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Planning versus Improvisation

Why versatility and flexibility may sometimes win out over rigid adherence to a carefully prepared lesson plan.

Anyone who has done any kind of formal training in ESL (CELTA etc) will know that lesson planning is absolutely essential in every lesson, and anyone who does not write out a proper plan is a terrible teacher with no thought whatsoever for his/her poor students, who of course will learn nothing.

In this article, I would like to discuss the importance of lesson planning and whether or not it is entirely necessary. I am sure there are many novice (and not so novice) teachers out there who have terrible feelings of guilt whenever they have just blagged their way through a lesson, hoping that no colleagues will have realised that they have committed such an abomination!

The main advantage of lesson planning in my view, is that during the process of planning you think through what you want to achieve and how you can do this. The stages of the lesson are carefully structured and aim to achieve the very objectives that you have chosen whilst planning. I disagree that the lesson plan should be based on a template such as the ones used in most TEFL courses and classroom observations, usually PPP methodology (although this may have changed in recent years), primarily because I believe that the process of planning is useful for the teacher whilst it is being done, therefore the paper itself on which the plan is written is not essential to the teaching of the lesson. By this I mean that each teacher should make a plan in whichever way it suits him/her. The plan does not have to follow a specific structure, neither does it have to be produced with pen and paper. The important thing is that the teacher have clear in his/her head what is going to happen in the classroom and why. If you have made a clear plan, there is probably no need to even take this plan into the classroom with you since you will already have internalised all the stages of your lesson. If you feel more comfortable having the stages written down in front of you, make a brief plan on one sheet of paper, or index cards if you prefer. You will find it much easier to follow your plan or find your place if you get lost than if you have a fully-blown 2 or 3 page observation type plan in front of you!

The main problem with thinking through and planning all your lessons is the time factor. If you have 4 or 5 classes a day, and a thorough plan can take an hour, this means that you will be spending 3 or 4 hours every day planning! This is obviously not ideal, especially since most of us do not get paid for planning time and it would mean a 10 hour day! In this business we most definitely do not earn enough to spend so much time planning, many of you will even supplement your work with private classes in your free time and simply not have the time to do so.

In practice, most good teachers spend some time planning each lesson, looking at what comes next in the coursebook, thinking of how to present the information, of maybe adapting activities from the book to make them more engaging or thinking up supplementary activities. However we do not write out a proper detailed plan of everything we are going to do in the lesson, we usually make a few notes that will enable us to follow through our ideas. In fact, most courses that use a course book will provide you with a teacher’s book which can give you plenty of ideas of how to use the exercises in the book and even provide you with extra activities, sometimes photocopiable. This seriously reduces our lesson planning time, thankfully!

Having discussed lesson planning, I now come to improvisation. Every teacher has improvised at some time or other and in fact, improvisation can be a good thing – there is little point sticking to your lesson plan just because you have written it, if the lesson is a complete failure! As teachers we need to be flexible to our students’ wants and needs. This obviously does not mean giving in to all their demands, but if we see that something isn’t working, we shouldn’t be afraid to abandon the activity.

But what about those days when we haven’t prepared a thing, or have decided to forget about everything we had planned to do? Is this such a bad thing? Well, I believe that once in a while it can be something positive, a breath of fresh air for you and for your students. Sometimes, just starting a discussion by asking a few questions can turn into a complex debate which lasts for half the lesson, sometimes your class will be in one of those moods in which forcing them to do work is useless and something a bit more relaxing is required. Sometimes, one of your students will tell you something which completely changes the direction of the lesson, and, as we all know, there is no point running against the wind. As teachers we need to be aware of how our learners are feeling and adapt our lessons to this. I honestly believe that a flexible teacher who does very little planning can be a better teacher than one who meticulously plans lessons and refuses to change anything.

In conclusion, planning is an important stage in the teaching process, but it should not be overestimated, the way it often is in teaching courses. The teacher is the one who needs to decide how much he/she wants to plan for each particular class and lesson. I would like to end with a nice quote which gives a fairly accurate description of how I feel about improvising at times:

The work can wait while you show the child the rainbow but the rainbow won’t wait while you do the work. (Patricia Clafford)
Written by Michelle Worgan for TEFL.net
February 2010 | Filed under Teacher Technique
Michelle Worgan lives in Spain, where she has been teaching for over ten years. She has a special interest in young learners and has her own blog: So This Is English

3 Comments on “Planning versus Improvisation”

  1. betty d´cruz Says:

    Hi Michelle,
    I am a dyed-in-the-wool “improvisor” – never stuck to plans when I DID write them (only for supervisors a million years ago). My best lessons have been me walking into a class and saying “what d´you wanna do today?” and working the grammar around it!
    But I think you can only do this with a certain type of personality/confidence/intelligence…what do you think?
    And if this is true, what is the type??
    Mine is the high IQ/superiority complex variety…
    (And by coincidence, I´ve been in Spain 10 years too!!)
    Betty

  2. Kim Says:

    Hi Michelle, I’m with you on this! I always go into class with an idea of what I’ll be doing (& how), having checked the coursebook if using one, or finding other material if not, & have photocopies of activities &/or worksheets but don’t stick to a rigid order as sometimes I have less students than usual so need to be flexible in order to accommodate changes both in number (ie groupwork activity planned for 2 x 4 students suddenly becomes a whole class debate when the numbers are reduced to only 4 in total!) & in mood (if students present are those who need most speaking practice, that’s what I’ll focus on that day).I couldn’t work with a strict point-by-point lesson plan & never have had to, luckily! BTW I’m also in Andalucia, almost 20 years now……

  3. Natalia Grinchenko Says:

    Hello, Michelle, I agree with you that improvisation plays a great role at the lesson. A would say every lesson has elements of improvisation. But I also beleive a good improvisation comes if you are always ready for the lesson, have collected many materials for it. And what is also important is visualisation of the lesson for at least several minutes before the lesson. You cannot just rush into the classroom and start.

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