Devil’s Advocate vs Anthony Gaughan on Lesson Aims & Plans in Teacher Training

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

The fourth victim on DA is Anthony Gaughan. 

Anthony Gaughan began teaching in 1995 and now spends most of his time training teachers in Hamburg and Berlin, Germany, where he was worked for the best part of the last 12 years.  He is especially interested in ultralight approaches to teaching, especially Dogme ELT (Teaching Unplugged).  In 2010, he shared his vision and work on unplugging initial teacher training courses like the Cambridge ESOL CELTA at IATEFL Harrogate

He writes about this ongoing work and you can also catch him on Twitter here.

He is also an active member of IATEFL, serving as the Social Media Evangelist for the Teacher Development Special Interest Group of IATEFL (TDSIG).

Having supped with the Devil’s Advocate here, he will be giving a talk at the IATEFL 2012 Conference in Glasgow on The Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT.

Chia:  It’s a real honour to finally get the guru of Teacher Training Unplugged on DA! You ready for a grilling?

Anthony: You do me too much honour, I think, but I’m happy to get a grilling now and perhaps a roasting from your readers later…

Chia:  I’m sure any grilling and roasting will all be done in good humour and in the name of CPD…

Many teacher trainers often tell their trainees that one should always start preparing for a lesson by first stating one’s aim…for when we know the aim, we can then go about planning a logical procedure that would help us achieve the lesson aim.

However, you seem to have a rather different take on this issue, I’ve been told…

Anthony:  I’m not so sure about that.  I think that having a clear idea about what it is that you are setting out to do and what you hope to achieve by that is generally a good idea.

What I perhaps have a problem with is how this basic common sense gets done in practice – or rather, how trainees get told to do it.

For example, ask any number of trainers (or trainees) on initial training courses what a lesson aim should be like and they will almost certainly say something like “By the end of the lesson, the learners will have improved their ability to (add communicative function, e.g. talk about their current habits) by using (add lexical/grammatical item, e.g. present simple).”

Sounds OK? After all, it outlines the language area being targeted, thus enabling said trainee to research it, and it’s communicatively oriented, thus making it potentially useful for the learners in real life, and it is developmental, as it aims for “improvement”.  Problem is, in many respects, it’s meaningless.

For example, does the trainee really know that their learners need this lesson on this piece of language? Even if they do need it, will this aim lead the trainee to an appropriate procedure for the level and needs of the group, or will they simply operationalise one of the “lesson “shapes” that they may have encountered on the course?  And how is one to measure improvement? Here are some problems for a start.

Chia:  Trainees on initial teacher training courses often come from a traditional background of teaching, which often involves a ‘chalk and talk’ style of ‘transmission of knowledge. Getting trainees to articulate their lesson aims forces them to think about what they hope to achieve (with the level and needs of the group in mind) before embarking on planning the lesson procedure. It also demonstrates to the learner that teacher has thought about what is needed and has prepared for them).

Without formulating aims, trainees are likely to just be going through coursebook exercises one after the other (Turn and Burn) without any thought as to why they are doing it or how it helps the learners.

Anthony:  The alternative to these sorts of aims is not “no aim at all”, as I’m sure you are aware – but to go back to your starting point…

If trainees come from a “chalk n talk” background, an aim formulated in a specific manner won’t change their behaviour – and it might in fact act as camouflage for their teacher-centred tendencies (i.e. the observing TP tutor is lulled into a false sense of security while reviewing the lesson plan by the superficially learner centred aim format, but under the hood in the procedure, there is something more transmissive brewing.)  This often goes unnoticed until during the lesson, incidentally, as procedures might be so thin on detail as to obscure what is really going to occur.

In short, lesson aim formulas may facilitate and disguise lack of reflection.  The trainee might have been better off simply stating in their own words what they wanted to achieve – they would understand it better, and the tutors would be less likely to fall for appropriately phrased but vacuous aims of the other type.

Chia : But Anthony, the way a trainee formulates his aims are often telling of their beliefs and attitudes towards teaching and language learning…There’s a reason why the ‘given pattern of phrasing’ aims exist. It ensures that the trainees ask the following questions:

Is the context included? (Because teaching language out of context is not only meaningless but can be detrimental to retrieval);

Is the aim achievable or is immediate production expected (Language acquisition is not linear and to expect immediate production is foolish);

Is it clear from the aim that the trainee understands the need for practice (Simply presenting the language without allowing practice of it is not going to help the learners)…etc.

Not only that, ‘it reflect teacher’s planning decisions, as well as the teacher’s understanding of the principles of lesson design…and a reliable indicator of the quality of a teacher’s expertise’ (Thornbury, A-Z of ELT) Wouldn’t you agree, Anthony?

Anthony:  Not entirely, Chia.  Firstly, requiring a lesson aim in a certain form of words in no way ensures “trainees ask themselves (important) questions”.

I do agree that a better teacher will be able to formulate lesson aims that more accurately reflect what they intend to occur in a lesson, and I agree that if aims are formulated in a way that implicitly poses useful questions to the teacher, this may make them more mindful of whatever tacit theories of teaching/learning are being inculcated.  However, I would question deeply whether this use of a “given pattern of phrasing”, as you put it, actually leads to heightened awareness in trainees in itself.

So what I suppose I am actually concerned about, or against, if you will, is less the formulation of aims as such (which I do see a point to), but rather the issue I see with a trainee potentially adopting aims formulation of a certain type simply in order to match whatever they believe their tutors want to read.

If we ask our trainees to work within a given framework, however we justify it, we create the danger that less able candidates will simply conform without really engaging with the task usefully, in order to do what we want.

Chia:  Fine, so we both agree that planning and formulating lesson aims can be good? So what would you suggest as an alternative in order to overcome the dangers of hoop-jumping which a formalised certification process often presents.

Anthony: There is a lot of potential on intensive teacher training courses for hoop-jumping, and a lot of it is connected to lesson planning.  I agree that preparing for a lesson is an important thing for teachers, experienced or newbies, but there is a difference between having a plan and being prepared.

One thing you could do straight away if you wanted to reduce the potential for “hoop-jumping” is get rid of TP points (note: TP points = Teaching Practice points, lesson ideas given to trainees by their TP tutors, with more or less detail about content and approach).  Another thing you could do is reduce the amount of paper documentation that a trainee needs to submit for formal assessment in the early stages of the course.  Another thing centres can do is become more flexible in the format that lesson plans take.

Chia:  Can I first address your point about planning and being prepared? I think we should remember that we are not asking trainees to plan for planning’s sake.

The point of lesson planning, I always tell my trainees, is that through the process of sitting down and writing up the plan, trainees are forced to think through what they want the learners to achieve and how exactly they are going to go about doing it.

It also focuses trainees on the language that needs researching before they enter the classroom. Although teachers might not go in and execute the plan in the exact way they have planned it, the careful thought that has gone into the lesson will ensure that teachers have a direction even when they divert off plan.

And although trainees might never have to plan in such detail in real life, the process of writing lesson aims and lesson plans gives them a foundation on which to base their classroom decisions, and it gives them the structure upon which they could improvise and be flexible with dealing with the learners needs in a lesson.

e.g. If during a lesson, it becomes obvious that all the learners have issues with using ‘for’ and ‘since’, the teacher will be able to instantly formulate on the spot new aims in his/her head, followed by a clear logical procedure that would help learners with their issues…improvising a ritual that he/she has honed through the practice of lesson planning….

I suppose, it’s like learning to play the scales when you are learning music. You are never going to perform the scales in a concert, but the scales, although seemingly restrictive, actually give you a foundation upon which to improvise and be flexible.

Anthony:  Lots there, Chia, so I’ll proceed carefully….

Of course we are not asking them to plan for planning’s sake, but how do they see it? And what might we be doing which might be contributing to their view of it?  What I mean is, by asking trainees to submit work in a given format (i.e. a centre specific lesson plan template) we are asking them to shoehorn their thinking and way of thinking into a rigid framework which may simply not make sense to them in their terms.

There are alternative ways of laying out thinking about a lesson on paper – mind maps, for example, but how often do trainees do that? And why do you suppose they don’t? Based on conversations I’ve had, I think it’s because, contrary to what we may say to them, they feel that they “should” do it the centre’s way, for whatever reason.  And by the way, it doesn’t matter what we say they are free to do; what matters is what they hear they “should” do.

Now, I see no meaningful correlation between the ability to formulate explicit lesson aims of a specific type and the ability to notice an emergent need in the classroom and work out a way of serving it on the fly.  On the contrary, the fixation of pre-determining everything which is to occur in a lesson and forming an aim which condenses this is arguably more likely to lead to such emergent moments going either unnoticed or ignored for fear that their treatment would get in the way of the plan (how often have you heard that?)

This is one reason why I suggested getting rid of TP points earlier: it isn’t forming lesson aims that trains a teacher to become flexible and responsive in class – far from it, I would say.  Instead, it is listening to learners with an open mind and responding freely to that.

And just so in music: a musician is not made by running scales – they are made by learning to listen and by exploring the range and limitations of their instrument unfettered by scales (ask Evelyn Glennie, world-class deaf percussionist, and she’d confirm this, by the way!)

So in short: lesson planning is not the key to developing a great teacher; developing listening skills, data gathering skills and the ability to see needs within the data – all this must be in place before formally assessing lesson planning has any added value.

Chia:  Every good trainee should know that they should not be teaching the plan but their learners. It’s a well-known maxim that trainers often tell their learners.

To quote Thornbury’s A-Z of ELT again, he says, ‘”Despite the apparent inflexibility of planning a lesson in such detail, most observers allow for the fact that no lesson is entirely predictable. They will not expect the teacher to follow the plan slavishly. In reality, most lessons are a dynamic mix of the planned and the unplanned, and it is often during the unplanned moments that the most rewarding learning opportunities occur… Nevertheless, it is generally felt that the exercise of planning lessons in detail is a useful training practice, and a relaible indicator of the quality of a teacher’s expertise.”

All the teaching skills that you mentioned (developing listening skills, responding appropriately to learners, gathering data from what is happening in the classroom, etc) all point towards the fact that you believe in learning by doing.

But arguably, Celta trainees are going to go on to teach and practise their teaching skills after the Celta and they will be able to hone those skills in their own time. Having said that, many Celta trainees come on the course, not just to get a certification to teach, but also to learn by being given a structure to follow. Providing a basis using lesson aims and procedures can guide more systematic learners as they will have something to fall back on – a hook, if you may, to lean on, before being thrown into the deep end…

And you must agree that we should train our trainees in the way they are best able to learn, and not in the way that we want to teach. If our trainees find that giving them a structure can help clarify their doubts, why are we insisting on taking that away from them?

Anthony:  Why? Simple: because that is putting the cart before the horse, however easy it may be to use the “we’re serving our trainees by giving them structure, a hook, a recipe, etc” argument to cover up the fact that this leads, wittingly or not, to an industrial, production line model of training, and – and this is the truly nefarious bit – outsourcing the real learning to after the course!

You talk about honing, but you can only hone what you have in hand – and as these things are core to teaching and are hard to get to grips with, are we doing our trainees a service or a disservice by saying that “you’ll have time to hone that after the course; focus now on getting these recipes down pat”?

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen that many trainees who are put at ease by having to complete formal lesson plans – on the contrary, they are a source of stress, regardless of learner background.  As I said earlier, this is linked to squeezing one’s thinking into a given format.

Chia:  You speak of recipes…Jamie Oliver is famous for experimenting and creating amazing fusion dishes, but did he not learn from having recipes at the beginning before going on to become the master that he is today.

Our trainees need building blocks before they can start to go solo and improvise, and this is not ‘squeezing your thinking into a given format’, but rather giving them good habits they will need and the thought processes that will underline the decisions they will make in the classroom.

Anthony:  I know you like the analogies that can be drawn between teaching and cooking, as do I, but we should be careful!  I am not arguing here against “lesson recipes”, if you will, but against the products which we ask trainees to submit as evidence that they have internalised these recipes – the paper-based plan itself.

Taking your cooking analogy further: what is the better indicator of a chef’s aptitude – a paper-based description of a recipe that they have conceived, or the ability to get in the kitchen and turn out something edible in real time?

Let’s face it, lesson plan documentation (as opposed to recipes), especially when linked to a given “helpful” lesson plan template, is an administrative convenience, nothing more.  It enables the quick assessment of the outcomes of a trainee’s thinking about a lesson – but the question that concerns me is: how much is not revealed by these partial documents?

And they are partial in both senses.  They require trainees to think and express themselves in the terms of the plan, not in their own.  This is likely to have a limiting effect on their ability to express their ideas, and it may even hinder them in their thinking from the start: if you spend any time talking to trainees about the process of planning, you hear this a lot.

And I doubt that Jamie Oliver ever had to produce the kind of “meal plans” that you can read and replicate from his cook books in his time as a chef – he learnt by watching an experienced chef and by getting stuck in.

 Thus suggesting perhaps that writing a clear and useful lesson plan – like a clear and useful meal recipe – is something to aim for towards the end of training, not the beginning?

Chia:   What then do you suggest we as trainers do to help trainees hone the necessary skills and develop a systematic thought process that would enable them to deal with skills and language work in the classroom effectively?

Anthony:  Well, passing over the danger in your use of “systematic” (whose system?), I think one thing that could be done is ease up on when and how much documentation needs to be submitted for assessment, and also easing up on the format this takes.  As I said earlier, another thing you could do is reduce the amount of materials and concrete guidance provided early on, in order to allow for trainees to invest themselves more fully in the planning of their lessons from as early as possible.

A final thing you can do is stagger the need for formal assessment of their lesson planning ability by not asking for fully featured plans from day one, or even during the whole of weeks one-three on a typical initial 4-week course.  But I’ll leave it to your readers to take these discussions further.

Chia:  Thanks for your time, Anthony. You’ve provided us with lots of food for thought there!

Epilogue: Anthony’s opinions are his own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia was just playing DA. However, Chia is still waiting to be convinced to lighten her focus on lesson aims and plans on her CELTA courses, and so Chia and Anthony are planning to carry on this discussion in Lubeck, Germany. Interested parties ought to leave their comments here.

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