Lesson aims and how they affect learning

Does the language teachers use in their lesson plans really affect teaching practice? Perhaps a broader question to ask would be does language affect our thought? A great TED talk to watch on the subject is How the words we use affect the way we think by Mary Page Wilson. And if you’re not into videos, here’s an overview of Keith Chen’s TED talk on the same lines.

When I first started teaching, lesson planning was a monumentally daunting task. It would take many hours to plan an hour-long lesson for a bunch of six-year-olds who only really wanted to play games and burn off some weekend steam. But lesson planning took on a whole new aura of fear when it was time to get observed.

In my first three years of teaching, I worked in a school where teachers were observed every three months. The academic managers were lovely and very supportive but that did little to assuage my fears of writing an assessed lesson plan and getting observed. And then, the part of the observed lesson plan template that I really dreaded was the first page – the bit with lesson aims, subsidiary lesson aims and other such mundaneries.

I usually wrote my plan and reviewed and revised it a few times, then procrastinated until the last minute before hastily stringing together a few stock phrases under Lesson Aims without giving them much thought. Like most new teachers, I was more concerned with not having a nervous breakdown in the classroom during the observation. I could not bother with a few sections that seemed to be a bureaucratic necessity rather than anything that had any real bearing on my teaching (or so I thought).

My lesson aims looked something like this:

In this lesson, I will introduce the (present perfect)…
In this lesson, I will teach reading using a text about (cafes around the world)…
In this lesson, I will practice IELTS (Academic Task 2 type essay)…

In the years since I have done the Delta, become a teacher trainer, and a teaching practice observer, I have seen similar lesson aims on most new teachers’ lesson plans. If you examine the language of the lesson aims above, you will notice that the teacher is the central figure in these aims i.e. “I will…” 

In this lesson, I will introduce the (present perfect)…
In this lesson, I will teach reading using a text about (cafes around the world)…
In this lesson, I will practice IELTS (Academic Task 2 type essay)…

This preoccupation with the self is natural because after all, the teacher is getting assessed and wants to put on a good show. In most schools, good observations lead to positive annual appraisals and pay hikes. So, such preoccupation amongst newbie teachers is  both understandable and to be forgiven.

The lesson aims, however, place the teacher at the center of the lesson, the star of the show, while the students are a mere audience witness to various tricks the teacher has decided to pull out of his hat to impress the observer.

In any observed lesson, the presence of the observer distracts the students and also changes the usual classroom dynamics. Couple this with the teacher’s obvious self-absorption and obsession with their plan during the lesson often lead to a warped 60 minutes – different (not necessarily better or worse) from their usual lessons and an inaccurate reflection of their teaching skills.

Of course the observer must at all times be aware of these external factors that affect observations and account for them in their post-observation chat and feedback. However, it is also the teacher trainer or academic manager’s concern to raise awareness of the language used in lesson aims and how it affects teaching practice.

A good question to ask during the pre-observation meeting is: what will the students be doing while you’re introducing, practicing, teaching etc.? Will they have faded out, will they be passing notes to each other, will they be staring at the clock? The teacher will usually say something to the effect, “Well, I hope they will be reviewing, practicing, producing..” This response provides the perfect inroad to reformulating the lesson aims in a more student-centered manner. So lesson aims can be re-written in student-centered ways:

In this lesson, students will be introduced to the (present perfect)…
In this lesson, students will practice skimming a text for gist…
In this lesson, students will practice scanning a text for specific information…

In this lesson, students will practice detailed reading  a text for gist…
In this lesson, students will practice IELTS Academic Task 2 type essay…

Does rewriting the aims using student-centered language alone transform teaching practice and make it more student-centered? Probably not. But the thought process that goes on in the creation of these aims re-centers teachers’ preoccupation with the self and nudges them towards placing greater emphasis on their students’ learning.

The post-observation feedback usually starts with and revolves around a central question – Did you achieve your lesson aims? With student-centered aims, it becomes easier to segue the feedback discussion towards crucial questions such as learner engagement, amount of practice and production, teacher talk time (TTT), and varied teacher roles during the lesson.

So what do you think?

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