One of the biggest burdens for teachers is preparation, especially those who are new to the classroom. It is true that over time, planning takes you less time – however, this is only true if you get yourself into effective and efficient planning habits early in your teaching career.
The process of effective planning has been somewhat diluted in training programmes over recent years, especially with the (welcome) rise of collaborative planning. However, honing your planning skills means that you continually include effective practice in your lessons and do not just teach lessons “off the system” without tweaking them.
So while good planning takes time, the key is that you make the best use of the time you have.
Having a good overview
It is important to have a good idea of where you are going. The pressures of teaching mean that sometimes you feel inclined to “plan as you go”, but this approach can be risky when it comes to content coverage.
Starting with the required content, map-out what you wish to cover over the period you have. Short-term planning is important for your day-to-day, but having a good idea of the bigger picture is vital too.
Medium-term planning allows you to track and trace weekly progression and a long-term plan means that you can integrate aspects of assessment effectively.
It can be easier to start with the longer term planning and refine the details for each lesson as you begin your short-term planning. A great way to start is to consider the monthly and then the weekly aims and objectives before moving on to the lesson-by-lesson focus.
Another factor to consider is subject knowledge – your ECT year will be the hardest in terms of the breadth and width of new content, but time put in now should save you hours in future years when you return to teach this content to new cohorts.
Planning for sustainable progress
New learning needs to be chunked into manageable constituent parts (no secret there hopefully) but these parts need to be managed in an effective sequence that is revisited in a cyclical manner.
Something that took me a while to get my head around when I first started teaching was how memory works (see SecEd, 2022 for a useful overview). I planned for learners to understand and apply a skill and I thought that once covered, the box was ticked.
The famous Ebbinghaus (1885) forgetting curve reminds us that frequently revisited material is much more likely to be recalled effectively by learners. As such it is important to make those small, chunked steps, but it is also important to look back at the footprints – what is known as retrieval practice.
Sustainable progress is underpinned by effective support. Scaffolding and modelling should be mainstays in every lesson. It isn’t about printing off an “example response” and expecting some kind of high-level meta-thinking.
Modelling and scaffolding needs to be integrated into activities that are guided by you as the specialist. Consider how you present different materials to students and how you build habits of learning.
Having a few different go-to activities with similar processes means that you can maximise your time. “I do, we do, you do” is a simplistic approach to modelling that yields incredible results (see SecEd, 2023 for a case study).
Integrating opportunities to check for understanding
In teaching, we are always against the clock in terms of delivery of content. It can feel like the priority is always moving forwards with planning. But it is just as important to look backwards (or sideways at least!).
Planning in time for you to check for understanding means that you remain informed about how your learners are getting on. This doesn’t mean that you need to be marking constantly, quite the opposite.
Plan-in short, sharp opportunities for you to check that what your learners have processed, retained and understood. This may take the form of a short multiple-choice quiz or hinge questions (see SecEd, 2017), it might be through you circulating the classroom (looking for something specific), or it could be writing a well formulated sentence.
No matter what you plan – if it is planned in line with students’ prior learning, you will glean valuable data on the learning taking place in the classroom, the misconceptions arising and areas that you will need to recap or revisit.
Stay realistic when evaluating the success of lessons taught and think about what has been learnt – support this with your checks for understanding so that you aren’t just guessing. This will make adapting your planning much more effective.
No matter how much you plan, you’ll need to adapt. Adaptation is what makes a teacher exceptional. It is impossible to plan the perfect lesson. There will always be some level of needing to come away from the plan albeit sometimes very slightly.
It may be that having taught a lesson, you modify the next lesson in the sequence slightly to ensure it covers some content that you feel wasn’t processed well enough. Equally, you may need to adapt in the lesson, in the moment. Planning and preparation are so important, but so is the professionalism to know when something isn’t working as well as it should.
Learners respond differently in reality to how we think they may respond. Be ready and willing to change tack.
Expectations and reality
Having realistic expectations in your ECT year is so important when it comes to planning. Don’t feel pressured to cram in loads of content to the detriment of effective pedagogy. You’ll feel a lot of pressure to keep up with others, but it is important to stay your own course.
Although this may sound slightly blunt, the reality is that no matter how well you plan, you will have lessons that just won’t work. Sometimes there are factors outside of your control that simply ruin your lessons or leave your planned exercises falling short of expectations. When this happens, it is important to remember that this is normal. There are things you can do to mitigate distractions and disruptions, but you can’t account for all variables when planning lessons. So, dissect these difficult moments with your mentor for sure, but do not dwell on them.
Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, a Specialist Leader in Education and author of Teach Smarter. Read his previous articles for SecEd via www.sec-ed.co.uk/authors/adam-riches/ and follow him on X (Twitter) @TeachMrRiches.
Further information & resources
- Riches: In-class marking and feedback, SecEd, 2017.
- Riches: Whole-class feedback, SecEd, 2021.
- SecEd: Teaching practice series: Hinge questions (article includes links to full series), 2017.
- SecEd: A teacher’s guide to retrieval practice: Let’s make some memories (stick), 2022.
- SecEd: I do–we do–you do: Learning more with metacognition, 2023.