The 7 habits of highly effective lesson plans

Peps Mccrea
Jun 22, 2015 · 5 min read

Every year for the last six years, I’ve worked with over 50 teachers to help them become outstanding planners and teachers. This is what I’ve learned:

  • Lesson planning is the development of a set of habits of thought, not the filling in of a lesson plan template.
  • Some habits have more impact than others.
  • Anyone can learn to be a highly effective lesson planner. You just have to identify, practise and improve those habits which make the most difference in your context.

So the big question is: which ‘habits of thought’ have the greatest impact?

Cue the 7 habits of highly effective lesson plan(ner)s:

1. Start with the end in mind.

This may sound obvious, but it’s not how all teachers start. In fact, it’s very easy to fall into one of the twin-sins of planning:

  • Activity-oriented planning starts by identifying an activity and reverse engineering the learning intentions. Over time, this can develop into an exercise in keeping students busy.
  • Coverage-oriented planning starts with intentions that have been crafted by someone else (e.g. a colleague or textbook). Over time, this can develop into an exercise in getting through the curriculum.

The alternative is backwards planning: taking time to get excessive clarity about what you want your students to have learned by the time they walk out the door at the end of the lesson. This involves mapping out, breaking down and thinking hard about how the various components of the learning trajectory hang together.

The clearer you are about where you want them to get, the better you’ll be able to help them get there.

2. Take the shortest path.

“I have 4 [lessons to plan], and zero patience for the sort of purposeless googling that my planning used to involve.” — Michael Pershan

Don’t waste time designing overly complex learning experiences. Instead, keep it simple, stupid. Select the activity which gets your students to the end point as directly as possible. What Doug Lemov calls ‘the shortest path’. Get into the habit of asking yourself: what is the least my students (or I) need to do to help them learn X?

While you’re at it, get into the habit of asking yourself: what is the least I need to say to explain this concept to my students? What is the least amount of information I need to give them before they can get started?

There is always less to be done.

3. Assess reliably and efficiently.

If you want to improve your lesson planning, you’ll need a strong sense of what’s working and what’s not in your classroom. This is almost impossible to do without reliable and efficient methods of assessing pupil progress. Classic assessment techniques which don’t quite cut the mustard include:

  • Traffic lighting (or variants like thumbs up/down etc.) This approach is riddled with problems and offers a level of reliability that you’d be best to ignore.
  • Individual questioning Whilst this approach can offer deep insights into pupil understanding, it’s a painfully slow way to build up a more general picture of progress.

Instead, try the following:

  • Hinge questioning Asking the whole class to: answer a multi-choice question using hand-signals; or show their thinking using mini-whiteboards.
  • Exit ticketing Giving students 3 questions to answer on a sheet of paper which they have to hand to you as they walk out the door.

4. Build learning that lasts.

As teachers, we want to teach in a way that helps students remember. We want to go beyond lesson learning, and build lasting learning. The lowest hanging fruit in this area are practices which take account of how memory works. The next time you sit down to plan, consider the following:

  • Plan for thinking As Daniel Willingham so eloquently puts it, ‘learning is the residue of thought’. Plan what you want your students to think.
  • Limit multi-tasking Our brains have limited bandwidth, and so the less your students have to think about, the more progress they’ll make. Remove distractions and focus on the essentials.
  • Anchor thinking David Ausubel tells us that ‘what students already know is the most important factor in what they can learn’. Design activities to help your students tap into what they know and make connections with what they’re going to learn about.
  • Space the learning Short sessions of learning spaced out over a series of days and weeks will generate longer term recall than cramming everything into one lesson.
  • Practise deliberately Practice makes permanent (not perfect), so get it right by: practising fewer important things in greater depth; practise complex stuff only when you’ve mastered the basics; practise things you’re already good at; and practise learning from mistakes, not making them. For more on this, I’d highly recommend Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov.

5. Anticipate the unexpected.

Increase your impact further by looking for points in your lesson where students are likely to struggle, make mistakes or develop misconceptions.

Don’t try to stop them happening. Instead, become sensitive to them them, and expose and address them head on when they arise. If necessary, make them yourself.

6. Move towards inter-lesson planning.

Learning is a thinking experience that happens over time, not something that can be divided up neatly into lesson-sized portions. The relationship between lessons is just as important as what happens within them. Get into the habit of:

  • Carving out time during every lesson to revisit previous learning. Be careful not to alter the learning experience too much. You can tweak it slightly, but making it recognisable is better for lasting learning.
  • Building in time to assess student understanding of what you are planning to teach next lesson.

7. Plan better together.

“The star teachers of the 21st Century will be those teachers who work everyday to improve teaching — not only their own, but that of the whole profession.” — James Stigler

Sharing your planning and practice not only brings fresh eyes to old problems and helps us articulate what we’re doing and why, but it also spreads our understanding of what works (and what doesn’t) amongst our profession.

Peps is deeply passionate about planning. If you’ve got ideas for how to improve this guide, reach out to him on twitter. If you enjoyed it, hit the recommend button. And if you’re hungry for more, check out his book on the subject: Lean Lesson Planning.

Peps Mccrea

Written by

Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching, working with smart folks on teacher education design