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Back to Basics: Planning for Successful Instruction
by Donald C. Orlich

Donald Orlich is professor at Washington State University and lead author of Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Effective Instruction.

One hallmark of teaching as an organized activity is the process called planning. Teachers who wish to instruct in a systematic manner must devote a substantial proportion of their time and activity to planning—deciding what and how you want your students to learn. Master teachers exhibit three common traits: they are well organized in their planning, they communicate their instructional objectives effectively to their students, and they have high expectations for their students.

Time for a systematic approach
The more systematic the approach to instructional planning is, the greater the probability of success. Planning instruction or lessons means establishing priorities, establishing goals and objectives, and establishing learning priorities for students. Written lesson plans set out in advance your priorities concerning time, learning materials, objectives, and types of instruction. They are tools for success, both for the teacher and for the students.

Time—we have only so much of it. Even master teachers cannot create a single extra second in the day, but master teachers do control time by systematically and carefully planning its productive use for instruction. The lesson plans teachers prepare help them organize and deliver their daily lessons efficiently. Numerous studies have shown that, for teachers, being well-organized correlates highly with effectiveness.

Developing a comfort level with planning
The types of lesson plans used by teachers vary widely due to the teacher's experience, the grade level, and the subjects being taught. Writing lesson plans is similar to learning to ride a bicycle. Beginners concentrate on balance, feet on the pedals, and hands on the bars. Only short trips are completed. With experience, pedaling and balance become automatic, and the focus is on safety, comfort, and fun. New teachers tend to overplan—that is, to prepare very elaborate plans, being careful not to omit any point; more experienced teachers prepare brief plans. It is important for all teachers to make wise decisions in helping their students reach the intended outcomes.

New classroom teachers will probably begin making detailed plans by imitating a favorite teacher. Later, after further study and experience, new teachers will expand or adapt the basic planning skills they have acquired to address their students' specific needs. Classroom innovations are usually developed once teachers are in their own classrooms with their own set of learners, have developed their own instructional resources, and have experience with various strategies. Although the fundamental steps in lesson planning remain the same, the basic formula is always modified to suit individual teachers' objectives and style.

Planning is nothing more than thinking about what you want to accomplish. You think about the details, such as who does what, when, for what length of time, and what opportunities will be created for effective student learning. The main objective of lesson planning is to ensure that all activities and processes provide a supportive educational environment for the learner. Teachers sometimes forget about the learner and concentrate instead on the teaching process or on what is being taught. If lesson planning is to be a useful task, it must always focus on the interactions between what is to be learned and the learner.

Plan to be flexible
Teachers who develop highly structured and detailed plans rarely adhere to them in lock-step fashion. Indeed, such rigidity would probably hinder rather than help the teaching and learning process. For example, a teacher may plan for a twenty-minute student activity, only to discover it requires sixty minutes to complete. The teacher would then make the appropriate adjustment in his or her plan to ensure student success. Although the teacher has prepared carefully (perhaps precisely) to teach a lesson effectively, he or she must allow for flexible delivery. Furthermore, during the classroom interaction, teachers need to make adaptations and add artistry to each day's plan.

Elements of planning
We approach the process of planning as reflective experience. Effective teachers spend a great deal of time thinking about what and how they will teach. Effective teachers will often plan with their colleagues and may also plan with their students for various student-led activities. When developing instructional plans, use these key ideas:

Planning Process Components:

  • Student characteristics
  • Standards being met
  • Goals
  • Theme or unit
  • Time allotted
  • Specific objectives
  • Cognitive level check
  • Assignments
  • Special needs
  • Assessment
  • Reteaching as needed

More of an 'art' than a 'science'
Effective planning has a positive impact on student achievement. Planning is a time-consuming process for the beginning teacher and even more experienced teachers. As they gain experience, teachers will begin to know which activities take detailed planning and which do not.

Knowing when to abandon plans to take advantage of that unintended learning opportunity is a master teacher's skill. A good plan provides teachers with the context for this decision. Does this new opportunity (teachable moment) contribute more positively to the objectives of the lesson? Are you meeting a student's important need with a lesson detour? A teacher must exhibit a balance between preparation and flexibility in executing the plan. That, of course, is the artistry of teaching.

Reprinted with permission from Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Effective Instruction, Seventh Edition. Copyright © 2005 Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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