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Active learning – planning for the active classroom

Teaching strategies   Active learningLesson planning

The joy of planning

As a teacher I loved planning for classes. I loved the possibilities the new academic year held but most of all I loved inventing and planning schemes of work that I hoped would challenge and engage my students.

Planning for a lesson is as important to me as face-to-face engagement with students. I always dedicated the final weeks of the summer holiday to planning because that’s when I felt at my most fresh and most enthusiastic. But then again I was very lucky. My school in Australia was keen for teachers to be autonomous and ‘own’ their classes – to be experts in planning for learning success.

My experience of planning in the UK was somewhat different both in rationale and practice. Schemes of work were already written, assessments already set in stone and activities were the same across all classrooms in the English department. Contributing to or deviating from existing schemes of work was seen as working against the collective good of the department.

The practice of using pre-existing plans and schemes of work was widespread in my experience. The rationale behind this seemed sound: using pre-existing plans saves time. The fact that these schemes of work might have been created a long time ago or by teachers who had since left the school was deemed irrelevant. Why? Because it saved time.

Using pre-existing plans fails to recognise two fundamental truths:

  1. All classes are different
  2. All teachers are different

For me, it also eroded the joy of planning and had the effect of undermining my professional judgement about the best course of action for my students. Pre-planned schemes of work do serve a purpose but questions should be raised when they are used as a replacement for the teacher’s knowledge when planning a learning programme.

In Rachel West’s latest blog –  ‘Can creativity help learners to do better in exams?’  – she commented that ”teachers are some of the most creative people on the planet”. Why is it then that one of the fundamental practices of teaching – planning – is seen as a chore? If the foundation stone of teaching is pedagogical knowledge then surely planning is the first set of bricks. Deciding how to move your learners into a position of competence and confidence in a creative and engaging way is as important as the outcomes at the end of the learning journey.

Active learning in the classroom

I’ve been asked several times, ‘How do you plan for Active Learning in your classroom?’. This isn’t an easy question to answer. Planning (as I understand it) is as unique to the individual teacher as fingerprints. That said, there were some questions that I always asked myself before designing a learning programme.

  1. What is the purpose?
  2. What are the learning outcomes?
  3. Where are my students in relation to these outcomes?
  4. What strategies/activities can I use to bridge the gap between existing knowledge and new knowledge?
  5. How can students demonstrate their understanding?

These five questions allowed me to focus on the big picture first of all. I was then able to distil the ideas into an effective scheme of work that addressed my class of learners as individuals whilst also adhering to the curriculum and departmental requirements.

The benefits of planning

Investing time in planning engages us in creativity and innovation. The energy from this creativity feeds our passion to teach with flair while knowing that the learners’ best interests are at the centre of all we do in the classroom.

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