I was recently asked for evidence on ways to help teachers improve their lesson planning.

My immediate reaction was a blank, but I was reassured to find that this was not just due to my own ignorance: in maths at least, “very few studies have explored how teachers can be deliberately supported to construct high-quality mathematics lesson plans (Ding and Carlson, 2013)”. I wondered what guidance I could find on helping teachers identify what they hoped students would learn and how they would achieve it.

I began by taking a step back and reviewing a paper that offers fascinating insight about effective planning. Carol Livingston and Hilda Borko studied a handful of novice and expert teachers, reviewing their planning, observing lessons and asking teachers to reflect on how they went. They found experts had a plan, but they didn’t sit down to write one: instead, they drew on their existing knowledge of powerful explanations and examples, chewing over approaches with their current class at odd moments.

Novices, by contrast, planned in time-consuming, inefficient ways, as they slowly made sense of what they were trying to teach. Experts’ plans were not too detailed or too tightly timed: they responded to students’ questions and suggestions as they arose, using their knowledge and experience. Novices’ incomplete knowledge prevented them from adapting their plans during lessons.

Livingston and Borko suggest novices can be helped to plan better by developing their knowledge of what they are teaching and skill in “pedagogical reasoning”: they invite mentors to explain their routines, model their thinking and provide feedback on novices’ plans.

Livingston, C., Borko, H. (1989) Expert-Novice Differences in Teaching: A Cognitive Analysis and Implications for Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education 37. 36-42.

Ding and Carlson (2013) put some of these ideas to the test. They taught teachers principles of cognitive science, then tried to help them put those principles into practice. They found that, initially, teachers could not see how to incorporate principles into their planning. They received “timely and targeted” feedback across three lesson plans, helped them to incorporate the desired measures (such as deep questions) and understand the cognitive science principles better: they ended up with “high-quality revised plans”. Nonetheless, they found that the quality of teachers’ plans dipped again once the course was over: ongoing support is important. Ding and Carlson conclude that “instead of asking teachers to practise writing many lesson plans, teacher educators and professional developers may first focus on one plan and ask teachers to make revisions.”

Ding, M. and Carlson, M. (2013). Elementary teachers’ learning to construct high-quality mathematics lesson plans: A Use of the IES Recommendations. The Elementary School Journal, 113(3), pp.359-385.

Two other perspectives:

• The Independent Workload Review Group work on planning noted that it was the planning of a sequence of lessons that matters – more than individual lesson plans; planning will be easier if teachers have fully-resourced schemes of work, specific planning time, and high-quality resources, such as textbooks.

Independent Teacher Workload Review Group (2016) Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking: Report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group. Department for Education.

• We might help teachers to make lessons structures that they use often routine: such as activities to plan an essay, read a text closely, or practise a conversation in a foreign language. Such structures “create a container within which a novice might rehearse the relational and improvisational work that teaching requires” – reducing the need for planning. This paper shows how they can work in teacher education.

McDonald, M., Kazemi, E. and Kavanagh, S. (2013). Core Practices and Pedagogies of Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(5), pp.378-386.