Observations and Paperwork

A colleague, who forms part of the team of teachers I train and help to develop on a regular basis, recently asked me quite an insightful question:

If a trainer or an observer is so experienced and well-trained in their field, surely they don’t need a lesson plan to understand each stage of a lesson.

I immediately agreed on the assertion that observers rarely need a plan to know what a given stage of a lesson is about.lesson plan 1

However, the paperwork that comes with observations is a formality which is universally followed: it doesn’t matter if you’re being observed by the Academic Director of a large Language Teaching Organisation with several sites across a country, or by a Senior Teacher in a school, it is a given that you will hand in a lesson plan before being observed.

Having initially agreed with the teacher’s assertion, this led to the inevitable subsequent question:

Why is it necessary to hand in lesson plans?


Can an observer really watch a lesson and truly know what is happening at each stage? Can the stages of the lesson be correctly identified, labelled and commented on without a lesson plan?

To answer these questions, a colleague and I decided to conduct a little experiment. I went into one a lesson and completed the following task:

  • Wrote down interaction patterns
  • Made a note of the tasks
  • Determined the purpose of each stage
  • Gave each stage a label and an aim

What came out this was perhaps quite predictable: I was able to collect all the necessary information to determine the aims and the procedure of each stage of the lesson.

After the lesson was over, my notes were compared with the teacher’s original lesson plan, which the lesson was delivered from and which I had not seen, and my observations and the plan correlated well.

Although this was an interesting experiment, it still left us with the same query:

What is the purpose of lesson plans?

A True Record

During an observed lesson, the observer makes a note of what is happening at each moment. These notes include:

  • Timing
    When the stage begins and ends
  • Interaction
    Who is talking to who and who is doing what
  • Activity/Task
    Looking at what the activity at hand involves

What all this eventually results in is a record of what happened at each stage of the lesson i.e. a plan of the lesson.

However, given that the observed teacher has already handed in a Lesson Plan with all of this information, what is the purpose of making these notes, especially as it seems to be simply duplicating information that is already available?

First and foremost, it must be made clear that what is planned and what happens in a lesson rarely add up. In fact, what is planned and what is executed are two very different, yet strongly interconnected, skills of teaching.

By writing down what happens at each stage of the lesson, this provides both the observer and the observee with a written record of the actual lesson itself, regardless of what was intended to happen.

Decision Making

Since the Lesson Plan provides the observer and the observee with a record of what was intended to happen in the observed lesson, and the observer’s record of what actually happened serves as the true record of the lesson, then where is the connection? Why do we need both of them?

When planning any lesson, a teacher makes a series of decisions. These decisions cover a variety of aspects of the lesson, including the following:

  • Decisions about materials

The teacher might have to decide what materials best help the lesson to achieve its aims. If working from a coursebook, they might also have to consider whether the material in the coursebook is sufficiently appropriate to achieve the lesson goals.

  • Decisions about lesson aims

For most teachers, this decision ties in strongly with the decision about materials, though it probably shouldn’t, as the lesson aim or aims should be determined in advance and then appropriate materials either found or designed to meet those aims – not lesson aims being designed around materials. Regardless of this, the teacher will have to decide what it is this particular lesson for this particular group of learners is aiming to achieve.

  • Decisions about lesson structure

There are a number of ways a lesson could be structured. For lesser experienced teachers, the most likely lesson structure is PPP, as this is what they were taught in their initial teacher training course. More experienced teachers will probably call on a variety of lesson structures, using them according to what they feel best fits the lesson aims. A more experienced teacher will use a PPP approach for specific reasons and a TBL approach for other reasons.

It is very easy to come to the conclusion that the teacher makes a variety of decisions during the planning stage and the lesson plan gives the observer some insight into those decisions.

However, what shouldn’t be forgotten is the fact that teachers make a significant number of decisions during the lesson itself. While following a lesson plan, a teacher might decide to drop a stage, move stages around or even scrap their lesson plan altogether. These decisions are based on what is happening in the classroom during the lesson: the teacher calls on their pedagogic experience to date to make calls on what is best for the learners during that lesson. The record of what actually happens in the lesson serves, in the eyes of the observer, as evidence of those in situ decisions.

Magic Moment

When the decisions made during the lesson are compared with the decisions made during the planning stage, it is the differences in these two records which reveal the most interesting features of the teacher’s pedagogic abilities.

Without the lesson plan and without the record of what happened during the lesson, the necessary information would not be available to make this comparison and to determine the extent of the teacher’s teaching abilities.

This post later led to a discussion on the TEFL Show podcast series:

14 thoughts on “Observations and Paperwork

  1. Hi, Anthony,
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. In my practice, it depends on the class. I always use a written plan for my literacy class, but not always for my multi-level seniors. This is because my seniors, 14 out of 15 of them from the same country and educational background, let me know daily what they need and want next. I always have a rough idea where we are going, and have the written materials at the ready, but I allow the students to guide us. Perhaps I am incorporating some dogme concepts here? What do you think?


    1. Hi! Thank you for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      With your seniors, it sounds like a good system: they seem to be in control of their learning – they know what they do know and need to learn.

      Do you post-plan your lessons? That would be very dogmatic in style. If you don’t, maybe have a go at reflecting on what was covered in the lesson and then designing a revision worksheet/activity or even just some notes after the lesson. You can then begin the next lesson with this before moving on to what they want to do next. This adds a degree of continuity between lessons.


      1. Anthony,
        Yes, I do something very much like that. The seniors prefer a very slow pace and multiple exposures to the same lexis. So we never move onto a new topic or text until one is thoroughly digested. My next day’s lesson is based on formative assessment, quite informal and intuitive at times. Or sometimes I will survey them outright if we get stuck on a grammar or pronunciation point, “Would you like to go more deeply into that point?” And I can build on that during the following days. It seems tangential, but it is tailor-made to their needs as they arise or become apparent. K


  2. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for the great comment. The idea sounds great – I’m definitely going to try it out in the next semester where in Buenos Aires. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    As for your question on lesson shapes, well I can say that I usually do try to look for a lesson structure. I think the reason for this is because I used to think that a good lesson will follow a set structure. But now having started the Teacher Training course online, I now think I might not look for a specific structure, as I’ve recently learnt to ask this question when observing:

    “Is this working in this situation for these learners?” 🙂


  3. Interesting post, Anthony. Here’s a suggestion to try in a future observation as an experiment. Instead of asking for a written plan, or if not possible, instead of reading it, try writing down the staging of the lesson you see. For example, you watch the lesson and write “lead-in” and then write your evidence of why it was a lead-in and what happened in that stage. Continue this to build up your interpretation of the rest of the lesson so that you end up the full lesson staged as you saw it and all the necessary evidence of what happened in the room, etc.

    In the post-observation meeting, show this to the teacher and discuss what you think you saw and what they thought they taught (or compare it with the lesson plan). This should be good development for you as an observer (you’ll really have to know your lesson shapes) and good insight for the teacher as an opportunity to see how what was intended may not have been how the lesson was actually taught, e.g. a common issue is a teacher planning a TTT lesson that is, in actual fact, simply a PPP lesson in disguise as the teach stage does not take into account the initial test.

    All this might well lead to interesting discussion about why a teacher might want to follow a certain lesson structure in the first place or whether they have simply been eclectic in planning the stages based on identified learner needs. As an observer, do you look for a specific lesson shape? And if so, why? I’m not saying it is wrong to, not at all, just that it might be interesting to think about what you expect from a teacher in an observation and why.

    Thanks for post and back to my morning coffee…



  4. Thanks for your post, Anthony.
    I can see where you’re coming from, but I still find the lesson plan incredibly tedious, time-consuming, stressful and above all – unrealistic. Most of us never write lesson plans (unless post-it notes count). And certainly not ones we produce for observed lessons. Steve Brown points this (and many other shortcomings of traditional heavy lesson plans TT approach) out here: https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/planning-for-chaos/
    I also don’t think preparing a detailed lesson plan will necessarily benefit your teaching or improve what you actually do in class. First of all, it’s really constraining. I find it incredibly hard to follow and usually end up forgetting the details (e.g. interaction pattern, exact timings). Perhaps because my teaching style is spontaneous and while I have a clear goal(s) I want my sts to achieve, I might follow a different route depending on how the class pans out. I also doubt whether the emphasis CELTA and DELTA place on planning has prepared me for the day to day prep for my classes in any meaningful way.
    My biggest problem with observed lessons, though, is that all that work is usually in vain. I mean, I’ve never worked in an institution (I’ve worked in 8 different schools) where there was any meaningful follow up to the observed lessons. Usually they are used for quality control and assessment. For example, for new teachers. While there might be a post observation meeting, the feedback ends there. And the teacher is left on their own. It makes you think: what’s the point of spending so much time planning for the observation if there is no teacher development built-in afterwards?
    I don’t want to sound too negative. Certainly, lesson plans might have some benefits, but for me the disadvantages far outweigh any possible advantages. Looking forward to your reply, though. perhaps you can convince me 😉

    Liked by 2 people

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