesson success is often measured in relation to the plan. In post-lesson feedback, teacher trainers (and directors of studies for that matter) often encourage teachers to evaluate the lesson by asking questions like “so did you achieve your aims?” If the aims were achieved, the lesson is deemed a success. If not, the default belief is that something went wrong. It’s convenient to have something like a plan to refer back to because it allows this sort of conversation to take place. But what other things could be discussed instead?
    -How exact a science is learning anyway? Measurable practice is not the same as good practice. Or have I been out of academia too long?
    -You and others have commented to the effect that we all know that we don’t need to follow plans exactly, that a bit of deviation is ok, and that if that’s all I mean then surely it’s a bit of a no-brainer. And yet, new teachers are being trained to plan incredibly tight lessons and to stick to them. We don’t train teachers to improvise in the class, or set a task up and then wait and see what happens before deciding what language to focus on. Why is this? Why do we assume that new teachers won’t be able to improvise?

    Comment by stevebrown70 | 29 May 2013 | Reply

    • I think you are absolutely right about the nature of training and assessment, in my experience at least I would say you can and should train people to be spontaneous, but the route to spontaneity needs to take account of linguistic and cognitive demands on teachers on the one hand and expectations in assessment on the other. In terms of linguistic demands, I think it is not a bad idea to have tasks which are set up and see what language happens, but I would say that there are loads of examples of those in coursebooks and what trainees are asked to do – warmers / pre-reading tasks / post-reading tasks / tasks labelled ‘speaking’. The problem is that trainees are often told (I think) that these tasks serve a function of warming up / setting the scene / practice / fluency etc and they are not seen as opportunities to see what language comes up and teach something! The suggested timings of these activities to trainees may also reflect that. I do tell trainees that every speaking should be seen as an opportunity to notice and teach, and trainees try, but they sometimes ‘don’t hear’, can’t think why something is wrong or how to say it better, have difficulty with the process of transferring that info to students and / or including the whole class. Fundamental to this is a lack of linguistic awareness of L1 and L2 English and often a failure to think about what might possibly arise from these tasks – which is often semi predictable. They also tend to have a narrow focus of what students need (grammar correction), which I think can be reinforced by LA programmes that centre largely on verb phrases and provide no alternative view of how language works (e.g. Micheal Hoey’s Lexical Priming). So there’s a tendency to look at the wrong things or give half-baked explanations. I would see that as an inevitable step for a beginner teacher and the effort to engage has to be made whether it is done well or not. But as you say in assessement terms this is often not the case. Those teachers who try to deal with a student’s emergent language, but give wrong information, bad examples or confuses (themselves and the student!) are often criticised and the lesson failed – especially if it meant ‘aims’ were not acheived. And if we say they failed? The obvious reaction would be to avoid it in the future, and unfortunately that message may be shared by the other watching trainees.

      Comment by Andrew Walkley | 30 May 2013 | Reply

      • Yes, Andrew, I agree with all of this. It’s true that speaking tasks (e.g. pre/post-reading) that you get in coursebooks are opportunities for language learning to take place, but they are rarely exploited. This is quite possibly because the coursebooks don’t describe them as such – as you say, they are billed as warmers, pre-reading tasks etc and so that’s all teachers use them for. It could also be because of the dichotomous way that teachers are trained to teach: “Is it a language lesson or a skills lesson?” “Is it a fluency activity or an accuracy activity?” Why must it be one or the other? Can’t a fluency activity include a language focus? Can’t a reading lesson include language input? Of course it can – we know that, all teachers with some experience know that. But courses like the CELTA insist on trainees focusing on one or the other, which doesn’t serve them well when they go on to start their careers.
        I agree that the whole concept of improvisation and dealing with emergent language is a challenge for new teachers – but this doesn’t mean there’s no point in addressing it on training courses. Teaching in the moment (rather than from the plan – unless of course you plan to teach in the moment) needs to be encouraged from the outset – it’s great that you do this with your trainees, but a lot of trainers don’t, partly because they think it’s beyond trainees and partly because the course they are working on doesn’t value it highly enough (if at all).

        Comment by stevebrown70 | 31 May 2013

      • As a coursebook writer, I’d say (perhaps somehwat defensively) that we are products of the training and ELT culture we have been brought up in, and until recent years that has been a dominant grammar + words + skills approach. In this paradigm skills were seen as separate to language and that’s reflected in the coursebook. There is, however, also a problem for the coursebook writer who has a different view in that if they wish to, say, make all speaking an opportunity for langauge input. This means labelling the task to reflect that, which means, in the ‘skills’ teachers’ mind, it’s no longer a speaking, which means people say ‘there’s no / not enough speaking in this book’ and don’t buy it! That may seem bizarre to you, but that has been my experience! I would place a much heavier emphasis on the training than the writer or publisher and the fact that so few teachers have training up to diploma level.

        Comment by Andrew Walkley | 03 Jun 2013

    • Absolutely, Steve. I was hesitant at how to frame this blogpost because I didn’t think that we probably disagreed about much at all in the way of substance and I didn’t want to create some artificial adversarial debate. I understand that you are talking about the utterly ridiculous approach our “profession” takes towards training new teachers and your blogpost is an admirable stance against the idiocy of “lesson plans” (thank the gods for inverted commas).

      Andrew’s point about the aims (or objectives???) of the lesson is magisterial! What can be expect of a language teacher that isn’t summed up in the procedure of presenting new language, supporting learners in their manipulation of it and observance of how well they can perform? But, and I will be blogging next about observations (again), is that what observations are about?

      Measurable practice is not about good practice – I agree. But good practice is a value judgement and in order to be objective, we need criteria to help us be able to identify it. This is not the same as measurement. I don’t need to measure students’ learning, but I do need to know it when I see it. As a manager, I expect teachers to be able to explain how they are teaching if they are going into a classroom without any planned activities whatsoever (not that I am sure that this ever happens). What are they teaching? Why are they teaching it? What are they going to do if they see that their teaching is not having the effect it should? To answer these questions, you need a planned strategy, I would argue. This strategy constitutes planning and I feel that it is a sine qua non for teaching. The expertise required to do this is why we pay teachers close to £30 per hour and not the minimum wage of £6.31.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 31 May 2013 | Reply

    • I certainly recognise this vicious circle, Andrew. Perhaps this is where the promises of technology can offer a way out of the paradigm. Slef-publishing has never been easier and surely it is just a matter of time before we see a raft of self-published textbooks that break out of the stultifying air of the publishing houses? Is there any reason why the students at the University of Westminster could not be required to buy a coursebook that was available from the Kindle store and which was far more focussed on the principles behind a lexical approach? Could this not then be made more generally available for people to buy?

      It’s a small gesture that is unlikely to smash the hegemony of OUP and their ilk. But I am sure that, once Goliath had fallen, the Philistine metalsmiths were pretty damn quick in redesigning the armour of choice for all discerning warriors.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

  4. Steve asked. “…must planning/not planning BE dichotomous? Could there be something in between?” Yes, of course – and I had originally written ‘tension’ not ‘dichotomy’, and perhaps I should have left it that way. Teaching – effective teaching – must surely have both planned and unplanned elements. If you think of another (and I think analogous) continuum, from spontaneous conversation, at one end, to scripted dialogue (as in a play), at the other, there are all manner of points in between, including, say, an interview (questions prepared but answers unpredictable), a service encounter (script predictable, details not) and so on. Effective teaching is probably neither at the totally spontaneous nor the totally scripted ends, but vacillates somewhere in between. (I’m really just re-stating what van Lier said).

    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 01 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Yes, I think we’re all just re-stating what van Lier said!

      Comment by stevebrown70 | 01 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • And, of course, it is quite feasible to plan for unplanned moments! Unplanned moments can also throw up texts for planned study at a later point in time. Dogme -in this view- is a wonderful generator of texts that can be taken away and mined for purposeful (planned) teaching at another moment. I think you make the same point is your writings when you refer to the need to capture the language produced. Perhaps my insight boils down to nothing more than “dogme doesn’t need to tick all the boxes in such a spontaneous manner as I once thought it did”! Unlikely to win me the Nobel prize – perhaps the igNobel?

      Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Jun 2013 | Reply

      • I think “planning for unplanned moments” is exactly what Maley and Underhill mean when they talk about “preparedness”.

        Comment by stevebrown70 | 04 Jun 2013

  5. What happened to Breen? The process syllabus does away with a learning plan; the teacher doesn’t pre-select content, but lets the teacher and learners choose their own on-going syllabus in the classroom (Breen 1987), thus allowing for changing abilities, learning needs, and perceptions in the learners, without specifying particular content, methodology, lexis, structure, or grammar (Breen, 1987a:168). The teaching-learning process therefore provides significant lesson content (Breen, 1987a:159), and it is unnecessary and unrealistic to plan content without consulting the participants especially in view of “the everyday phenomenon of teacher and learner reinterpretation of every pre-planned syllabus” (Breen 1987a:166; The aim is to provide a framework for learning which: “deliberately engages reinterpretation; and which explicitly addresses teacher and learner capacities to select, subdivide and sequence subject matter for language learning which they (jointly) perceive as most valuable to them. It is this joint creation and implementation of a syllabus which the Process syllabus tries to serve. (Breen 1987a:166).

    Comment by geoffjordan | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks, Geoff. I agree that the process syllabus is a concept that is deserving of far greater attention than it gets. Up until now it’s implementation marked the period that I regard as the highlight of my teaching years. We would have classroom discussions, peppered with “language moments”, I would leave the class and write up what we had discussed and this would form the syllabus for the class. It was perhaps closer to Scott’s dogme than Breen’s process because it was very much emergent rather than consciously chosen.

      Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that these days I am slightly more wary – this is very much a practising manager/teacher’s blog and I inevitably have the teachers and students with whom I work in the back of my mind. The sad reality (My sad reality) is that the students tend to be less interested in acquiring the language and the teachers tend to be less interested in seeing their job as anything other than…well…a job. If there is something that can get them through the working day a little bit quicker and without them having to devote non-working time to it, then so much the better. I am uneasy (but not opposed to) about the success that a process syllabus can have in these harsh environs.

      As my hair greys, I am also conscious of the fact -picked up by Scott- that I am leaving behind my youthful attitude of rebellion and arguing much more frequently for an approach that I am sure my grandparents would have approved of – the teacher as the determiner of what gets done and having to assume the necessary responsibility and accountability (tautological?) of such a role. Faced with the uncertainty of how people learn a language, the teacher stands up and boldly declares, “Follow me! I have a map!” Perhaps it is the resulting illusion of control and purposeful action that switches on the language acquisition device?

      I retain the belief that it doesn’t have to be this way. Dogme works, process syllabi work, planning isn’t necessarily a prerequisite. But for now, I am exploring the idea that second language acquisition is not really acquisition but learning. And foreign language teaching is not really foreign language teaching but the teaching of effective language learning techniques. And that one of these techniques is to break the ever-expanding language into a body of knowledge and facts that can be memorised and deployed when required. And that it is pointless relying on grammar to do the job when lexis is more productive. And that for a teacher to be able to teach swathes of chunks and chunking, texts are required and that the most productive exploitation of those texts requires forethought. Aka planning.

      In this view of language learning, there is an assumption that knowledge is a precursor to skills. The teacher now has a body of facts and knowledge, the assimilation of which is measurable. The students now have a body of facts and knowledge, the assimilation of which is measurable. They are also being inducted into practices that ail stand them in good stead for their language learning career. The illusion of control has been enacted and the demands on the learners’ cognitive resources are lessened.


      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Although Breen’s ideas are about syllabus planning rather than lesson planning, I agree that it’s relevant to consider them here -good shout, Geoff. It’s amazing to think that the process syllabus has been around since the 80s, its principles are widely regarded as completely sound, and yet most language course providers are still expected to follow a pre-determined syllabus, with no input from or negotiation with the students.
      My view is that, while it is possible to find pedagogical arguments in favour of pre-determined syllabuses and lesson plans (as the secret dos does in this thread), these are not the reasons why process syllabuses have failed to catch on. It is actually for reasons of measurabulity, accountability and quality control. It’s very difficult to measure or standardize a process syllabus. Inspectors are rarely impressed if the answer to their question “what do you teach your students?” is “whatever they want”. This need to be able to measure lessons is also a big reason why detailed lesson plans are still so popular, and this is what prompted me to write my anti-planning post in the first place.
      May I also take this opportunity to plug a couple of other related posts, in which I explore the organizational constructs we are working within:

      Comment by stevebrown70 | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

  6. […] the novice and to the person required to certify the novice’s ability” (the Secret DoS in this post). Perhaps because “it is part of what most teachers are expected (and paid) to do” […]

    Pingback by Lesson plans – a waste of time? | teflreflections | 07 Jun 2015 | Reply

  7. […] ‘The map is not the territory’ by The Secret DoS […]

    Pingback by Are we wasting time planning our lessons? | Teach them English | 08 Jun 2015 | Reply

  8. […] The Secret DOS suggests caution with the antiplanning movement […]

    Pingback by BrELT Chat 11/06/15: Lesson Planning – interesting reads | #BRELT | 11 Jun 2015 | Reply

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