Reflections on Teaching, Learning, and Lesson Planning

[May 29, 2012 I originally wrote this for a day-long presentation that I did for the Daegu Ministry of Education in December 2010. I thought I would re-post it here. It is 97% true. ]


[I write this in the hope that it might be mildly interesting and also help readers accelerate their understanding of lesson planning and thus become more effective teachers as a result.]

On June 30th, 2000 the hogwon manager gave me a book and 5 minutes to prepare for a “free-talking class.” Not really knowing what a “free-talking class” was (and actually still pretty unsure) I tried to use the book as little as possible and tried to give students as much time to speak as I could. I had just arrived in Jinju a few days earlier  for my first teaching job and less than 2 months after graduating with a BA in history.

At that time, my criteria for a good lesson was pretty simple. If it was fun and students were involved it was a good lesson. That’s all. Other factors didn’t really occur to me. I felt that it was my job to give students a chance to have fun with and experience the “real English” that I presumed they weren’t getting in school or elsewhere. Looking back, I feel like the hogwon where I worked fed into this idea. There was constant talk of “fun lessons” and “satisfied students” but I don’t remember hearing anything about students’ learning.

Another thing I don’t remember is planning many lessons that first year. I do remember trying to find activities that “worked” and trying to make sure that students were actively engaged in the material and the lessons. I remember collecting activities (and the requisite game pieces and cards) for a “rainy day.”  I remember frantically flipping through lesson activity books in the moments before class, trying to find something that would be interesting and keep the students active. Another key consideration was the amount of time required for preparation. If there were many things to cut or fold the activity was automatically disqualified.  A friend and colleague recently described herself as previously being “an activity collector” (as opposed to a reflective teacher) and I think that this description would be apt for me in at least my first year of teaching.

My next job after the hogwon was at a small college. The students at this technical college were   at a very low level and around the same age as their English teacher. Again, in this context there was a great premium placed on “fun” and “dynamic” lessons. I also placed great emphasis on “ease of teaching” and since I was asked to choose the textbook for my classes I chose “New Interchange” because it seemed like it taught itself. The structure of the book generally followed a PPP model, which means that it started as a presentation (of grammar or vocabulary) and then gave practice opportunities with the target language and then finished with production which consisted of freer activities. This type of lesson seemed to be generally well received.

After spending nearly a year traveling and deciding that I wanted to get more serious about teaching as a career, I took the CELTA course in Bangkok in 2004. There was surely a lot of learning to do! The “winging it” skills that I had developed in my 2.5 years in Korea were not really helpful and were probably slightly detrimental. The CELTA course was my first experience with ultra-detailed lesson plans. I cannot say that it was the most positive experience I have ever had. During the CELTA course I was not really a satisfied customer because I felt that things were overly prescriptive and that the trainers took an approach that was a little bit too much “my way or the highway” for my liking. I was also a bit bothered by the use of PPP lessons, which I had assumed had already gone the way of the dinosaur. While the course was certainly valuable I felt like it didn’t suit my teaching style or match well with my beliefs.

Thankfully, on the second to last day of my CELTA course during one of the “trainer’s choice” time slots, one of my trainers introduced us to “dogme ELT[1].” This is a materials light and conversation driven approach introduced by Scott Thornbury that focuses on emergent language. It has been described as, “Winging it. Refined.” The idea is that teachers should focus on “the people in the room” instead of bits of linguistic information that come from the coursebook or the syllabus. I would not be exaggerating if I said that it was a career changing moment.  It was as though I was suddenly not alone in my frustrations with lesson planning! I felt like my secret feelings were suddenly vindicated because experts in the field like Thornbury were saying the same things! The main difference is that they were saying much more eloquently and with a theoretical background.  I was thrilled with “proof” that I was neither lazy nor crazy (although this evidence would likely not hold up in a court of law).

I immediately joined the Dogme Yahoo! Group[2] and tried to glean as many pearls of wisdom as I could from the group. It became a great source of both ideas and inspiration. I would strongly recommend the group to any teacher who even slightly interested in “materials light” teaching. The archives provide a wealth of information and ideas and the conversations are often interesting. “Mikecorea” was a relatively active poster from 2007 to 2008 so you can see in more detail some of the things that I was thinking about during that time.

One concept that really appealed to me in Thornbury’s writing was the concept of “grammar McNuggets[3].” He wrote that coursebooks and teachers tend to divide English into small little parts, or McNuggets. Like their fastfood namesakes, this morsels are not authentic or “meaty.” Teaching  lessons and syllabi based on these McNuggets gives students the impression that the language is nothing more than a series of McNuggets to be learned. This idea made perfect sense to me but I didn’t really have a clear concept of what and how to teach instead of “Grammar Mcnuggets PPP style.”  I was faced with more questions than answers. How could I teach without following a grammar syllabus? What should I base lessons around? Why is PPP so popular anyway? After completing the CELTA and pondering such questions (and the universe) it was time to get back to work.

From 2004-2006 I spent a great deal of time rotating between Korea and Japan. When in Japan I mostly worked for the Westgate Corporation, which is a company that outsources instructors to work on university campuses teaching conversational English classes. Westgate provides teachers with a “daily planner” which includes target language for the day and a suggested lesson plan. Instructors are expected to teach the same 40 minute lesson up to six times the same day. In order to protect my sanity I experimented greatly with the lessons and tried to find what worked for me and my students. There were certainly some disastrous moments but there were plenty of successes as well. I enjoyed having the language point given to me but the freedom to experiment.

At Westgate we were expected to create our own lesson plans based on the “Daily Planner.” I scrawled lots of ideas and random notes to myself. I sometimes wonder what the person at the head office charged with culling useful things from those planners thought of my esoteric and scrambled notes. I sometimes had the idea that lesson planning efforts were sometimes “weighed.” I got the sense that my efforts were appreciated because of the volume of notes that I wrote (even if they were probably understandable to one human on earth.

The most interesting job that I had while working for Westgate was “Cover Instructor.” My role was to be ready to teach anywhere around Tokyo on very short notice in case an instructor couldn’t make it to class for any reason. This was an excellent chance to try out my skills with quick and limited planning. The catch was that I needed to cover the exact point of the day. I wasn’t supposed to cover any more because the regular teacher might be put in a bad position or any less because the regular teacher might expect that something else was covered so that they could move on to their next lessons. The experience of being texted the lesson objectives and planning on the train was a very good one for me as I needed to plan quickly without ever having seen the students and then I needed to be sure to cover no more or less than what was expected of me. It was also a nice chance to put some of the principles of dogme into use, which was a chance that I relished because it really helped me improve my confidence and skills as a teacher.

I mentioned above that I rotated between Korea and Japan from 2004-2007. When I was in Korea I mostly worked at English camps at Gyeongang National University. The majority of the time my students were middle school students who spent a month studying English very intensively (the program started with morning exercise and ended well after dinner time). While I loved working there one of the negatives was that we were required to submit lesson plans before meeting our students for the week (as the teachers rotated weekly).  Simply put, the lesson plans were a farce. We were expected to create lesson plans on Sunday for Friday with no idea about the students or how things would go. In fairness, the administration wanted to make sure that we were prepared and responsible. From my view, most of already were and such a task took time away from the real business of planning and teaching. I struggled to squeeze the various “McNuggets” from the table of contents into daily plan. It was an exercise in futility because I knew that the “planning” that I was doing would have little to no bearing on what I would end up doing in class when faced with the prospect of teaching the actual students.  Teachers at the came up with a novel and subversive way to deal with the onerous task of writing lesson plans so early. We would sneak in random words into the lesson plan to see if anyone noticed. “Neguices,” which is apparently not really a word, was a favorite. It seemed like for one week all the middle school teachers at the camp were teaching the various aspects of “neguices.” I am not suggesting that this was the most mature or effective way of handling such a situation, but I think it served a pressure release in the face of the mindless work we were tasked with.

After spending a few years going back and forth between Westgate in Japan and camps in Korea in January 2007 I decided to come back to Korea full time and took a job in the Testing and Training Center at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS).  In this job I was required to teach at least three different subjects (like Listening, Discussion, and Practical English) with a variety of sections. I rule of thumb that I had heard previously was that teachers should spend about one hour planning for each hour of class. This sounded pretty reasonable when I first heard it, but at HUFS it would have meant that there would be almost no time for anything else. Doing a full CELTA-style lesson plan for each of these would have been a near impossibility. I did prepare lots of material and activities and tried to use them as efficiently and effectively as possible. I spent hours and hours cutting and photocopying. Luckily much of this time was spent “talking shop” with a colleague. She and I could hardly have disagreed more about teaching. Her classes were regimented and highly structured. Mine were quite the opposite. I was focused very much on student enjoyment as well and participation. I am not afraid to say that I was quite successful in these areas. Looking back, I can’t help but think that maybe my success in these areas came at the expense of the most important area: learning.

A memorable experience related to teaching, learning and lesson planning occurred while teaching a low-level discussion class on the topic of traveling. My supervisor, the director of the program was observing and evaluating my lesson. I expected that she would be observing but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to suddenly change my style of teaching for this reason so I taught my class as usual: starting with a topic and having students do most of the speaking and creating situations for them to use the English that they knew while at the same time being there for support and correction as needed.  I can remember one critical incident very clearly. One student, “Kate,” was struggling to explain the word “pickpocket.”  When she had expended a great deal of her linguistic resources and made it clear what she was trying to do I provided her with the term. From my view, this was a beautiful thing that showed flexibility and a sense of learner autonomy and teacher support. My supervisor didn’t see it like that. She expected more pre-teaching of vocabulary and hinted that a more standard PPP lesson might be more suitable. My impassioned explanation that “pickpocket” would never be in the first 1,000 words that I would think to pre-teach in a unit for traveling. I strongly felt that choosing a topic and related activities coupled with being “present” enough to seize learning opportunities was more than enough. Now, I am not so sure.

During my time at HUFS I was generally pretty pleased and comfortable (perhaps too comfortable) with my teaching. My students and I enjoyed the lessons and they seemed to make a lot of progress. I tended to think that lesson plans were something for “real teachers” and that I was excused from such trite practices because of my charm and skills with getting students involved and talking in English.

Having decided that I wanted to stay in the field and eager to learn and improve more, in the fall of 2008 I started my MATESOL through the New School in New York. One of the main reasons that I chose this program was the fact that Scott Thornbury heavily involved in the program. As part of the application process I was asked to submit a lesson plan and a rationale. I remember thinking to myself that this was the first time to do a formal lesson plan since my CELTA days 4 years previously.

After nearly 2 years working at HUFS, I took a job working as an English teacher/TESOL trainer at the UCC Center in Daegu. It was during this time that I first heard of the SIT TESOL course. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical, being a CELTA graduate and hearing little snippets about the SIT course through the eyes of others.  I was very curious about the course and wanted to know more about it, partially because I wanted to see if my initial slightly negative feelings were justified. In the spring of 2010 my curiosity about the SIT course got the better of me and I “trained up” to become an SIT TESOL trainer. I discovered many interesting things during my training period. Some of them profoundly affected my beliefs and thus my teaching and training practices.

The thing that affected me most deeply was the concept of different types of objectives. I don’t think that I had ever heard of the differences between coverage, activity, involvement and learning objectives until spring 2010. I think that sometimes I used learning objectives but that this was not at the forefront of my mind. I was, as detailed above, generally very concerned with choosing activities that would get students involved and active but I didn’t give much thought to student learning. SWBAT seemed like a very confusing and unnecessary idea.  I now feel that thinking about what I want students do be able to do and show me by the end of a lesson is the best way to plan lessons. These days when I plan I try to start at the back and think about what students will be able to do at the end. This helps me make the remaining necessary decisions and gives me a good start for planning lessons.

Another thing that has greatly affected my thinking and teaching this year is the idea of SMART objectives. There are differing ideas on what the letters in SMART should stand for. I typically use specific (S), measurable (M), achievable/attainable (A), relevant (R), and time-bound (T).    Making objectives SMART is not easy! This is something that I am still grappling with but the idea that objectives should be SMART and SMARTER  (the E and R stand for evaluate and re-evaluate) is something that has really stuck with me. Sometimes when my objectives are not SMART enough it is like I hear a voice in the back of my head encouraging me to make the objectives smarter (and SMARTER).

A third revelation that has come from working as a teacher trainer is that I really appreciate seeing the rationale for certain teaching decisions. It really helps me see where the teachers are coming from and where they are trying to go. As a teacher I found this to be a bit of a nuisance but as a trainer I find it invaluable and I think it is a great way to bring to light the decision making process that teachers are employing. I find that it really helps me see the lesson more clearly and thus be able to provide much higher quality feedback.

In the last few months as I have become more familiar with various training courses and different situations around Korea from conversations with trainers and participants and I have become increasingly aware and concerned with what I call “the bastardization of lesson plans.” Lesson plans often have a very specific purpose in different contexts. Sometimes lesson plans are used for observation purposes so that the observer can see what the teacher planned to do and compare and contrast this to what actually happened in the class. Sometimes lesson plans are used to see how well teachers can incorporate methodological ideas into their lesson plans. This can be a very powerful teaching and learning tool, as it can, again provide a clear glimpse of the teacher’s beliefs and decision making. Sometimes lesson plans are created for co-teaching situations so that both parties can have as clear an idea as possible where the class is going and the responsibilities of each person. I think that being aware of why (and for whom) we are creating lesson plans will help guide or decisions on how to create them. My current thought on lesson planning is that lesson plans can be very valuable and that teachers need to think of who and what lesson plans are for in order to get the most utility out of them.

I have enjoyed recounting my experiences as related to lesson planning and hope that reading them was nearly as enjoyable. I also hope that reading the above has at least given the reader a few things to reflect upon and will perhaps be helpful as you plan lessons in the future.


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    • mikecorea

      Thanks Carol! I am so glad you enjoyed it! I am also happy that it has been given a second life online as I wrote it a few years ago but I don’t think anyone actually read it! Thanks so much!

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  3. Jake Bersani

    Really interesting! I actually have the opportunity to interview with HUFS in Daegu. Except I found some negative comments online about the school (but i don’t think they were about Daegu school specifically) so I was wondering if you could help give me any feedback about them at this branch or in general?

    Thanks in advance!

    • mikecorea

      Hi Jake,
      Thanks very much for reading.
      I am pretty sure that the HUFS in Daegu is a completely different thing.. in fact I think most of the really bad stuff online (or at least on ESL Cafe) is about the foreign language center, which is in fact where I used to work. Actually, I am not sure about anything HUFS related in Daegu. This might be something new, or just new to me. I know that the name is used in many cases for different things. I am sorry if this is not as helpful as you might hope for!

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  5. Hana Tichá

    This is a gripping story with lots of interesting twists, Mike. It shows clearly how much progress a teacher can make throughout his or her teaching career. At first sight, it may surprising that with all the training you had received and all your intuition you kept changing your views of what your teaching should be like. But I’m not surprised in the least – I totally understand the changes you’ve undergone.
    Personally, I also find the CELTA-like style of planning a little daunting but I admit it may be helpful in terms of refining some aspects of one’s teaching. However, I still haven’t figured out how the dogme approach sits with thorough planning of lesson objectives. If language is to emerge naturally in class and you should take into consideration your students’ needs at any given moment of the lesson, how can you be sure you’ll achieve what you planned to achieve? I can imagine setting myself some long-term goals, such as ‘by the end of the term students will have mastered this or that’ but otherwise I’m pretty skeptical about this. I’ve always seen a parallel between the dogme approach and art; I’m sure artists have their final product in the heads even before they start painting, but I don’t think they plan every step in advance.
    Anyway, I dare say that this is not the end of your story and that you’ll keep evolving as a teacher. And maybe you’ll revisit some of your ideas from the past and ditch others which you now consider unwavering.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Hana,
      Thanks so much for the comments. I am very glad you enjoyed it! I believe (hope?) you were right when you said this is not the end of the story and that I’ll continue to evolve. Since I wrote this (more than 3 years ago) I think my thoughts have changed a bit.

      In your (excellent) comments here i was drawn to your point, ” If language is to emerge naturally in class and you should take into consideration your students’ needs at any given moment of the lesson, how can you be sure you’ll achieve what you planned to achieve? I can imagine setting myself some long-term goals, such as ‘by the end of the term students will have mastered this or that’ but otherwise I’m pretty skeptical about this.” For me I think the main value of setting objectives like that is to guide our other decisions. So, if we have those objectives in mind it can help us see where we want to and then help us make decisions that will keep us on that path. I hope this makes sense. What I am trying to say is that i don’t think it means we need to follow the objectives exactly but just that by thinking of them and having them in mind our decisions will be influenced (in a positive way).

      You also wrote, “Personally, I also find the CELTA-like style of planning a little daunting but I admit it may be helpful in terms of refining some aspects of one’s teaching.” I am right with you on this. I think it serves a purpose on the training course but I think this purpose is removed when the course is over. I feel like i have seen far too many institutions believing such lesson plans *should be the norm.

      Thanks again for the comments. Very much appreciated. It is nice to revisit some older posts.


      PS and BTW regarding dogme here is new video from Scott Thornbury where he talks about how dogme can fit into curriculum design. I think much of it could apply to lesson planning as well.

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  9. Paddu

    I could relate to every bit of your experience there from about planning a lesson to bring complacent about having a fun-class and satisfied student. But as we grow as teachers we realise that there is no one way to what we’re doing. That’s when we evolve. Although I don’t have arts background I started my teaching career as an English teacher. My only aim was to make students speak better English. But into my 4th year of teaching I knew there was a gap between what I was doing in class and what has to be done. I started reading books on learning and teaching. I’m presently doing CIDTL, diploma in learning and teaching. In the first module Its all about how to plan a lesson and deliver it. I’m finding it challenging and giving it my best shot. After reading your post I’m glad that am not the only teacher on earth to have gone through the experience of teaching without knowing about objectives.
    Hope to read more on your journey of teaching.

    • mikecorea

      Thank you so much for the comments. I am very happy this resonated with you.

      I think this gap between what we are doing in class and what we really think we should be doing is an important one to consider.

      Regarding teaching without knowing about objectives…I think it is incredibly common. I am often surprised about how common it is. I work with many teachers who have never really considered objectives from a standpoint of student learning.

      It is nice to see that you will be reading more of my blog.
      You might be interested in this post and the discussion that follows:

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. Shuli Berenstein

    really enjoyed reading your post.
    Wonderful and different insight.
    Seems like you have had an interesting career so far.
    Does Dogma talk about different “intelligence”?
    At teacher collage, they talk a lot about the Heterogeneous classroom and how we should approach all different types of students. It’s difficult when you have a classroom of 30 pupils but it does seem to be important.
    Also- Is Dogma appropriate for larger classrooms?



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