Lesson plans: no magic formulae!

Neeru Gill

Effective lesson planning is essential to the process of teaching and learning as it helps instructors organize content, materials, time, instructional strategies, and assistance in the class. However, there is no magic formula for crafting lessons. Developing effective and interesting lessons takes a great deal of time and effort. Despite a teaching experience of more than 18 years, I change my teaching stance every year. By this I mean that not only do I plan the content of my teaching, I also plan keeping my students in mind.

Before delivering a lesson in the class, I engage in a planning process. Here are some important techniques and strategies that I follow while preparing my lesson plan.

  • Purpose before particular (put the ‘why’ before the ‘what’)
    A necessary part of any learning process is thinking about why it is important to know what we are learning. So I share clear, concise and achievable objectives at the beginning of each new topic. The objectives help me stay focussed and I limit the number of objectives I set, and work seriously and purposefully on each one.
  • Don’t cover the curriculum, uncover it!
    I always try to remember that less is more. By having less in my lesson, I can spend time digging into it.
  • Heterogeneous group of students
    In each classroom children have different needs, abilities, interests, backgrounds, and most of all, different ways of learning. Make it a point to reflect on the lesson and plan each lesson using many strategies to help all students learn at their own pace and levels. My lesson plans are based on ‘Multiple Intelligences’ and ‘collaborative learning’ in order to teach a heterogeneous group of students. I have discovered that a combination of music, print and movement turns out to be effective.
  • Who we are teaching must be an explicit part of our lesson plans
    I also reflect on students who may be slow learners. I pause in places where I know they might struggle, spend more time building concepts they don’t know – even if this means not getting through all of the planned content for that day and move quickly through content that students already know (previous knowledge).
  • The lesson that is rich with student thinking and interaction would be successful
    My lessons engage students by giving them opportunities to do most of the talking, to work independently and develop social skills for successful peer interaction. For this, I take time during my planning to jot down a few open-ended questions. This prevents me from getting stuck in the middle of my lesson without solid questions to ask.
  • Warm-up activity / assessing learners’ prior knowledge of the new material
    A strong beginning to my lesson (like storytelling) helps ensure that my students stay with me as I move into the body of the lesson. This focuses the learners’ attention on the new lesson. Meaningful learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Therefore, I ensure that today’s lesson is clearly related to yesterday’s and will connect to what will follow tomorrow. I ask them a variety of questions.
  • Providing ample opportunities for students to experiment with the topic
    I encourage my students and allow opportunities for them to experiment with the topic without worrying whether or not it is correct. I provide them with opportunities to work and talk together. For example, before explicitly teaching speech marks I let students first observe the way writers use the marks. Once students have constructed their own theories and have had the chance to experiment without the pressure of producing a finished piece, I switch to speech marks. At this stage students learn the rules. Indeed, they want to learn them, if only to see whether their theories were correct. I also encourage them to participate in meaningful writing activities where they can practice what they have learned.
  • Use cross disciplinary teaching
    To me, curiosity matters. I try to make my lessons as interesting as possible and incorporate an integrated and holistic approach in at least one lesson each year. This approach has enabled my students to see all subjects as one whole. It has also nurtured their creativity and problem-solving. They remember the concept for a longer time as music, art, technology, etc., are included. For instance, I have observed that students cannot sit in one place for hours. Studies have also shown that the brain just falls asleep when we sit for too long. Keeping this in mind, I try to add movement time/sport in my lesson plans in the form of activities.
  • Activity-based learning
    Cross disciplinary teaching stresses the active role of students leading to activity-based learning. These activities develop essential critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that will serve them not only in test taking but also in their careers and in life.
  • Whole-class teaching time
    All lessons need some ‘whole-class together time’ before students break off to apply new skills or strategies on their own. My whole-class teaching time is structured and divided into three parts: direct-teaching time, student try-outs and independent/small-group work. Direct-teaching time includes modelling and explaining a procedure, topic, skill or technique. Even in direct teaching, I ask students to do most of the thinking. Before I ask students to try something on their own, I often make them work on a concept as a group. This typically happens as a part of or just after my direct teaching. I conclude my whole-class teaching time by making sure that students know what I have been working on and what they are supposed to do when they work independently. The most important thing is to close this part of the lesson and transition to independent work time smoothly.
  • Independent work time
    Independent work time is the one time during the class when I get the opportunity to pay attention to students as individual learners. I don’t usually get many chances to sit with one child and work on things that are important only to him/her. When the class is working independently, however, I have a chance for one-on-one time with my students. This provides me with a natural way to differentiate instruction for the different types of learners in my classroom.
  • Plan transitions
    Sometimes my students can easily get stuck. For example, if I start my lesson with a group task, I need routines and procedures to assemble them in an orderly fashion. If, after a group task, I need to transition to an independent task, then too I need smooth procedures to get them started.
  • Debrief/Recap
    At the end of every lesson I set aside a few moments for students to reflect on what was taught. I review, quickly yet meaningfully, what we did during the lesson and have students share what they learned, referring once again to my lesson’s purpose. The goal is to invite students to share their thoughts on the lesson, to discuss and mark places where they faltered, to voice what is not working so I can address them in the next day’s lesson.
  • Reviewing and revising my teaching plan
    I have the habit of reviewing and revising my teaching plan. When I review my plans, I am judicious about where I decide to spend my valuable time. Earlier, I used to spend too much time on things that were not the main focus of the lesson. I was trying to teach everything I could. I learned the hard way that I had to keep certain parts of my lesson short, or cut out other things altogether, so I could spend more time in the places that was most necessary.
  • Reflect
    Finally, I reflect on my students’ thoughts (instead of looking for the ‘right’ answer) and behaviour. By going back and systematically analyzing my plans (What went well today? What will I need to bring to tomorrow’s lesson?), I might identify gaps, conflicts, or pacing and timing issues that I didn’t catch when I planned initially.

It is also important to realize that even the best planned lesson is worthless if routines and procedures, along with classroom management techniques, are not in evidence.

  • Teaching routine and rules
    In my opinion ‘teaching routine and rules’ is instruction. The classroom transition phase is crucial, so I introduce a routine and share my expectations with them at the beginning of the year. I make my routines rock solid. It takes weeks to practice these, but they save my time and help me spend more time in meaningful instructions.
  • Learning environment
    In addition, the learning environment is as important as the curriculum content. When I walk into my class, I spend some time talking to students, informally encouraging them to relax, interact, smile and laugh. This way I get to know my students better. Then I start with whole group instructions to introduce the topic. Sometimes I make them do brain gym or meditation so that they relax and focus better.

To achieve demonstrable student learning outcomes in the classroom, I deploy the following methodology:

  • Brain Break
    The average attention span of a student is about 10-15 minutes. I incorporate free time into my students’ learning time. I give my students 5-minute movement break after every 15 minutes of instruction. This is the time given to them to relax and chat and even I use it to connect with my students on a personal level. The break keeps them focused for the second half of the period.
  • Weekly homework to practice new knowledge
    I give a little homework too. It’s a way to foster home-school communication. After classroom practice, a parallel homework assignment is given that is easy and fun to complete. Homework is selected only for skills that the students have already mastered. It is a review, not an opportunity for the parents to act as the teacher.

Instructors must carry the lesson plan to the class each day as it provides them with a clear sense of direction in the classroom. However, it is important to remember that a lesson can be spread out into several days if necessary and instructors shouldn’t put excessive amounts of information into one lesson.

The author teaches at Delhi Public School, Sushant Lok, Gurgaon. She holds a Masters’ degree in English and is passionate about new technologies and languages, and has cleared Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT N5). She has over 18 years of experience in handling classes ranging from primary to middle school. She can be reached at [email protected].

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