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Concourse 2

Planning: Overplanning


If you are an obsessive clock-watcher in your lessons and/or find yourself pausing often to check your plan then you are probably the victim of the dread overplanning syndrome.

On the positive side, it also means that you are an organised and conscientious teacher who wants to make sure that no learner's time is wasted and that all the learners get the most out of each lesson.  That's a good thing and there is no intention here to suggest that careful planning is not helpful and desirable.
However, there are many occasions in language teaching when going with the flow is a principled decision and it has many advantages.  It does not necessarily mean you are not being conscientious.

In fact, there is an approach to teaching, called Dogme, which encourages teachers to be much more relaxed about planning, use materials sparingly if at all and avoid the use of technology where possible.  The central idea is to use the language that emerges from, or that is clearly needed by, the learners as the core of any teaching.
You still have to have some idea where you are going, but only the general outlines of a lesson can be planned because learning is seen to happen in conversation and the focus is on what emerges naturally from the learners rather than imposed upon them.
If you think you might be suffering from overplanning syndrome, you could read up on Dogme and try the approach.  For more on Dogme, and some references to research, go to the brief guide on this site.


Teachers are different

You knew that but here is one reason why.
In most jobs, workers don't actually have to do much planning of their own work – it comes to them.
If you are a doctor, a pilot, a train driver or a shop worker, all you need to do is go to work at the right time and the patients, the passengers and the customers come to you.  You don't even have to bring your own surgery, aeroplane, train or shop with you.

Teaching isn't like that because, although you don't usually need to bring the classroom and the equipment with you, you do have to bring the ideas, the materials and a plan of what you intend to do.  If you do nothing, the students may come to you but nothing will happen.
Teachers have to make up their jobs as they go along.  That's one of the things that makes it special (and tiring and stressful at times).


Emerging needs

One of the ways we make up our own jobs is in planning.  Another concerns our reactions to the needs of the learners as we go along.  Not reacting to their needs means you end up teaching the plan, not the learners.

Think for a moment about what sorts of needs might emerge from a group of learners as a lesson goes along.  If it helps, think through a lesson you have recently taught and see if you can identify any emerging needs in that lesson.
Click here when you have a short list.


Recognising the need and judging the response

Naturally, however you deal with needs as they emerge in your teaching, the effect will be a departure from your plan.  The ability to depart appropriately from a plan and deal with what learners actually need then and there is part of being a good teacher.  It comes with practice but see if you can work out what to do with the following symptoms of an emerging need.  Click on the table for some comments.


These are, of course, rather trivial events.  Less trivial is the occasional need to depart completely from your plan and teach a different lesson.  Why might that be necessary?  Think of some reasons and then click here.


Improving in this area


When you next plan a lesson, re-read the plan and look at each stage in turn.
About each stage, ask yourself:

  1. What could be the learners' response to this stage?
    1. What will I do if the response is negative?
    2. What will I do if the response is very positive?
  2. What language and/or skills do the learners need to complete this task well?
    1. What will I do if they don't have the knowledge or the skill?
    2. What will I do if they finish it very quickly?
    3. What will I do if they are struggling?

In each stage of the plan insert a 'flexi-stage', i.e., one that you can implement or not as the needs arise, which responds to the possible answers to those questions.  That way, you'll have planned to go off plan and still be in your comfort zone.

Monitoring, reviewing and being observed

Monitoring your own behaviour in class is a start.  Try to notice when people are struggling or wanting more and be brave enough to depart from the plan and attend to it.  If you have time try:

  1. Record a lesson on video or audio.
  2. Play it back in privacy and look particularly for events or questions which show an emerging need.
    Ask three questions:
    1. did I notice?
    2. did I react?
    3. was my reaction wise and proportional?

You can do the same thing if you are lucky enough to be able to get an observer to follow your instructions.  Set them the same questions and then discuss your responses and the events and talk about how to make them better.


Gauging progress

There's a separate guide in this section of the site to gauging and measuring progress in your development.  Go there for more ideas.
In terms of making adjustments to the plan as you go along, you may not be the best judge so, if you can, get someone to observe how you react to emerging needs and discuss whether your reaction was the right one.
If it wasn't, try to think together about what would have been the right response.