Detailed Lesson Planning

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Should trainee teachers write detailed lesson plans?

Inspectors would normally expect to see a detailed written lesson plan for ‘every lesson they observe’ taught by trainees. (Initial teacher education inspection handbook, September 2015)

‘This guidance provides instructions and guidance for [OfSTED] inspectors conducting inspections of ITE. It sets out what inspectors will do and what ITE partnerships can expect and provides guidance for inspectors on making their judgements.’ I believe OfSTED are reviewing this documentation ready for 2019. That’s another two years the profession has to wait – meanwhile, new teachers’ workload is unmanageable.

For 20 years, I’ve mentored PGCEs, Teach First, QTLS, BAEd and OTT (that’s Overseas Trained Teachers for those of you who don’t know) trainees. I’ve dealt with almost every pathway and piece of paperwork required for a trainee teacher and school to ensure success. I’ve also had some experience of failure and can assure you, that each pathway has systems in place for dealing with a ’cause for concern’, with the impetuous to rubber-stamp a ‘no’ on a trainee’s induction year if they are not suitable for teaching children. It’s rare, but it does happen.

As a visiting university tutor for trainee teachers, for years I’ve advocated that lesson planning is a process of thought, not a form-filling exercise. Of course, this stance may not apply to everyone I have mentored, nor each context in which the trainee teacher is working. Context is key. However, let’s just take what is written above from OfSTED as verbatim – after all, that’s what schools do.

Firstly, to be fair, “detailed lesson plans” means explicitly for observed lessons. However, to be able to reproduce this for observed lessons – which may happen at least weekly – trainees will be required to lesson plan in detail more often than the lessons in which they ‘are observed’.

So, straight away we have a theoretical decision which doesn’t correlate to the practicalities in the classroom.

Why? Well, to develop and practice so that a trainee is ready for the formal lesson observation in which stakes will be higher. It will be important that they seek feedback through trail and error before anything formal takes place. In worst case scenarios, some schools and mentors will insist that to develop good habits, they should write detailed lesson plans for every lesson (“just in case someone comes to observe you” a trainee told me recently.

To all the Initial Teacher Training providers: I suspect you will more than likely wish to avoid being ‘beaten over the head by OfSTED’. On the ground, this will mean that lesson planning must be observed by your tutors and is also quality controlled. If the lesson plans lack explicit detail about the lesson, then I suspect this will be commented upon for the trainee by your tutor. If the observation form to be completed in the lesson is detailed, I also suspect that the observer has their ‘head down’ scribbling notes rather than with their ‘head up’ observing the lesson. If the lesson plan is detailed, I also suspect they are having to read the details on the plan and will therefore not be actively supporting the trainee in the lesson.

I appreciate this is a generalisation and won’t happen each time.

As a result, tutors, even though they don’t believe in what’s written in the OfSTED guidance, will insist that their trainee teachers write “detailed lesson plans” for every [observed] lesson. Worse, they go on to record the details of every Teachers’ Standard on a form during a one-off lesson.



The reason why we have the Teachers’ Standards is because we all want a qualified profession; we want our teachers to be able to plan lessons, more importantly, to be able to assess (systematically) the learning that will take place before and after a lesson. The standards offer professional pride and honour, and any experienced teacher will tell you, this takes years to achieve. They were not designed to be a tick-box process – that’s what we as a profession have done. The standards were designed for guidance, or best fit.

Here are some examples shared anonymously by two very brave trainee teachers. Fatima, one trainee on a primary PGCE course contacted me and said:

“… the most time-consuming is the mountain of online assignments, essays and reflections every week. Most online tasks have no impact, and appear to be mindless paperwork driven box ticking. I’ve found classroom experience and observing good practice of other teachers far more valuable … Personally I’ve found my school form much more user-friendly than this [ITT] version. As it focuses on one aspect of the lesson, and asks how the trainee could include an element of that focus in their own lesson.”

Another trainee [Lee, on a secondary school placement] shared an observation template he ‘had to dance to once a week’.

Click to open

So, not only do we expect trainee teachers to complete detailed lesson plans because ‘OfSTED says’, we also grade them in a one-off lesson observations by each of the Teachers’ Standards. Is it any wonder why we cannot recruit enough teachers into the profession, or keep them in the classroom even if they do qualify?


A number of studies have looked at the reliability of observation. Most cited of late, is the Measures of Effective Teaching Project which used various observation protocols to test reliability. Using OfSTED criteria, if a lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’ by one mentor/observer, the research suggests that the probability that a second person would give a different judgement is between 51% and 78%.

Strong et al. (2011) used value-added scores to identify ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’ teachers, 50% of all observers guessed the correct judgement by ‘pure chance’ with fewer than 1% of those judged to be ‘Inadequate’ are genuinely inadequate; of those rated ‘Outstanding’, only 4% actually produce outstanding learning gains; overall, 63% of judgements will be wrong. (Coe, 2014)

In other words, as Professor Robert Coe writes from CEM, “if your lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’, do whatever you can to avoid getting a second opinion: three times out of four you would be downgraded. If your lesson is judged ‘Inadequate’ there is a 90% chance that a second observer would give a different rating”.

In terms of validity, the research highlights what many of us believe to be true, or worse, have been a victim of ourselves. I wonder if trainee teachers could have the confidence to start challenging those people who are observing their lessons – particularly when grading each of the Teachers’ Standards. I didn’t have access to this research in 1993, or could share good / expose bad ideas on social media, but if I did, I’d like to think that I would be challenging unfounded claims on my effectiveness as a teacher …

So, to all trainee teachers reading this post, if you are judged inadequate in a lesson observation or rated inadequate for one of the Teachers’ Standards in a one-off lesson observation, ask for a second opinion. If judged to be Outstanding, not only should you not ask for a second opinion, but don’t be fooled into thinking that you are an ‘Outstanding teacher.’ My advice, best to ignore it all. Focus on being the best version of you for your students, and start to achieve this by forgetting any gradings and also detailed lesson plans!

If you are working for or are in charge of an ITT provider, ask yourself ‘why are we doing this?‘. Maybe it’s time we raised the profile of research into ‘lesson planning and its effectiveness’. Let’s support our trainees on the journey of teaching and strip back the details required to help them focus on the process of planning, not the binary process for form filling, or for making a one-off judgement.

We want trainees to successfully ‘meet the standards’, and this is something that should be achieved over an academic year, not in a single lesson where the stakes are too high.

*all names are fabricated.

7 thoughts on “Detailed Lesson Planning

  1. I agree that lesson planning is a thought process rather than a form filling exercise. My experience with trainee teachers is that writing a lesson plan can help them to go through each step of that thought process, particularly at the beginning of their training. I see writing lesson plans as a supportive exercise, particularly when students are not feeling confident. Maybe it depends on the format of the lesson plan and the understanding of ‘detailed’?

    1. I have to agree. Personally I feel that experience allows for the thought process to take the lead. We could argue that all learning is a thought process and that writing down anything would not be as important as thinking it.

      I do also agree however that by the end of the training, trainees will be far more able to complete a less detailed plans and deliver a solid lesson. This is down to them having the records of what they have done in the past to fall back on as a written memory of their lessons

      Interesting how different thoughts feed in to this, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer particularly, just opinions!

  2. On my SCITT course we were observed every single lesson and the observer had to fill out a form similar to the second example which had to have evidence across all the standards. It was ridiculous, the form had to be printed on A3 paper and folded in half to be useful and I was having them filled out 16 times a week. The SCITT provider was rated outstanding by ofsted though… from term 1 I was regularly judged as “good” and at times “outstanding” but my 2nd placement gave me a final rating of inadequate. It really hit my confidence and my experience as a trainee meant that I didn’t want to teach in the UK system and I was successful in being recruited to a top tier international school in Hong Kong as an NQT (with 200 applicants for the role). I didn’t complete an NQT induction and have only been observed 4 times since I completed my training. 2 years into teaching I have had my first set of GCSE results and I had over 50% of my class hit A* with one of them receiving the award for the top score on the Cambridge iGCSE paper. I don’t feel “inadequate” and I can’t see myself returning to teach in the UK. I received a bursary to train and I confirmed 3 times that I would not have to pay it back if I did not actually teach in the UK after my PGCE. What a broken system – paid to train by the UK government, driven away by the working conditions and now making an impact in education 5000 miles away all at the expense of the UK tax payer!

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