Can We Make Lesson Plans More Than Just Compliance Plans?

Coming into student teaching I was really confident about my lesson planning abilities. I was a bit worried about classroom management, designing assessments, and handling the demands of a first-year teacher…but lesson plans? Ha. I aced every single one of them during college. That was the easy part.

We were teaching Frankenstein when I finally got a chance to craft my very own lesson to teach. My supervising teacher was great, and I learned so much from him watching him teach and through some very good discussions about practice. When I showed him with pride what I was going to teach the next day, he said:

This is not a lesson plan.

Huh, I thought? Why not? “Well”, he said, “you did a nice job of writing down what you were going to do, and what standards were going to be covered…but this is more a schedule of activities, then an actual lesson plan.”

My pride took a hit that day, but I had learned a very important “lesson”. Writing down a schedule of activities that are taking place during class is not a lesson plan.

Lessons About Lesson Planning

As a third-year teacher, I thought I knew it all. I had a strong classroom presence, challenged my students, and for the most part, had this teaching thing figured out. I was a floating teacher, but our principal had been nice enough to schedule me into classrooms that had 1:1 Macbook carts, so I really was a mobile 1:1 teacher, and I loved it.

Using technology in the classroom had sparked my creativity as a teacher and led me to connect online, reading blogs, and trying out a lot of new ideas with my students.

One day I had a formal observation with my assistant principal coming in to view my class. I was excited to show off a new tech tool we had just started to use, and how much the students loved it.

The lesson went off without a hitch. My students were engaged, working with each other, and using the technology effortlessly. There were a few tech hiccups, but overall I was proud of what took place during that class period.

In the post-observation discussion I was waiting for another “glowing review” of my teaching because once again “I knew it all”…and then for the second time in my career I heard:

This is not really a lesson plan.

Huh? “Why not?” I asked with a bit more emphasis than when I was student teaching. He went on to ask me whether or not I thought the technology helped the learning process.

I thought the students were engaged, and they were. I also thought the students were collaborating, and they were. But, I never checked if the students were truly learning. Were they asking questions, solving problems (that weren’t related to technology), and demonstrating understanding? Not really.

I learned that day that technology doesn’t replace what really matters: questions, problem-solving, and demonstrating understanding. It can help all of those things, but only if you use it in the right context for the right purpose.

Looking For the Wrong Lessons

Now in an administrative role, I believe we often treat lesson plans as a recipe.

We often tell teachers “what” they should have in the lesson plan: Goals, standards, anticipatory set, checks for understanding, etc etc.

Then we tell teachers “how” they should structure their lesson.

We often miss “why” this type of planning is important. We miss the chance to talk about the plan being developed with a colleague. We miss the conversation that happens before the lesson of where students are and where you want them to be. We miss the reflection afterward that drives the instruction for the coming days, and can be adjusted for the following group of learners.

If you are making “cookies” this works, but not if you are teaching a mixed-level group of students who are all different learners with different needs and various background knowledge.

Teachers are chefs, not cooks.

So even if you have a great activity, with goals and standards, group work added to the mix, and technology being used…

Let’s move the focus away from teachers being compliant with lessons plans, to being given the chance to talk about the learning that is happening before, during and after the “lesson” takes place.

Can we change the name from lesson plan to learning plan?

Learning changes on the fly, it adjusts as needed, and can turn into something much better than previously planned when given this freedom.

We need to move…

  • From checking to see whether or not the teacher is organized to checking whether the activities are reaching every learner.
  • From forcing teachers to be compliant, to give the freedom to innovate inside the box of natural constraints, just as a chef does in their role.
  • From moving the focus away from how the plan is structured, to how well the kids learn.
  • From making it all about a fancy final product, to all about the messy process that is learning.

This makes it harder for teachers…and leaders…but it also makes it better for students.

And guess what, their learning needs more than just a lesson plan.

Photo Credit: photosteve101 via Compfight cc

Join 76,000 other learners (and teachers)

And get new posts every week by email.

Powered by ConvertKit

Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • Patti says:

    Interesting article. I’d like to see an example of a learning plan.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Good point Patti, however I think part of the benefit in my mind of a “learning plan” would be that it would not be finished until after the “lesson” has taken place and reflection has happened. Maybe a follow up post is necessary 🙂

      • I agree. A lesson plan is not finished until you reflect on classroom observations and whether or not the class/students struggled or succeeded with the learning objective(s) for the lesson. Sometimes, you have to rethink, rework, and teach a lesson again before every child is proficient before you can move on to the next lesson.

      • Laura Smith says:

        Great post- no “cookie cutter recipe” can work for all situations. I would love to read a followup post on this subject. I’m curious how to take my “lesson plans” to the next level.

        • Avi Niddam says:

          i d ask myself: is there a moment in the lesson that you, as teacher, don t do anything. just observ them working . everything can organize itself around this precious moment.

      • ShirleyMaihi says:

        We are now facilitators In this authentic learning approach and we can no longer plan for the multitude of directions that our students will take their learning in a space o f learning time. Our REFLECTION as the facilitator is of most importance

    • Patty says:

      I’m really interested in this article. I’m a retired veteran teacher, but I agree with the body. I’d like to see comparison lessons. Sounds like another blog post coming up! 🙂

    • Brenda says:

      I’d be interested in an example of a learning plan template.

  • […] My pride took a hit that day, but I had learned a very important “lesson”. Writing down a schedule of activities that are taking place during class is not a lesson plan” To read further please click here: […]

  • Anthea Shirk says:

    I don’t know how many times as a classroom teacher I had a perfect lesson plan that didn’t work at all. I will think on a learning plan; it seems like it would be something that a teacher and students are a part of together because there would have to be feedback and revision on a continual basis. It is more like what I do in my home classroom since I am not tied to the schedule and standards of the public classroom anymore.

  • Selina says:

    Thanks for sharing! This is a wonderful seed to plant for Veteran teachers, too. I’ll definitely be referring to this post as I work with teachers, shifting teaching practice means shifting perspectives.

  • Kyle says:

    I would maintain that a well-executed lesson plan IS a learning plan. The focus every step of the way needs to be on each student’s achievement of the standards and objectives, not the teacher’s execution of the lesson. I like the idea of renaming it, shifting the focus from teacher performance to student learning.

  • henry says:

    Remind me for the courses that are being taught at my university.

  • Kathie says:

    You really are splitting hairs. I write lesson plans and will continue to write plans. The is exactly what they are–I plan for a lesson ahead of time. Once I a teaching the lesson that plan is a guide. As a teacher it is my job to have an active toolkit that enables me redirect the plan as needed. I know if learning is taking place through experience and implementing various strategies throughout the course of a lesson. What is on paper is a plan. If administrators want every strategy and step written in each plan teachers will spend countless hours writing them. Given that I need to plan between 6 and 9 lessons each day, that is alarming. I think my time is better spent actually implementing rather than recording. If administrators want to be enlightened about a teacher’s strategy plans to ensure that learning takes place they can, and should, handle this in the pre-observation conference. To worry about the term we use for planning is a waste of time. If a teacher is not engaging students, assessing learning throughout a lesson, and tweaking direction if needed, it is not because he or she created a lesson plan and not a learning plan. Those teachers need work on their toolkits, not semantics.

  • […] but instead “what activities you are going to do” in class. Check out this post on learning plans and try for a shorter (but specific) approach […]

  • Ashiedu Jude says:

    I could not agree more with Kathy. I had opportunity to lead the revamp of our lesson plan template and made a few tweaks by adding core skills being learnt by students during each lesson. Still a lesson plan but with more enhanced detailed features. So it really not the name that matters but the toolkits. In each lesson plan there should be a learning strategy specified and most times the classroom expectations might change and the teacher needs to improvise to keep the outcome in course. I love this article and it also gives me a better perspective of my practice.

  • Rebecca says:

    “From making it all about a fancy final product, to all about the messy process that is learning.”
    I love this line, too often it’s the final product that gets all the praise but the focus should be on the process. The learning is most important and often not evalauated correctly. I wish I had more freedom when it came to writing my lesson plans. I will be honest though I often don’t follow the plans that I hand in.
    Thank you for the blog- it always makes me rethink my practice.


  • Doug says:

    Most teachers make the mistake of teaching lessons/materials and not individuals. They think they just need to teach material and the student is required to learn it. If the student doesn’t then it’s the students problem. Not to ever minimize the responsibllity of the student, but the teacher needs to ensure learning is taking place with each individual according to their understanding. It might help to have better training and compensation, but that is another issue.

  • Liane says:

    I like the term Learning Plan because it places more emphasis on the result we want for students – learning. The term Lesson Plan seems to put the emphasis on what the teacher does without regard to the result we want. However, I’ve always taken the Plan part of Lesson Plan to include the idea that plans can and often should change – for all the reasons you mentioned in your article.

  • Michael Marzano says:

    First, I like to say these are very interesting questions and I was intrigued to read on…
    When it comes to developing lesson plans vs. compliance plans…both may be necessary…depending on the type of evaluation being performed. Yet there are principals (just like teachers) who don’t know how to advise or critique teachers…because they are not skilled or have lost touch in determining what they should be looking for, whether it be a good lesson plan and/or plan of delivery. I believe a good principal should be able to demonstrate a great lesson by teaching in a classroom and be given the opportunity to do so. But many principals who have been “out of the classroom” for long periods of time, forget what is it really like to develop and implement a successful lesson. One can have a great lesson plan, but it’s how it’s instructional delivered that really counts. (Just imagine if a doctor or a dentist who hasn’t operated on a patient for over 10 years, and was chosen to operate on you. Would you feel comfortable with that?)

    On the other hand, some “compliance” plans aren’t bad. We all have to comply with something in the world we live in. If you are a really good teacher, you will learn real quick to “work smarter, not harder”* and to use helpful resources to develop great lesson plans and share them with your colleagues. I once heard a school board member say “who thought of such a stupid saying?”*. Not realizing it was our own superintendent that said it.

    But ultimately, I think we should take a look at what is a successful educational plan is by looking to others around the world. I think we get so caught up with our pride that the United State is the best at (fill in the blank) ___________, that we forget to look and think outside the box. There are countries that are going about it correctly and have shown much success. Finland, for example, is at the top of the list for several reasons. Some may even blow our minds.
    “Finnish students only take one standardized test during their entire primary and secondary schooling. By contrast, the US, driven by No Child Left Behind and Common Core mandates, requires students in third through eighth grade to take annual standardized tests to track their performance. Critics claim constant testing doesn’t make students any smarter but instead creates a “teaching to the test” environment in schools.” Something I often hear from many of my fellow teachers says that they are spending more time preparing their students for tests (not of their choice) than developing lesson plans and teaching their students.

    More time for play Students in Finland spend relatively little time on homework, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A 2014 study of 15-year-olds around the world by the OECD said that on average, Finnish students spend 2.8 hours a week on homework. This contrasts noticeably from the 6.1 hours American students spend per week.” I personally remember more things I have learned on the playground then perhaps in the classroom…like being a leader/follower, learning to be a cooperative team player, thinking quickly on my feet – no pun intended-, experiencing winning and losing, and knowing how to be humble, yet calculus was never in the equation- pun intended.

    In Finland, teaching is one of the most revered professions with a relatively high barrier to entry. Only one in 10 students who apply to teacher education programs are admitted, according to the Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB). Teachers in Finland are treated like professors at universities, and they teach fewer hours during the day than US teachers, with more time devoted to lesson planning. It’s easy to understand why America’s teachers — who are overworked and get relatively little respect — might not be as effective as teachers in Finland.” I couldn’t agree more, teachers these days are told what to do and how to do it, like a recipe, and no wonder we can’t be innovating or creative. Don’t get me wrong…there is always something to be learned, but it is an insult to my profession if I have to be constantly told what to do and how to do it. How can you hire someone and then not trust that he/she is skilled at teaching???. I know what others are going to say…yes this happens…okay then there are things in place to either fire or retain them…but for God’s sake…let’s not go overboard and treat everyone as if they are ignorant of their profession.

    I am also going to go out a limb and say that some countries who see the potential in their youths’, don’t push for “all” students to attend Higher Education/Universities. But rather understand that some students have talents that can be best suited to be developed in a trade school. I personally feel that “we- U.S.A.” need to get off this “kick” of teachers being “data” collectors just to prove a “certain amount” of our students indicate they will be ready to attend Higher Educational Institutes. There has to be a better way!

    I know “all…okay most” moms and dads want their child to be a doctor (mine certainly did…sorry mom and dad), but not all students are cut out for that…matter in fact, I know some who have never attended college, who are doing so much better in “life” by having a great career with their trade. Certainly making more than a teacher, who, by the way, have to have at least a bachelor’s degree or in some states…a master’s degree. Yet we wonder why there is a teacher shortage with all that is happening in our professional field.

    Okay at this point you might be thinking I have gone way off the track…but ultimately, if something isn’t working in educating our youth, we need to examine why even if it leads us back to lesson planning and implementation or looking at other places where they are successful.

    Finally, I want to say that I am a teacher who’s a “product” of the 60’s and 70’s, and has done very well for myself. Yet, I have seen many of my friends who were at the top of their class in college fail miserably in life in their career, but they were told they would be very successful because of their high scores (achievement level). I talk daily with one friend who is so depressed and is incredibly smart (highest 1% in his graduation class) but hasn’t maintained or been successful at a “real” job in his life.

    So is it Compliance Plans, Lesson Plans or Life Lessons… perhaps all three are things to consider and change when necessary.


    Michael Marzano (no relation to Dr. Robert Marzano…that I know of…)
    Teacher of the Gifted

  • Bill Gabrielson says:

    In the 1970’s in Mendham H.S. [NJ] as Social Studies chairman I had my new teachers write follow ups to their lessons exploring what worked, what didn’t and how they might change any aspects of instruction. I have always believed that introspection is important and this process led teachers to reflect.

  • Katie says:

    The lesson plan focuses on the teacher/writer. A learning plan places emphasis back where it belongs…on the learner. I like it.

  • Ingrid Salim says:

    My colleagues and I, working at implementing NGSS in California, have come to calling our ‘plans’ Learning Sequences…..because a one day experience is always set in the context of an ongoing set of learning goals.

    The article as well as the comments provoke me to think about my practice, as well as of the teachers I work with in science. The point here, that we need to consider the PURPOSE of any learning task or sequence, and design tasks for students that will most help them get to that learning, is my take-away. However, I’m also aware that such learning sequences aren’t the same for everyone, and that I cannot, as a public classroom teacher, monitor the processes of each student each day. That, I think, is one of the weaknesses of our ‘mass’ system — we simply are not designed to allow for the individualization that needs to happen. There are certainly many tasks (open design projects, for example, or writing prompts) that all students can readily access at some level. But if my goal is for students to come to a scientific understanding of how plants get energy and grow new cells, or develop any other scientific model, my job as a teacher has to be more than string some activities together. I have to back map the development of the model, and then design a series of learning tasks that will help the student reason their way to an outcome. It seems to me that this process, for a host of reasons, is missing in many of our classrooms today. Those reasons range from the preparation a teacher has to do that thinking, to the lack of real time in an actual teacher’s day (you can’t expect someone who spends five or six real hours with 30 plus little human beings to also have the brain power to do that kind of thinking on a regular basis), to the too-few school and prep days we have in this country, to the lack of systems supporting collaboration. Not only do we need to work on all of those aspects, we also need excellent curriculum that does this for teachers, so that they’re sequences of lessons begins with a rich set of options to choose from.

  • […] class, but instead “what activities you are going to do” in class. Check out this post on learning plans and try for a shorter (but specific) approach […]

  • […] Can We Make Lesson Plans More Than Just Compliance Plans?– AJ Juliani makes some interesting observations about his own journey with lesson plans. […]

Leave a Reply