How important is lesson planning? – Steven Herder

Don’t let a lesson plan stifle magical moments
Has this ever happened to you? You discover some new thing and suddenly you notice it everywhere. This happened with the first car I bought in university: a 1964, baby blue VW beetle. It was 400 dollars and had a homemade wooden floor. The funny thing about this, though, was that having bought a VW beetle, I suddenly began to notice other VW Beetles. They were, in fact, everywhere. This very same phenomenon is happening in my classroom with what I have coined, SLOW moments.

Slow down
These Spontaneous Learning Opportunity Windows (SLOW) are serendipitous moments when everyone is suddenly focused on exactly the same thing. It may be triggered by a student’s comment, a joke, a mistaken answer, something from the textbook, or something I just said. At that moment, everyone’s brain has stopped and a small window has opened. If you are ready, it is very easy at that moment to slide something through the window and into the student’s brain. It actually gets easier and easier the more you keep an eye open for these SLOW moments.

Classroom interaction
The SLOW strategy can improve your teaching by exploiting classroom interaction during a class. Since these interactive decisions must be made on the spot, this technique takes some practice (Google Allright; Bailey; Wajnyrb; Tsui; or Nunan and classroom interaction for lots more).

To get started, there are three things necessary to become adept at exploiting a SLOW moment: 1) confidence, 2) awareness of the syllabus and 3) the ability to riff like a jazz musician. If you don’t believe in yourself when you go off-script, you risk the students also not believing you. Secondly, you need to know the syllabus so you can make sure that everyone succeeds in being able to do what you ask them to do, using meaningful language that isn’t too far away from what you’re doing or have done in the past. Finally, riffing simply means improvising with some underlying intention. So, here are some examples of a few things that led to SLOW moments:

Yuki complains that she’s hungry (Onaka heta). Yuki is always hungry, every week, like clockwork. So, I call out, “Yuki is hungry again. Yuki, this morning I had a big breakfast. I had 2 pieces of toast – one with peanut butter and one with honey. What did you have? Nothing? Really? Everyone – Why do you think Yuki didn’t have any breakfast? (Elicit ideas and give feedback) OK, let’s give Yuki some good ideas to help her fix her life. Yuki, I think you should _____. Anyone else? What should Yuki do?

Chikako reports, “I went *to shopping and *studying English last night.” I call out in a cheesy quiz show host voice, “Double chance!” and suddenly we are all in the same moment. “Can anyone find two small mistakes?” Then, “Can anyone else give me a two-verb sentence about last night?” Can anyone ask Chikako if she bought anything cool?

Miki asks, “What’s on the test?” I call out, “Miki sure loves tests! Miki, what do you think is on the test? If you were Steven, what would you put on the test? Everyone, ask your partner, “What do you think TERRIBLE Steven will put on the test?” Ready… Go. (Time passes…) OK, let’s review what could be on the test.”

Killing time
Hiromi suggests, “Let’s play a game today.” I call out, “Hiromi is the queen of “killing time” What does it mean in Japanese? Yes, exactly, jikan wo tsubusu. In this class, who else is good at killing time? Which teachers are weak against these killing time queens?” “Everyone, ask your partner, how do you sometimes kill time?”

Yuri writes, “I take… *on the train to school every day” while I’m walking around the room during a writing assignment. When I see this mistake, I call out (knowing that this student will laugh rather than being embarrassed) “Wow, Yuri, you are a very macho girl. Everyone, do you know how macho Yuri is? Every morning, she takes on* the train (I gesture putting on a train like a backpack). There are two or three good ways to say this. Anyone? Yes, “take the train”, “catch the train”, “get the train”… great.

Hidden bonuses
This technique is actually full of hidden bonuses: it builds extra rapport with students, it teaches students to learn from other students, it promotes consciousness-raising, and it encourages active participation. The more you invest time into observing what is ACTUALLY happening in your classroom, the better your lessons will be.

Published by

Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.

24 thoughts on “How important is lesson planning? – Steven Herder”

  1. Wow! Great examples, Steven. Love the post!
    A great blues musician will tell you that you don’t need any more than three chords in a song; likewise, a great teacher will tell you…

    1. a great teacher will tell you…

      Yes, I would love to see a list of the things that great teachers have told anyone who is reading this message. And they didn’t have to tell you directly, they could have just shown you or nudged you in a certain direction…

      1. My favorite is “first connect with them, then expect something from them, and finally, just deal with the rest day by day.

      Anyone else?

  2. Thank you, Steven, for the great post!

    I believe that these little windows open up several times during a lesson, and it’s the teacher’s job to constantly be on their tiptoes for them, and develop the ability to notice them and use the windows to the full. It’s not an easy job, as a lot of teachers are “blinded” or “deafened” by time or a textbook. Whatever the reason, the ability to see the SLOW moments comes with time and experience but one of the most important prerequisite for developing this is what Chuck Sandy calls the ability to step back and see the broader picture. It seems like teachers should first open up and only then they will be able to notice the opening windows.

    The best way to help teachers do so is to give lots of examples of SLOW moments and how they can be used for the benefit of the learners. Many good books on teaching and methodology lack this. They give good advice and explanations of what to do in the clasroom but don’t give enough examples of how the techniques in consideration work. However, no words and explanations can speak louder than examples. And this is what makes your post so valuable.

    Thank you very much for the clear description of SLOW moments and the eloquent examples!

  3. Thanks, Alexandra,

    I’ve had an idea for a book related to anecdotes for a long time now. They are, as you say, powerful and effective. I would add that they can be little treasures to learn from because there is so often an emotional connection embedded in these anecdotes, and that is what makes them so memorable.

    Thank you for taking the time to write such an eloquent response.


  4. This is great for every age and level!
    I especially related to the suggestion regarding the whining student – i certainly have one of those now!
    That acronym is so powerful, not only because of the strategy but also becuase of the additonal connotations. When you are NOT in a mad RUSH to complete the coursebook you can notice and maximize teaching opportunities that might have gone unnoticed!
    Thanks for an eye opening post!

    1. Thanks, Naomi. Everyone knows who these students are, especially the hungry one. She was famous in my English classes. It is quite interesting how powerful anecdotes can be. The lasting effects of a good story are well documented, so it should not surprise us at all.

      Yes, the implicit message of slowing down to actually see what’s happening is also important. When I first stumbled upon the idea of SLOW, I was very happy with the multi-faceted nature of it. I’m so glad that it resonated with you. THAT makes me very happy. Someday, when you and I meet at a conference I’m sure that we’ll have lots to talk about.



      1. I will inspire from your Spontaneous Learning Opportunity Window (SLOW).
        Thank you.
        Steven growing, simple language, excitement, and intelligence show he profited by his older age.
        Someone’s maturity should be witnessed by their lifetime, unless they choose recession.

  5. Yes Steve, I agree with you, through teaching you never stop learning, everyday could be a different experience, that’s what is fascinating about teaching

    1. Yes, Edgard, we never stop learning…

      I’m in my 23rd year of teaching officially, although I’ve always been a teacher in my heart. It has always made complete sense to me to make things simple in order for anyone to understand. the older I get, the more I appreciate simplicity.

      Like many others, I find that I’m more excited about teaching these days than I was when I was a lot younger. I make decisions better and faster than I used to. I can get more from less and obviously that creates a lot more satisfaction for everyone.



  6. Ironic, this was what I just mentioned in another post. I like SLOW. I teach in a rural area. Sometimes, the lessons cannot be completed because the attendance is too low. I have had days where I had one student in the class. This makes it hard to continue with the scheduled lesson. However, I want to use the opportunity presented with the one student. This is my second year, I hope to use these opportunities for pre-teaching. Something. I need to keep the students engaged. I believe that if I prepare more engaging lessons using storytelling, I will have a better year. Steve, I hope you don’t mind but I will be using your technique!

    1. Hello Charisse,

      Thank you for such a nice birthday present! Of course you are welcome to as many SLOW moments as you like. Let me know how it goes!

  7. Steven, I really like the SLOW moments – and I like the way you describe them with the acronym.
    Students so often appreciate the attention and the networking connections one can make with each other – whether this is an academic learning point or simply getting the class or group (I am usually dealing with only 2 or 3 students at a time) working together and feeling more like a cohesive, supportive unit.
    I have done this for years without putting a name to it. Thank you for giving us the term Spontaneous Learning Opportunity Windows (SLOW).

    1. Hi Ronald,

      It was a fun day when the acronym just appeared in my mind’s eye. I often remember students long term specifically from SLOW experiences.

  8. Being spontaneous (or at least the students will most probably see the teacher as such in these situations) makes the teacher seem more human. S/he is just a normal human being who reacts to funny situations, to difficult questions or defiant behavior, does not always stick to rules and routines. So, an added benefit is the teacher’s image and it, together with the intrinsic humour in these situations is what opens these windows Steven talks about where learning is most efficient and the messages get to student’s minds.

    1. Hi Kremena,

      Yes! I really believe that learning is very efficient in SLOW moments, precisely because the students are emotionally connected at those moments!

  9. I will inspire from your Spontaneous Learning Opportunity Window (SLOW).
    Thank you.

  10. Thanks to giving a name to these moments… After 21 years being a teacher, I have learned to use this issues to teach my students many different things…I just didn’t have a name! SLOW is perfect, and I loved you describing them as “serendipitous”…it remided me of a book I used to read to my daughters when they were very young… ‘Serendipity’ by Stephen Cosgrove… It was about discovering what is special and unique in each individual…and those SLOW moments are precisely that: special, unique and precious.

    1. Dear Queralt,

      Thank you for your comment. I love all of the words you chose to use in your comment!

  11. Hi Steven

    I was pretty much impressed by all these points you mentioned in the article and they are really amazing.How come we didn’t pay attention to all that?I do agree with you that these moments need to be exploited by teachers because the learners at that very time become ready to receive whatever we want them to receive. Students differ from one another in the roles they play in the class.Some like to be the clown , others prefer to tease both their friends and the teacher.Another type just watch and react to what is happening.Therefore all these abrupt moments- if utilized properly by us we would as you said earlier- achieve certain teaching and learning purposes while the window is still opened!!!

    1. Wow, Aziz. I really feel that you got my message perfectly! Good luck continuing to use SLOW moments!

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