Scott Thornbury

How important is lesson planning? – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyHow important is detailed lesson planning?

Because you’re probably expecting me to answer the question in the negative, and because I love surprising people, I’ll answer it like this:

VERY important – if you’re a new teacher, faced with all the unpredictability, spontaneity and simultaneity of the classroom zoo. It’s HELL in there, and your lesson plan is like a magic charm that will protect you from being eaten alive. Your very detailed lesson plan allows you to navigate a safe path through the jungle. BUT, however detailed, however carefully thought out, it’s not foolproof. There will come a point – very early on in your career, probably – when, as the Scots poet, Robbie Burns put it: “the best laid plans of mice and men/ gang aft agley”. That is to say: stuff happens! So you need to learn to adapt your plan, maybe even abandon it.  It’s not even a case of having a plan B. Or C. Or D. There comes a point when you just have to think on your feet.

VERY important – if you’re participating in some kind of training program, and especially if you’re going to be observed. A detailed lesson plan is a must – and it’s also very revealing evidence as to the quality of your pre-lesson decision-making. You can tell a lot about a teacher by looking at their lesson plan. How realistic are the objectives? How logical is the staging? How varied are the activities? How plausible is the timing? And so on. But, again, just because you have planned it like that, doesn’t mean it will go like that. Just as chess-players can’t predict their opponent’s first move, you can never be sure how your class will respond to your plan on the day. A skilled observer will be looking at how you monitor the effectiveness of your plan ‘in flight’ – and how you modify it, where appropriate.

NOT so important – if you have a coursebook and accompanying teacher’s guide that does it all for you. But even the best coursebooks were never written specifically for your particular class on that particular day, so you will need to select, adapt and supplement – maybe a little, maybe quite a lot. besides, an over-reliance on the coursebook will result in lessons of a certain sameness and even blandness.

NOT so important – when you’ve been teaching for a while and have developed a fluent set of classroom management skills and activity routines. I’ve always maintained that when you start teaching it’s 90% planning and 10% management. But for an experienced teacher, it’s 10% planning and 90% management. Like cooking, you start off following the cookbooks faithfully, until you start acquiring some reliable cooking skills and intuitions, and you can start to improvise successfully.

NOT so important – in fact impossible, when you’re asked to substitute for another teacher, or to take over a class at short notice. I had to do this a lot as a fairly new teacher in a school in Egypt, and I learned very quickly how to manufacture a lesson out of very little – a single visual aid, or a short dictated text. These skills were invaluable, not only because I learned how to be resourceful and to get maximum benefits out of minimal materials,  but also because I discovered how much the learners can contribute to the content and flow of the lesson – if you trust them.

COMPLETELY unimportant – if, having developed a set of effective management skills and teaching routines, having experienced what it’s like to think on your feet, having learned how to be resourceful with very little, and above all, having learned to trust your learners, you are ready to fly on your own – and without a detailed flight plan. It’s then that you’ll experience the (almost) unbearable lightness of teaching.

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Scott Thornbury

Scott is a teacher and teacher educator, with over 30 years' experience in English language teaching. He is currently Associate Professor of English Language Studies at the New School in New York, teaching on an on-line MATESOL program. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and his native New Zealand. Scott’s writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology including The A-Z of ELT, How to Teach Grammar and Teaching Unplugged. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers (CUP) and was also the co-founder of the dogme ELT group, whose archived website, called Teaching Unplugged, can be found below. Scott currently leads a fascinating community at the popular and thought-provoking blog, A-Z of ELT blog. Scott is lead author in the iTDi Teacher Development program as well as being iTDi's Academic Director.

37 thoughts on “How important is lesson planning? – Scott Thornbury”

  1. I wonder how long would an average teacher take to reach the stage of “completely unimportant”?
    All I can say is that a lot of great classes happened when the lesson you so very carefully prepared ended up in the archives, or in the …bin. 😉

    1. “…how long would an average teacher take to reach the stage of “completely unimportant”?”

      This is going to vary a lot, Chiew, and is very dependent on the ‘culture’ of the teacher’s Institution: the extent, for example, to which innovation is encouraged, the constraints of syllabus and coursebook, the value placed on spontaneity and creativity in the classroom as opposed to conformity and accuracy… not to mention the teacher’s own personal predilections, their disposition to take risks, engage with the students, and so on.

    2. I’ve worked as a teacher for more than 30 years and haven’t reached that stage yet. I can be lazy sometimes and have a lesson with no plan, especially if I know the course book very well. on my desk, in most cases I need a plan, at least with the main points.

  2. Lesson Planning / prepearation is a vital element in a teacher’s long-term career… as long as you need to “stay” in the profession and “evolve” or even “continue to exist” in it, then, keep delving…

  3. “the (almost) unbearable lightness of teaching” – love it! The first two years of my teaching career involved no training and a system whereby I wouldn’t know who I was teaching in the class until 5 minutes before it started – a ‘roll-up’ system. Planning was out of the question and only adrenalin could get me through. Best classes I ever had.

    1. Interesting, Gareth! I wonder if a degree of ‘imposed spontaneity’ should be incorporated into novice teachers early training/supervision?

  4. I totally agree with Mr. Thornbury’s point of view. Planning is necessary, but you have to be flexible enough to cope with your ss needs & challenges.

    1. Somebody once said: it’s not about preparing, it’s about ‘being prepared’ — that is to say, you have to be alert to your students’ evolving needs, and you have to have the requisite skills and knowledge to deal with them spontaneously

  5. Hi Scott again!
    How about if one is adopting an unplugged teaching approach to ELT,where no materials except those in the students’ head and mouth are brought into the classroom?
    How about if my next teaching point is exactly what I hear from a students’ role play or a monologue?
    I do think that you certainly say that in these situations a pre-planned lesson plan is not going to work!

    I,however,assume that lesson planning is of great importance,though!No matter what a teacher’s age is,and no matter how long he/she has taught,it’s alwayse necessary in EFL/ESL to have a lesson plan.Lesson planning might differ in its complexity,lenght, details,supplementary activities… depending on how “professional” the teacher is in his/her job.
    But,I really think that walking into the classroom without a lesson plan,which specifies at least the targeted competencies and an outline of the major “events/stages” of the lesson, is exactly like walking into the forest without a map.
    You might love and admire the places,the birds,the flowers that come into the way while walking in that beautiful forest.Yet,there are situations where you might come across a snake,a tiger,a flooded river…and that’s where planning works.If you have no pre-planning,you will certainly need some( or a lot of) time to re-think of the situation.That’s exactly what happens when an unexpected event,response,problem or situation happens in the classroom.
    I do agree that as one gets mature within the classroom walls,he/she will rely less on that map,exactly the same as if you have already been to my “forest” several times.
    I also believe that discarding the lesson plan is maybe the first thing that shows that the teacher is getting “old” for that profession/mission,and he/she should think for another place,maybe in that school itself.
    OH!I have a new area in which no one (I would say) is already professient or professional.It’s the area of using technology in ELT.I suppose that relying on using a certain web tool for a writing/listening lesson needs at least some preparation.And how about if you get into the room and the lights go off? How about if you get into the room and your ipad/laptop….simple says”no,I can’t work”?

    Thanks for your great posts.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brahim.

      I like your analogy with the jungle, and in fact Jim Scrivener uses a similar metaphor in his book ‘Learning Teaching’ to describe a certain kind of lesson as having a ‘jungle path’ structure. In his words: “Most lessons involve you pre-planning a sequence of activities, predicting what language areas will be worked on, what problems are likely to arise and what the students may achieve in the lesson. An alternative approach would be to not predict and prepare so much, but to create the lesson moment by moment in class, with you and learners working with whatever is happening in the room, responding to questions, problems and options as they come up, and finding new activities, materials and tasks in response to particular situations. The starting point might be an activity or a piece of material, but what comes out of it will remain unknown until it happens. You’re working more with the people in the room than with your material or your plan”. (p.131)

      But, as I suggested in my post, this kind of ‘high-risk’ strategy requires a degree of experience, and a sound knowledge of language systems, so as to be able to deal with language issues as they arise — probably not for beginner teachers!

  6. Great blogpost!
    Teaching unplugged, as I understand, is based on the spontanous conversations evolved by students with the help of the teacher. I wonder if lesson planning will not hinder that spontaenity.

    1. Thanks, Shahram! Yes, teaching unplugged is very much about working with the ‘raw material’ that the learners provide themselves, although this raw material may result from tasks that the teacher set up initially, and of course these tasks require a degree of preparation. In this sense a ‘teaching unplugged’ approach reflects many of the features of task-based learning, and in particular the task-teach-task cycle.

  7. Hi Scott!

    Although some of my best lessons were the ones I have gone “dogme”, where everything was student emergent, no previous planning; I was so happy – though not predictably surprised – to read you acknowledging the importance of lesson planning for new teachers and people in teacher training programs.

    I think it is clear to people the important of understanding and acknowledging the value of lesson planning, especially for novice teacher. Not for the planning itself – it is a byproduct – but rather as a mean to personal development, as a way of working and improving difficulties – we all have those. As means of going over the main needs, particularities and interests of a student. As a means to address those to our best.

    But yes, most processes become natural to more experienced teachers, and especially regarding the context. A very worthy reflection, nonetheless,

    ‘Thanks for sharing, Scott!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ceci. I don’t think there’s a skill in the world that doesn’t require – initially, at least – conscious deliberation, planning and repetitive practice, before it becomes automated. Think driving, think playing the guitar, think barbecuing (I’m planning a barbecue on Sunday, that’s why it’s on my mind!), think typing, etc. And think teaching.

      The danger, I guess, is in automating the skill before it is sufficiently developed. So, some teachers become automatic users of coursebooks, without having experienced conscious use of NOT using coursebooks (as in Gareth’s case, above). So they don’t experience that (almost) unbearable lightness!

  8. I heard that some ‘Experienced Teachers’ claim that they “can teach their classes even without a lesson plan.” How do you react to this?

    1. @ Rabbirose..well, yes, they do , once they ‘ve taught them for quite a long time and they’re well aware of their students’ strengths and weaknesses, otherwise without a lesson plan, students take over the entire class ,proclaim themselves the class leader and “kick you out” of it once for all or THEY leave the class and never come back….

  9. I actually disagree with this, and feel that some lesson planning is always important. The amount of time you spend will likely decrease with experience, but I cannot think of a scenario where it wouldn’t be important. Sure, there are times you cannot prepare, like a last minute sub situation, but I’d never recommend eliding it altogether.

    I don’t understand how trusting one’s learners can exempt anyone. I’m sorry, but I don’t see the link. No two classes are alike, and you will need to consider and develop in-class assessments. You also may need to adapt existing material for different learning styles and ranges in proficiency levels.

    I always plan for at least 5-10 minutes, and I can only get away with this sort of “quickie” if I have everything neatly stored in Google Drive, and am not creating new material or relying on a textbook. I still need to create time estimates for each activity, and generate quizzes and activities that address some specific needs of some specific students. Not everyone may count curriculum development as planning, but unless I am writing for a textbook company, I generally do.

    Granted, I teach in an IEP program where classes are three hours long; things might feel more natural over a 50 minute class. Many ESL teachers are in my position, though. And I cannot tell you how many times when, after planning out a lesson, I realized that I had a 20 minute “gap” and needed to use another activity.

  10. I’ve been teaching ESL for 18 years and my lesson plan consists of a quickly scribbled note/list of what I’m gonna teach. I have well developed materials and I can improvise. Usually the materials I have fit exactly into the time slot I have. It all runs like clockwork. You need to have structure and freedom. The students love the feel of both. Me too!

  11. Hello Scott,

    This is probably a bit of a late respond, I kinda got led into this by Mike Griffin on one of his current blog posts.

    I found myself nodding in agreement on many occasions when reading your thought on lesson planning, though I can’t quite decide which group of teachers I’d fit myself into (semi-experienced or expert-experienced). I’ve been teaching for a while (6-7 years), but looking at the number of teaching years of some other teachers, I’m not too sure if I’ve been teaching for a while at all!

    Anyway, coming back to what you’ve said, I still DO prepare lessons plans and hardly use the ones in teacher guide books. I find them very dry and boring (most of the time) – regimented I’d say. I feel so “tightly bound with a rope” if I follow the book.

    I equate planning a lesson as a way to visualize how my class would go. Of course, it just may not go the same way but I give myself leeway for that.


  12. While I don’t rely completely on my lesson plans; and, in fact, sometimes they go out the window (so to speak), I always like to have something arranged to help me feel more comfortable.
    I find that if I have gone through the procedure of preparing well, I can more easily adjust and alter the class if necessary.
    Also, I am always teaching my students to be prepared, avoid procrastination, and follow steps to help them be ready – so I would feel hypocritical if I did not follow through with my own plans.
    I agree that more experienced teachers may need to spend less time planning – but I’m not sure any teacher should feel comfortable enough to do no planning at all.

  13. We teachers most of the time ended up doing our own thing in the classroom. No two classes are the same. Students are different and every class demands a different approch. My experience is not different from others and I tell you man, following a lesson plan in a teacher book is boring to you and sutdents. It is good to have a plan, what is not good is to pretend that that plan will work wonders for all students.

  14. After years of detailed lesson plans, coursebooks of any kind and lots of disappointment because some of the students often got bored, I realised that lesson planning is not so important: it takes some time before you know your students’ learning styles and lesson planning should consist in preparing (often out of very little, right) the most appropriate activities for them.
    I have been teaching in large classes for years and learnt that splitting students in groups is the only way to keep discipline and have them work productively according to their learning pace and learning style.

  15. Scott, when I was reading this post it was as if you had been describing my experience as a language teacher… holding on the lesson plan for life, as a new teacher -hoping and WISHING nothing would happen to disrupt my beautifully designed lesson plan :)… to learning how to swim with some being able to just float at leisure with the peace and knowledge given by experience.

  16. Detailed description of the trajectory of lesson planning in the lifetime of all teachers. When we mature and “grow older” in our teaching career is when we start loosening up our bonds with the formality of lesson planning. The two key elements of this are, first, to be prepared all the time, and second, to love what we’re doing. Otherwise, we’re wasting our and our SS’ valuable time.

  17. Thanks for the very informative article. Short but meaningfully complete. I strongly agree with you on teachers’ awareness raising on two faces that a lesson plan takes, important ans not important. Sometimes teachers have to change the preselected road since there is traffic jam or they want to make a short cut to reach the destination sooner as students feel tired to take a long journey.

  18. When I was reading your post, Scott, I recognized myself in each one of the situations you described. I’ve been teaching EFL for over 30 ys. and have faced each one of the situtations involving lesson planning you’ve mentioned. And I agree that as we mature in the teaching career, we start loosening up our bonds with the formality of lesson planning and become more capable of floating out there in the classroom and learn to enjoy less framed-in lessons more thoroughly. However, I totally agree with you that for novice teachers and when teaching in specific contexts (groups meeting once a week for a 4-hour class period, for example), lesson plans are a must. That’s when you learn to draw a path to follow, in which you take your objectives and your SS’ needs into account, and dive more confidently into the ‘jungle’/’classroom zoo’ more confidently. Then, you learn to shift courses when you feel the route you’ve taken will not take you where you’ve planned to go. That’s when you also begin to trust your gut feelings and use your previous experience to switch the course of the intended lesson..

  19. I think that together with a well-prepared lesson plan, a teacher needs to come prepared to adapt and not adopt his lesson plan. A classroom is a context where much cannot be expected!

  20. I think lesson planning also builds the necessary skills to create lessons faster and with more effect. When I first began I spent maybe up to an hour on a lesson plan. Adding a ton of detail, which was okay then, but now I can create detailed lesson plans very quickly, because I spent the time learning how to do it.

  21. I really like that you made the distinction between times when lesson plans are needed and when they are not so important. It is true that when I first started teaching ESL in Asia I focused a lot on what I would teach beforehand and was very nervous about not having enough material for the entire class period. But after seven years of teaching the same types of students with variety of esl curriculum, I have a lot of methods and strategies in my mind for what works and what doesn’t work and would be very surprised at problems arising in the classroom that I couldn’t predict or at least have a precise method of solving. But the boss still wanted to see a lesson plan, and if I did not make one, my nosy coworkers thought I was being lazy and unprepared regardless of the fact that my classes went smoothly, students were happy, and they learned the required material. I felt like I was wasting time to produce a piece of paper just to prove that I was serious about teaching my students and cared about their learning experience.

    I think whether to make a lesson plan or not depends on the teacher. The lesson plan should be a tool for those who are not easily able to think on their feet or feel they might leave out important material in a classroom discussion without one. There are some people that just feel more comfortable having everything planned and laid out in advance. I have found others like myself who prefer to teach lessons with spontaneity. I found that as long as I understood the material well, I could connect the content to any number of real life experiences and produce effective learning and classroom discussion without previously having rehearsed how I would talk about the subject to my students. As a result, the outcome was always different because the lesson would change, depending on the students’ input and the learning value effect of that discussion was greater than that which I might have created through a step by step lesson plan. I often feel like if I make a lesson plan, the result of following a systematic approach would hinder my creativity as a teacher, producing lessons that are bookish and uninspiring. So I would argue that whether or not to have a lesson plan written out depends on the teacher. Some teachers produce valuable lessons through detailed planning while others do better by evaluating students’ responses and making the required adjustments while the lesson is in progress. I am glad that you keep an open mind on this approach rather than scold those with a tendency to omit lesson plans from their teaching regimen.

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