TM4T Home - Understanding Planning

Planning is important in TM4T and we are going to discuss it a great deal. The problem with discussion about planning, though, is that most teachers - heck, most people - lack the vocabulary to move beyond the basics. Regrettably, we therefore need to deal with quite a lot of waffle before we move on to the practical stuff.

The Nature of Planning

To understand the nature of planning, we want to answer two specific questions: 'what is planning?' and 'why do we do it?'.

Arguably, the second of these questions is more important than the first. In teaching, planning is sometimes seen as an unquestionably good thing - it becomes a virtuous ritual for many teachers. This is silly: we are seeking specific benefits from our planning, and we need to understand those benefits clearly, or we risk wasting our time - our precious time - on planning instead of doing.

First, though, let's sort out 'what planning is'. On one level this is a silly question, with an obvious answer: 'planning is the process of making plans'... but if you dig a little deeper, things get complicated very quickly.  There are two main threads here:
P1) planning in the sense of forethought - thinking about what we are going to do before we do it: simply separating 'thought' and 'action'.
P2) planning in the sense of scheduling - allocating a specific action-or-activity to a specific timeslot: matching up 'what' and 'when'.

The distinctive feature of P1 behaviour (forethought) is that it explicitly separates the planning from the doing. This simple separation - carrying out different behaviours at different times - can offer major benefits. We can choose the best time to do our planning, hopefully opting for a calm, creative timeslot. In general, this enables us to improve the quality of what we do.

The distinctive feature of P2 behaviour (scheduling) is that it can be done in two subtly different ways - you can either match up 'what' with 'when' or you can match up 'when' with 'what'.  Some teachers will understand this nuance instinctively, but others will find it baffling so excuse me if I spell it out in some detail. First, imagine you have to plan a specific lesson - let's say next Tuesday, first period. The usual way to do this is to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and figure out what to teach next. There are, though, different scenarios... Imagine this: your head of department wants you to evaluate some new teaching resources; she's given you a complete lesson plan together with resources and instructions. You simply need to decide when - which day, which period - you are going to deliver this material. Obviously, this second scenario - finding 'when' rather than figuring out 'what' - is a lot more efficient. In general, P2 type is less about the quality of what we deliver, and more to do with efficiency.

Mostly, in fact, P2-type planning - choosing when you do things - is more relevant from a time-management perspective, but in terms of pedagogy the benefits are mostly embedded in P1 planning. Regardless, good planning always demands that you be clear in your mind about why you are planning, and what benefits you are trying to achieve.

The Structure of Planning

Planning can get complicated, and we need to have a clear vocabulary to discuss it sensibly.

The kind of planning we need to do has three main dimensions:
- firstly, it can be considered - as explained above - in terms of  P1 and P2 types of planning. This is rarely a clear-cut either-or situation. Generally, our planning involves elements of both P1 (figuring out what we are going to do) and P2 (deciding when we are going to do it). We just need to be clear how much P1 and how much P2 we need to do.

- secondly, we can distinguish different levels of detail in our planning - this is sometimes called 'high-level' versus 'low-level' planning. Sometimes we need to plan in minute detail, sometimes in broad brush strokes, mostly somewhere in between.

- thirdly, we can consider imminence - how far into the future we are planning - sometimes called 'long-term' and 'short-term' planning.

You may detect two clusters here:
P1 (forethought-type) planning tends to be high-level and further in the future (longer-term)
P2 (scheduling-type) planning tends to be lower-level and involve events less far ahead in the future (shorter-term)
This tends to be true, but is not always the case.

You may also notice that as we move from the first cluster (P1-high level-long term) to the second (P2-low level-short term), we inevitably move from considering 'what' we are going to do to considering 'how' we are going to do it.

The Recursive Nature of Planning

Consider this statement: "every Tuesday, at four o'clock in the afternoon, I will plan next Wednesday's lessons." What this statement represents is a plan for a plan. I have a plan for Tuesday, which involves a plan for Wednesday.

Now consider this scenario: "Next Tuesday I have a dental appointment at four, so I can't plan Wednesday's lessons then. When I get home today, I'll look at my diary and decide when on Tuesday I'll do Wednesday's lesson planning." What this represents is a plan for a plan for a plan. I have a plan for today, which involves a plan for Tuesday, which involves a plan for Wednesday.

This recursive approach is a key technique in TM4T which we call P2 or planning-squared. This is another key idea in TM4T. Imagine this: 9B are giving you a hard time, especially Kylie and Jason.  So: you decide that you need a behaviour plan for 9B - that will at least give you some sense of control...  but maybe you don't have time to do anything about it right now. Enter P2 You decide to produce a behaviour plan next Wednesday, when you have a free period. Now you have a plan for a plan... but maybe you can't remember which periods you have free. So: you decide that later today you will look at your timetable and figure out when you have time to produce a behaviour plan. You have a plan for a plan for a plan.

This technique is infinitely powerful. You have a problem? Well, decide what you are going to do about it.  Don't have time? Well, choose a time when you can figure our what to do.  Don't know when you will have time?  Then decide when you will know when you will have time... and so on.  The principle is that you can always plan: plan to do something, or plan to plan. This means that you can always feel in control.


The  Plans a Teacher Needs

It's worth making one point very clear: 'planning' does not just mean 'lesson planning'. There are benefits to be reaped in all aspects our professional lives, and our private lives too.  As well as lesson planning, we are talking here about deciding when you are going to work and when you are going to do other things (eat, sleep, relax, for example). Then, considering your work life, considering when and where you do different kinds of thing particularly well. For example, I find that my creative work is best done in the mornings, ideally where it is quiet; while I find that my boredom threshold is higher in the evenings, so that is when I do more routine work. You also need to decide at some point how you are going to spend your non-teaching school-work time - this includes time at home, time before and after school as well as your non-contact time (your 'free' lessons) - some of it will be spent planning lessons of course, but a lot of it will be spent in dealing with e-mails, liaising with other staff, performance appraisals; with photocopying, with parental contact, with clubs, with pestering students (pestering as an adjective), with reports, with filing and other minutiae. You need to decide what activity to do when, where it is best to do it, and how to do it efficiently. You also need to step back periodically from the day-to-day routine and consider yourself, your life and the future...

... and you need to plan lessons too; not just preparing today's lessons and tomorrows: getting resources, considering differentiation, behaviour and a dozen other things; but looking further ahead: schemes of work, syllabuses, choosing texts and so on.


The Very Basics of Time Management - What is a Plan?

Firstly, it's helpful to distinguish between a time-management technique – like timeboxing – with a time management method. Think about a fancy cake. Then think about a pile of the ingredients: flour, milk, sugar, etc. That's the difference. Methods get pretty complicated, but the basic ideas (techniques) are usually simple.

Most time management methods share the same basic ingredients. They all involve plans, or schedules; they all have some kind of action list, or to-do list or tick list; they have standardised ways of doing things (routines, processes etc);  and they often have specific ways of handling workflow.. When we're talking time management, some of these words ('plans' etc) may have subtly different meanings compared to how-they're-used in schools, so they are spelled out below.

In practice, many courses books on time management don't discuss these basic ingredients – they kind of take them for granted, because they're a little old-hat nowadays in business. They remain, however, really important - and frequently missing or misunderstood in schools.

To explain the vocabulary, we'll use a simple example. Imagine you've been asked to organise a department meeting – organise it properly, with an agenda that people can contribute to. What might be the best way to do it....

The Structure of Planning