The planning paradox

¨What happens in a lesson is the result of an interactive system that is extremely complex.¨ (David Mallows)

Trainer´s teachers are agree on point that encouraging teachers to plan lessons could result in producing teachers who are unaware of the complex patterns that are involved in the interaction between learners and the language to which they are exposed, and which they produce.

  • It makes no sense to go into any situation without having thought about what we are going to do.
  • ......but
  • If  we pre-determine what is going to happen before it has taken place, we may be in danger of closing off ways of possible evolution and development.

1- The planning continuum

Most teachers should think about what they are going to teach before they go into the lesson. However, there are situations in which the teacher has no real idea what he or she is going to do before a lesson starts and where, as a result, the lesson is created moment by moment . That is called ¨jungle path¨lesson. Unfortunately, a succession of  jungle path lessons will suggest to the students a degree of carelessness on the part of the unprepared teacher.

On the other hand, teachers on training courses who are about to be observed tend to produce elaborated plans. This collaborate  with giving themselves confidence, because they have done their best to plan.

Some teachers scribble a few notes down in folders ( e.g.the name of the activity), others  follow the text book and teach exactly what it is planned in it. Ocassionally, teachers don´t make notes or write a plan, simply they have ideas in their heads.

Using plans in class

What we take into the lessons is a proposal for action into action, and all sort of things  might happen. Classrooms are dynamic enviroments and, a lesson is an interactive event in wich people react with each other and with the language.

For teachers in training there are a number of reasons why we may need to modify our proposal for action once a lesson is taking place.

  • MAGIC MOMENTS: Happen when a conversation develops unexpectedly or when a topic produces a level of interest in our students which has no predicted.
  • SENSIBLE DIVERSION: It´s an ideal moment to do some work on the language  which has arisen , and so we take a diversion and teach something we had not intended to teach.
  • UNFORESEEN PROBLEMS: However well we plan, unforeseen problems often can appear unexpectedly. Some students may find an activity that we thought interesting incredibly boring; an activity may take more or less time we anticipated.

Pre-planning and planning

There is a stage that teachers go through, either consciously or subconsciously that happens before we actually make a plan of what is going to happen in our lesson.

The pre-planning stage is where we gather ideas and material and possible starting-off points. For teachers who are going to produce a more formal plan, the pre-planning is the start of the whole process.

Our  pre- planning  ideas are usually based on our knowledge of who we are teaching (ideas can come from internet, on the television, from books, etc.). We are conscious of their level and what we think they might be capable of. If we had followed the syllabus, we are aware what the students expect from the course.

a- Student´s  needs

Lesson plans are based not only on the syllabus designer´s, on topics and tasks, but also on perceptions of the needs and wants of the students.

Teachers can design a programme of study based entirely on student´s needs, learning styles and learning preferences. This conduct a Needs Analysis about what students want and need.

After finding out through researches what our students need and want, these most important thing is  that  our planning decisions should be informed by an understanding of what is in our students´best interests.

b- Making the plan

In the pre-planning we have considered a number of different parameters. In the first place, we are familiar with the syllabus and, based on its requirements, we have a number of activities and topics in our heads. When we start to make a plan, sometimes we find useful to come up with a play, a story, a song,a TV programme, for example, to help students achieve the lesson shape. But, what really matters, is what syllabus we are following, how we are going to realise this in terms of the activities we are going to take intoclass and how one activity leads into.

*Syllabus type

* Grammatical syllabuses: Restricts the kind of tasks and situations which students can work with. (list of items,present continuous,countable and uncountable nouns, comparative, adjectives, etc.)

*Functional syllabuses: Has some problems working out a grammar sequence when there are so many different ways of performing the same function. (listed functions,such as apologising,inviting,etc and situational syllabuses based around situations.)

* Lesson stages

The issue of how one activity leads into another is a matter of how different parts or stages of a lesson hang together. Students need to know, during a lesson, when one stage has finished and another is about to begin.

when we planning lessons, we need to think carefully, about what stages a lesson will go through and how we will get fron one stage to another.

c- Making the plan formal
(background elements)

There are different examination schemes for teachers (different institutions and trainers have differents preferences). For that reason,  it´s impossible to say exactly what a formal plan should look like, or what information should be given. However, certain elements are almost always present:

* Aims:

Perhaps the most important element of any plan is the part where we say what our aims are. These are the outcomes which all our teaching will try to achieve (the destinations of our map).

Aims  should reflect what we hope the students will be able to do, not what we are going to do. Many trainers use the acronym SMART to describe lessons aims ( specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time).

A lesson will often have more than one aim. For example, our  objectives could be to improve our student´s reading ability, to encourage them to predict content, to use guessing strategies to overcome lexical problems, etc.

* Class profile:

A class description tells us who the student´s are, and what can be expected of them. It can give information about how the group and how the individual in it behave.

A class profile lets us to have more information in detail about individual students (especially appropiate with smaller groups), but is difficult to do it with larger classes. It´s really very useful because through observation, homework and test scores it´s possible to know individual  needs.

* Assumptions:

Some trainers and training exams like teachers to list the assumptions on which lesson will be based. This means saying what we assume the students know and can do.

* Personal Aims:

Personal aims are those where we seek to try something out that we have never done before, or decide to try to do better at something which has eluded us before.  Some trainers ask teachers to list their personal aims for the lesson as a way of provoking some kind of development and reflection.

* Skill and language focus:

If we expect that our students focus on language and skills, we have to make a list in detail: structures, functions, vocabulary or/and pronunciation. In that way, an observer can instantly identify and clearly see what students are going to study. This is pften required by trainers in order to provoke trainees into thinking about the implications of the chosen language or skills.

* Timetable fit:

We need to say where the lessons fits in a sequence of classes, what happens before and after it. The teacher has to think about  how many time the lesson will last in order to organise another involved activities.

* Potential learner problems and possible solutions:

A good plan try to predict potential pitfalls and suggest ways of dealing with them. It also includes alternative activities in case we find necessary to divert from the lesson sequence we are following to.

If we are able to anticipate problems,  we could choose to change our lesson dramatically and abandon what we are doing and use different activities. Perhaps we need additional material to list additional posibilities, specially if some students are faster than other.

* Success  indicators:

A success indicator might be that students can confidently produce unprompted sentences about what people should have done, or perhaps can give afluent and convincing answers in an interview role-play situation.  The point of  including success indicators is that it is possible to evaluate easily if the lesson have been achieved.

d- Making the plan formal
(describing procedure and materials)

A formal plan lists the activities and procedures in each lesson, together with the times that teacher expects each of them to take. It´s possible to include aids that are going to use and show the different interactions which will take place in the class. It can be used to show the procedure of the first activity in our plan or to show the procedure for the language study part of our lesson.  E.g. of  plan´s chart:  Activity/aids, Interaction, Procedure, Time.

Planning a sequence of lessons

Sometimes we have concentrated on the kind of `plan we need to produce for a single observed lesson. But there are many other situations in which we may need to produceplans for a much longer sequence (a week, a month, a semester,etc).  When planning a sequence of lessons, there are a number of issues we need to bear in mind.

* Reacting to what happens:

Sometimes  unforeseen things can appear during the course of a lesson and continually we have to modified our plans.  It´s necessary to re-visit our original series of plans all time, in order to update and modify them, depending on what has happened in previous classes.

* Short and long-term goals:

Students for being motivated, thgey need goals and the potential for success in achieving them. A satisfactory long term goal can be to master the english language, but students need  short term goals taking part in activities designed to recycle knowledge and demonstrate  acquisition.

when we plan a sequence of lessons, we need to build goals for students to give them a staged progression of successfully met challenges.

* Thematic content:

One way to approach a sequence of lessons is to focus on different tematic content in each individual lesson.  This content provide  variety, but may not give cohesion and coherence in lesson´s sequences. For themes that carry over more than one lesson, teachers and students can refer backwards and forwards (especially vocabulary and certain topics), depending on the course progress. On the other hand, if we keep on dealing with the same aspect  of the topic, students are likely to become very tired of  it.  Didactic resources: photographs, reading stories, speaking activities, listening, new vocabulary, role -play dialogues, listen interviews, etc.

* Language planning:

When we plan language input over a sequence of lessons, a progression of syllabus elements such as grammar,lexis and functions are proposed. Its an opportunity for recycling or remembering language, and for using language in productive skill work. The programme we are working must be  modify in case it was necessary.

* Activity balance:

the balance of activities is one of the features which will determine the student whole level of student involvement in the course. It will also provide the widest range of experience to meet the different learning styles of the students in the class. Sometimes we will encourage students to work in pairs or groups to discuss and reach a consensus, and other times, we will work with the whole  class for lecture class teaching.


The balance of the skills depends on to a  large extent on the kind of course we are teaching. Some students may beimprove their speaking and listening, others need to concentrate on reading and writing. But in general, English courses are designed to involve students in all four skills.

d-Projects and threads

We will try to ensure  that a good balance of skills, language, activities and thematic strands is achieved throughout the time in wich the students are working on the project. A good project will involve students in reading, discussion, writing and oral presentation.

Bibliography: The Practice of English Language Teaching, Harmer Jeremy.

Topic of Planning Paradox.

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