Underplanned and Fully Prepared: Let’s Teach

I remember when I was a new teacher, thinking that I would one day reach a point where I wouldn’t have to plan lessons. Years later, I’ve realised I was chasing a false dream, a mirage panacea; I still do have to plan. Extensively. But not necessarily in the way that I thought I had to. And in fact, all of my planning might have already happened, even if I haven’t realised it.

Now let me try to unpick these somewhat cryptic assertions.

At the time of writing, I am currently in that phase of the summer holidays where a little knot of anxiety is starting to form at the realisation that I am not fully prepared for September. Despite years of honing my craft, there is still a part of my teaching brain that doesn’t believe I am fully prepared until I have crafted a scheme of work, worked out my assessment points and generated resources to be used by kids in the classroom.

Which is fair enough. Years of experience have taught me that being prepared is extremely helpful. Knowing, roughly, what is going to happen or at least what is supposed to happen, can help alleviate the stress of… well, of what? And in that ellipsis is the first sticking point in our understanding of and approach to preparation and planning. Consider why teachers plan. Is it:

  • To ensure that curriculum needs are met?
  • To minimise risk of divergence?
  • To ensure that lessons have a structure?
  • To ensure schemes of work have a purposeful direction?
  • To focus the mind?

In all of this, it could be argued that planning is ultimately for the benefit of the teacher. Students routinely amaze me at their lack of concern over what is coming next in a learning sequence. No matter how active we make individual lessons or activities, the fact remains that students are largely passive when it comes down to curriculum design. When, if ever, has a class gone up in arms over a strange turn in direction during a scheme of work? When has a student ever demanded to see a mid-term plan to make sure what the teacher envisaged is actually happened? They just don’t care and it just doesn’t matter. So why do teachers agonise over planning?

The complicated truth of the matter is that planning has more to do with teacher well-being than it does to do with student attainment. And this, I think, is because planning is not the same as doing. A neatly packaged scheme of work acts as a safety blanket for that daunting walk in the woods that is teaching. Planning offers the perception of control and mastery over events that haven’t happened, and we therefore stick to the plan in a bid to exercise control over the uncontrollable.

This very blog post, I am writing unplanned, in a bid to prove this point to myself. Yes, I have thought hard about what I am typing and rolled around in my own ideas for about 48 hours now, but the construction of meaning that is coming from these paragraphs is unscripted. I’m communicating in real time editing, on the fly, planning at the same time as writing, an ice cube fizzing on a hot iron plate.

Teaching, essentially, is more like a conversation than a playscript. Conversations demand reflexiveness, spontaneity, agility and cooperation. In a conversation, one must respond in real time to what the other person is saying. Yes, you might have an agenda and you may know what you want to convey, but you can’t simply say a string of perfectly planned statements in a perfectly planned order. If you did, it wouldn’t be a conversation; it would lack integrity. We don’t plan our conversations and this, ironically, is what makes us very good at having conversations – the high risk of live performance hinging upon not rehearsal, but real-time interaction.

So does planning hold any relevance at all? Of course it does. In his excellent essay ‘Stand-Up or Fall Down: Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room’, academic and stand-up comedian Kevin McCarron suggests that the stand-up comedian uses the same mental agility that a good teacher should employ in order to respond to and and work with audiences (students) towards a shared outcome. He writes:

…just as comedians can move material around in the set, or drop it completely, depending on the response they are getting, or spontaneously improvise on something somebody has said, so too teachers should be able to shift their material, or drop it, depending on the response of their students.

In this, McCarron argues that extensive planning is potentially at the detriment of improvisation. It takes us out of the moment, out of the conversation. However, the ability to improvise is linked, inextricably to experience. To return to the conversation analogy of a few paragraphs ago, the only way you know how to slalom the twists of a conversation is by relying on experiences of other conversations from your past.

Perhaps, then, we should redefine ‘planning’. Perhaps we should eschew the concept of planning and replace it with the subtly different concept of ‘preparation’. Perhaps preparation is closer, semantically, to ‘living’. We don’t plan the moment-by-moment experiences of our lives, but we continually prepare for them, through the process of living. We plan through our experiences, our various moments, our conversations of the past that inform our present. I haven’t planned this blog post per se (apologies for its meanderings), but I have prepared myself to write it through seven years of teaching and 48 hours of thought after reading an engaging essay. In the classroom, a teacher’s wealth of experience should be enough preparation for the learning journeys ahead. McCarron writes:

It is not necessarily the case that teachers prepare far too much for seminars for the sake of their students; it is just as likely that this excessive preparation is done to protect themselves from their students.

A powerful idea. Students, like comedy audiences, ‘[value] interaction more than information’. And while you can prepare for interaction, you certainly can’t plan how it will go. Planning is too often used as protection from the risk of the unknown, and this is,, ironically a risk that we must embrace, just as we do every time we enter a conversation.

Rather than worry about what we can control through preparation, perhaps teachers would ultimately do better to reflect on their experiences and concentrate on staying flexible in the classroom, at the time of teaching, in the moment of dialogue and interaction with the students we learn with. Definitely something to think about.

For further insights into the links between teaching and stand-up, I strongly recommend reading ‘Stand-Up or Fall Down: Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room’ by Dr Kevin McCarron. 

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9 thoughts on “Underplanned and Fully Prepared: Let’s Teach

      • Though I like the Doug Lemov ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0’ idea: Decide in advance 2 or 3 key questions you will ask during a lesson. For each, anticipate three likely WRONG answers, and plan how you will respond to each of these to help the pupils learn….

  1. You raise some interesting issues here with which I empathise. I think we can over plan and the danger of this is for the teacher to feel they need to “get through” their plan – but where might that leave the learners? One of the great things about being a member of the ATM (atm.org.uk) and having gone to hundreds of conference sessions I have built up a large bank of ideas which means I am always well prepared. For example knowing that (35)^2 is 3×4[25] or 1225 is all I need as a starting point for a lesson on squaring big numbers with a 5 as the units digit. Well I picked this idea up at a workshop years ago. The key issue is knowing our learners and, therefore, having a sense of the appropriateness of the kind of problems to offer. With a new class then it’s a case of going in with a ‘banker’ type task/problem such as: How many squares the diagonal of a rectangle passes through – nice, simple, accessible idea to offer which again does not require much planning.

  2. Being at the point in the summer holidays when I am churning over my thoughts about yet again presenting at the first day back at school to the teachers who ultimately by now ‘know what is coming’ your post is timely as I have been muling over the idea of planning. I agree with the premise that it is being ‘prepared’ much in the same way as we want our students to be prepared for all eventualities, which of course include exams and then the world of work. I’m going to shift the focus from ‘planning’ to ‘preparation’ thought there will remain a small few for which the need to ‘plan’ remains paramount, I’m sure you have come across a small few yourself.

    Thanks for this.

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