Monday, July 22, 2019

What Killed Lesson Planning?

Are lesson plans a big fat waste of time? Well, yes, and no. But is something currently killing them? Sadly, yes.

Why Lesson Planning Is Invaluable

I read this piece arguing against them and kind of dismissed it and forgot about it until Nancy Flanagan brought the subject up again (Do you follow Nancy Flanagan regularly? You should). As usual, I agree with most everything she said in defense of lesson planning-- but I think there's another factor that can make lesson plans a waste of blood, sweat and tears. 

The original piece is, well, bunk. In its six reasons, it starts with the obvious (lesson plans are often works of fiction) and escalates quickly (lesson plans ruin teacher morale and chase people out of the profession). Somewhere in the middle it makes the real argument (they take a bunch of time and I don't wanna). 

Flanagan talks about how writing lesson plans helped her refine her practice, and that was my experience as well-- it helped me find focus with what I actually wanted to do. 

And I have a confession to make-- I often assigned lesson planning for my student teachers, and while writing a lesson plan is proof of good teaching, being unable (or, in one case, unwilling) to write a coherent lesson plan at all has always been a giant billowing red flag. 

Part of the value in lesson planning is the requirement to focus on specifics. Neo-teachers were sometimes much too obsessed with the big picture, leading to this conversation:

Me: So what are you planning to do tomorrow?

Ms. McNewbie: We're going to read the poem and then discuss it and in so doing, make the world a better place. 

Me: But what are you actually going to do?

Ms. McNewbie: [Stares back at me blankly]. 

Writing out a plan was always useful. Not just for keeping my place in the flow of several different preps a day, but it getting me to focus on what, exactly, I was trying to do. In English class, it's just too easy to fall into thinking that "Study the literature" or "Write some stuff" is a plan. 

This is one of the great areas of disconnect for people who went to school and now think they know how to do school. Because your best teachers, the ones you really admired and wanted to imitate, had reached the point where the backstage magic never showed. You had an exciting discussion or worked on a memorable project or you had an educational adventure that stays with you to this day, but you have absolutely no knowledge of all the things that your teacher did to make it all occur. You remember how inspirational and knowledgeable and wise Mrs. O'Teachalot was, but you never noticed her superior grasp of the strategy and tactics of teaching, because like everyone else at the top of their craft, she made it look effortless. She made the technique involved seemingly disappear. All of her teacher choices-- how to hand out the papers, questioning strategies, pacing choices, decisions about assessment, focuses for discussion, and a hundred other tiny decisions-- were deliberate on her part, and invisible to you, the student. 

So planning, particularly in the early years of a career, matters. You finish your career with a great pedagogical filing cabinet in your head, with files and folders and great collections of lesson ideas and materials that you can dip into at will, all of written out in your own hand, with edits and additions and notes scribbled in the margins, and you can dip into those files at will. You start your career with a couple of loose pieces of paper in a small, non-organized stack. Planning lessons is how you fill that filing cabinet. 

It should go without saying that nobody can do this for you. You can use printed materials or stuff that you found on Pinterest as a jumping off point, but the adapting and editing must be do-it-yourself. Even the dreaded TSWBAT can be useful-- but only as a prompt to your own thinking. The teacher-proof program in a box is a myth; without processing it through your own brain, editing for your own strengths and weaknesses, adapting for your own class, it's just a waste of time. Model plans (favored by folks like the UbD crowd) are bunk as well. And if you think scripting is a good idea, get out of teaching now. The processing, reflecting, running it through your own brain is most of the point. Context, students, material, what happened last week-- it's all very personal, and if your process isn't personal, it's a waste of time.

And yet, having said all that, I have another confession to make-- during the last few years of my career, I didn't submit lesson plans. Because lesson plans, as most districts currently do them, are a massive waste of time.

What Happened? How can you tell if your lesson plans are a waste of time?


The appropriate audience for a set of lesson plans is an audience of one-- the teacher. 

Requiring lesson plans top be submitted To The Office is a common exercise is futility. Will anyone up there actually read them? Only if they're looking for a reason to get you in trouble. Other wise your lesson plans could suddenly I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of Bulgaria and it won't matter. Maybe you work in a building where the administrator stops by your room and says, "Hey, I was looking into your lesson plans and I had some thoughts about helping you develop a broader variety of questioning strategies." Also, maybe your administrator is a shaved Yeti who rides to school on a unicorn. 

As soon start factoring in an extra audience for your lesson plans, they become less useful for you. At that point, lesson plans start losing ground on the most important metric of all, the metric by which every single piece of education policy on the large national level and the local district level should be judged-- does this help teachers do the work? 

Oh, and the old baloney about "We need everyone's lesson plans on file in case there's a sub"? Nowadays, it's a rare day when the sub even has the proper certification. But the sub isn't you, doesn't know your students, doesn't know what you've been doing. Unless you've set it up--with your plan--the sub can't execute your lesson plan anyway. That's why you have separate sub plans for days you have to miss.

I Don't Want To Do It Either, But We Have To Talk About Those Damned Common Core Standards Again

We probably don't talk enough about how the national standards movement had hugely empowered bad administrators.

In olden times, bad administrators might use any number of bad management techniques, or just flail away quietly in the office and leave everyone alone. But the standards movement, most exemplified by the Core, but in many states pre-dating that ugly beast, created a whole new tool and a magical invocation that allowed bad administrators a tool that would give them a measurable method for masking their incompetence. The invocation, the magical phrase?

Aligned to standards.

So now, after writing out formal plans, teachers now get to "align" every element of their plan to the standards. This is a Kafkaesque process that rewards (or at least punishes least) those who treat the process with the least respect. Keep a chart of the standards handy. Write out your lesson plans. Then go through the plan just sort of filling in standards numbers wherever they seem to remotely fit. Principal collects plans, checks the list of standards that are being addressed, and says, "Yay! I'm a fabulous administrator-- look at how well aligned our instruction is!"

Worse, this is what new teachers are being taught in teacher school (see some depressing tales in Daniel Koretz's The Testing Charade). They are now coming out of college thinking that managing to line up standards is like planning a lesson.

The standards movement has been driven by a profound distrust of actual teachers, and that distrust pushes down into lesson planning and the notion that, really, teachers can't actually be trusted to do this stuff so we need to buy teacher-proof materials and micromanage every aspect of their job, but since we don't actually understand their job, we're just going to hogtie them to these standards and declare that we have fixed them. 

And it gets worse. Because up till a few years ago, this drive to micromanage and standardize the crap into everything was limited by an administrator's available hours in the day. 

But now-- technology!!

The past few years have seen an explosion in lesson planning curriculum managing standards boosting software. Maybe you've been introduced to On Hand Schools. My former district went with eDoctrina. All make the same basic promise. Plug in your curriculum units and your grade levels and then you can just add instructional units and even, in some cases, tests and etc etc etc. Your state standards are already pre-loaded. So administrators will be able to pull up reports and see where there are "gaps" in your alignment and see who's covering which standards when and while you're feeding all this in the software will just poop out a fully-formed curriculum. There's also the promise, not always articulated, that once Mrs. McTeachalot has fed all of her work on her course, any warm body will be able to pull up the course on the computer and teach it just like Mrs. McTeachalot (because teachers are essentially interchangeable meat widgets with no personal expertise). 

This is all really insulting and betrays a pretty fundamental lack of understanding about how the whole teaching thing works, but mostly it is a giant useless time suck.

First, whatever software you're using requires you to learn all its weird little ins and outs. You will learn to serve the software. 

Second, you will have to learn to think in whatever data blocks the software throws at you. You will learn to serve the software.

Third, you will have to do lesson planning when and where the tech allows. No handwritten lesson plans on a legal pad while sitting in a hammock drinking coffee. Also, while your legal pad can sit on your desk or lectern or wherever is most helpful, the digital lesson plan is confined to your screen. And fiddling with all of this takes a bunch of extra time. 

But most of all-- this is not for the teacher. This does not help the teacher do the work. This does not provide any opportunity for reflection or revision or development. I have been That Guy and asked in a meeting, "Who is this for? Who is this supposed to help? Is this supposed to help me teach? Because I don't see how it will." I did not get answers for those questions, and I don't think anyone ever will, because the real answer is for administrators to say, "This will make extra work for you, but it will make my job easier." 

And this is when you know lesson planning at your school is dead.

Tech-abetted or not, the key quality of bad lesson plan requirements is that they are not there to help teachers do the work, but to make administrators' lives easier. I want to be able to find out what you're doing, but I don't want to have to actually walk to your room to do it. I want to be able to prove to my bosses that I'm supervising the hell out of you, and showing them this stack of lesson plans will do that. Developing curriculum is hard, and if we have meetings, you teachers will insist on speaking up like you're experts or something. All your standards are belong to us.

You'll do what so many of us have done. You will do a set of personal lesson plans for yourself, and you will generate some second set of formal-ish lesson plans to submit to the office. Neither you nor anyone else will ever really look at them again; they are the very definition of wasted time and steep opportunity cost. 

Lesson planning can be valuable, even necessary. Even formal lesson planning can be useful. But we've been slowly moving away from that toward a sort of pointless cyber-fueled paperwork dance. We can talk at great length about the features and details and nuts and bolts of useful lesson planning, but these nuts and bolts vary from school to school and teacher to teacher. All that we really need to do is ask the question-- does this help teachers do the work? Ask the question of your staff--and then accept the answer. 


  1. Spot on! As an experienced educator, I would write the required standard on the board and usually leave there for months at a time.
    Lessons Plans were about what the students are DOING....

  2. well done sir. My hat is off to your GREAT description and insightful comments.

  3. If you are a new teacher overwhelmed by unnecessary paperwork regarding daily lesson planning try adopting a minimalist approach. Short, concise, one word or one sentence responses that will allow you to spend your time on more practical planning that focuses on student activities/engagement. Better yet, create a lesson plan document that enables you to simply check or circle standards, methodologies,student activities,and assessments.
    You will find that your building principal is too overwhelmed with more important stuff than to nitpick your streamlined lesson plan.

    And remember what boxer Mike Tyson famously stated when asked about his fight plan: "Every boxer has a plan until they get punched in the face." Groups of teenagers will gladly "punch you in the face" during the course of the school year.