Lesson Planning From The Heart

Lesson Planning from the Heart: Right brain strategies for preparing and teaching effective lessons.

Author: Duncan Foord

Bio data: The author is Director of Teacher Training at OxfordTEFL, Barcelona Spain. He has been training teachers on Trinity Certificate and Diploma courses for the past 10 years.

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Introduction
An approach to planning with comments on a sample lesson plan
Reasons why this approach can be effective
Frequently asked questions
Bibliography

Introduction
The article suggests that a global rather than linear approach to conceiving lessons and lesson plans can be helpful to trainee teachers, by allowing more flexibility in staging and more focus on our communicative aims. The ideas are based on the writer’s experience observing lessons taught by experienced teachers on Trinity Diploma courses and beginner teachers on Certificate courses.

As teachers and teacher trainers we are familiar with teaching and observing lessons which don’t reach their end, in other words we or the teacher we are observing “run out of time” before reaching the last one or two stages. Not doing everything you’ve planned is not necessarily a bad thing, but in my experience the bits planned for the end are nearly always the most crucial bits of the lesson, the pay off, the raison d’etre, the heart of the lesson. Rather than work towards our aims, it might be more helpful to work around them.

An approach to planning with comments on a sample lesson plan
I have produced two procedure plans for the same lesson. One is in traditional linear format, the other as a “spider graph” or “mind map”, centring round a “heart”. The communicative aim of the lesson is at the heart and the various activities which might support learners in achieving this aim are shown as satellites and arteries which feed and pump life into the heart. Forgive the mixed metaphors, but you get the idea.

The mind map is numbered, but it is fairly clear which bits can be left out and which bits depend on other bits and are therefore more distant from the heart. For example the drill activity (2) is dependent on examples to drill (1). Of course both can be left out altogether. We could start the lesson at 3 or 5 or even 7. I think this kind of flexibility is more difficult to envisage with the linear format.

Conceiving the lesson in terms of a kind of mind map, rather than a series of numbered and sequenced events can be helpful for several reasons:

Reasons why this approach can be effective:

1. Right brain dominant and visual teachers will immediately identify with information presented in this form more easily (for more on this, see Fletcher, 2000). In my experience about half of the teachers I put the idea to are immediately enthusiastic and the other half are sceptical. Below are some reasons to persuade the other half to give it a go.

2. The importance of the communication activity is emphasized. It is the heart of the lesson, it must be there or the lesson dies. This should be reflected in the plan. In linear sequences it appears as one among a series of activities which seem to be of equal importance. Looking at the example plan included here, it is clear that students can “give each other advice about problems” without having worked on “formulae for giving advice” or “reading a text from a problem page”. In other words, the “satellites” are peripheral and can be easily left out of the lesson. I think it is possible to have a heart which isn’t a “communicative” activity (see FAQ 1 below), but most lessons seem to work best when it is. Of course the heart could be a receptive activity such as understanding an extract from a film or a newspaper article.

3. If we believe that students learn better through a communicative approach then it’s probably a good idea to be conceiving “communicative lesson plans”; in other words plans which not only foreground communication activities, but also, in their very form, embody and reflect the task-feedback-task cycle which is inherent to the communicative approach. The linear formatted plan invites a dogged adherence to the sequence planned, as if leaving something out would somehow break a chain and we’d have to start again. This type of thinking, derived I believe from behaviourist models of language learning, is not always helpful and doesn’t really reflect the full picture of the way we learn.

4. Flexibility. The mind map lesson plan/mindset allows the teacher more freedom to add and discard activities more easily in response to time constraints, learner needs or whatever. The satellites can be numbered to suggest a sequence.

5. Learner involvement. If the lesson plan is presented to learners in this format on OHP or whiteboard at the start of the lesson, they have an opportunity to add bits, take bits way, even change the heart and start again, if they want. Alternatively the teacher can start with a heart and let the learners suggest the “satellites”. This can be taken a stage further so that learners decide the hearts and the satellites, a kind of “course planning from the heart”.

Frequently asked questions

1. Does this model only work for lessons based around communication activities? No. I can imagine a lesson, say, with a class preparing for a First Certificate exam, where the teacher wants the learners to work on their accurate use of prepositions. The heart in this case could be “students fill in a gapped text with prepositions removed” and the satellites could include work on typical uses of certain prepositions with reference to a grammar book or teacher chalk and talk or learners researching and peer teaching, sentence gap fills, reading and noticing, a game of preposition dominoes etc.

2. This model seems to be relevant for task based learning, but what if you don’t subscribe to that? Before task based learning, communicative teaching was frequently expressed through the PPP type lesson. This type of lesson usually contains a task, the third P, “Production” or “Free Practice”. The difference was that it always came at the end as if it was only possible once the students had earned it by jumping the first two hoops “Presentation” and “Practice”. PPP is like a half way house to communicative teaching, embracing the idea of a communication activity as a vehicle for learning but retaining much of the audio-lingual insistence on sequencing and “getting it right” before moving on.

3. What about beginner learners? Surely they need some carefully sequenced input before they can attempt even basic communication tasks? Yes, I agree. How can students play bingo for example if they don’t have a grasp of numbers in English? You could have two hearts! Or better still combine them in one “Learn the numbers 1-50 well enough to play bingo”. If you set out with this in mind you will be less likely to be overly diverted by satellites like “practice word stress thirteen vs thirty”,

4. What about “staging”? Isn’t it important to create lessons for learners which are carefully sequenced to support learning? I think some sequences make more sense than others, but there’s probably too much fuss made about “staging”, by which I understand activities following on from each other “logically”. I suspect learners brains and learning are often a bit more messy and more robust than that, so we need plans that can go with the flow without abandoning core objectives. This lesson could start with stages 5 and 6, for example, or even 7

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