Teacher development occupies a central position in JET’s Systemic School Improvement Model. The model is conceptualised as a two pronged approach to improving teachers’ subject knowledge competence and classroom performance. The model comprises two key interventions: content training workshops and classroom mentoring and support.
Among other things, the content training workshops, which cut across the theoretical and the practical aspects of teaching, focus on developing teachers’ subject specific content knowledge, and teaching and assessment methodology. Classroom mentoring and support sessions take place either before or after each of the content training workshops. Mentors visit each teacher within their subject area in order to provide them with individual professional support in terms of classroom practice and related issues. Classroom mentoring and support takes three forms which can be adapted as per the circumstances surrounding each visit.
In the first scenario, a mentor observes a teacher teaching and provides feedback after the lesson.
In the second, a mentor teaches a model lesson which the teacher observes. Afterwards, the two engage in a feedback session.
In the third scenario, a mentor and a teacher co-plan and co-teach a lesson and thereafter engage in a feedback session.
It is envisaged that through an optimum combination of these two interventions, teachers’ competence and performance would be improved. Consequently, this would lead to improvement in attainment of educational outcomes by learners because ‘the quality of an educational system is dependent in the quality of its teachers’. In international systemic assessments such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) Project, it is evident that South Africa is falling behind other countries with similar socio-economic conditions. It is also evident that the funding that has been spent on the reform agenda since 1994 has not resulted in the gains anticipated.
1.1 Challenges faced in classroom mentoring and support
While JET’s teacher development model has the potential to improve teachers’ competence and performance, there are a number of challenges that are faced in the projects that are currently utilising the model. This learning brief outlines a few of these in as far as classroom mentoring and support is concerned. To this end, the use of remote mentoring through the lesson plan is presented as one of the critical solutions. This innovation is discussed below.
The first major challenge that affects classroom mentoring and support is teachers’ discomfort. Some teachers, who are generally the ones that require the most support, tend to feel uncomfortable about being observed teaching. In some instances, such teachers only feel ‘comfortable’ when they teach lessons for which they consider themselves to have thoroughly prepared. In other instances, such teachers simply recycle lessons; that is, they teach lessons that they have already taught before. In instances such as these, the challenges faced by the teachers remain hidden to the mentors. This challenge can be referred to as the observer paradox. That is to say that the presence of the mentor destabilises the ‘normal life’ of the classroom. This challenge can also affect learners and even mentors. It should be noted that this phenomenon may be partly explained by the fact that the South African education system has not yet completely forgotten the discriminatory inspectorate system of the apartheid regime.
The second major challenge is that the time allocated for classroom mentoring and support is not enough. The three mentoring sessions that are administered only add up to a possible maximum of 27 hours a year per teacher, since each session lasts for a minimum of three and a maximum of nine hours. This challenge is aggravated by two other related factors: a shortage of funding and the numbers of schools and teachers in relation to the numbers of mentors. Face to face mentoring is a very expensive exercise.
The third major challenge is the availability of teachers. Despite all the measures that are put in place to ensure that every teacher participates fully in the mentoring programme, some teachers end up missing some or all of the planned mentoring sessions. In some cases, teachers simply thwart the mentoring process.
1.2 The use of remote mentoring through the lesson plan as a possible solution
In an attempt to mitigate the challenges cited above, JET is exploring a number of initiatives. One of these initiatives, which is already being implemented in one of JET’s anchor projects, is increased frequency and intensity (‘dosage’) of the intervention. Four three-day workshops will be administered instead of three two-day workshops. In addition, instead of the three mentoring sessions, full time mentors have been contracted to support teachers more regularly and more intensely. The other initiative, the use of remote mentoring through video-recorded lessons, is still in the pipeline, but it will be implemented once all the ground work is finished. In this initiative, in addition to observing teachers in the classrooms, the mentors will analyse video-recorded lessons. From these analyses, they will compile feedback reports that will be presented to the teachers. The reports will include an outline of available support mechanisms.
As already mentioned, the focus of this learning brief is the use of remote mentoring through the lesson plan. Henceforth, the discussion focuses on this innovation.
2 Lesson plans
The lesson plan is one of the main tools that the mentors utilise in supporting the teachers, both at the theoretical and practical level, in both the workshops and in the classroom mentoring and support sessions. By definition, a lesson plan is a detailed but concise description of the various teaching, learning and assessment activities (including an outline of resources) that a teacher wishes to employ in the course of mediating a selected collection of knowledge, skills and values in a particular lesson. A great deal of evidence has demonstrated that the lesson plan is a very important component of teaching and learning. Not only does it benefit the teacher and the learner by acting as a clear guide to teaching and learning, but it also provides the mentor with significant insights into a teacher’s competence and performance. Such insights make the work of supporting the teacher easier for the mentor. An observation that has been made during mentors’ interactions with teachers in both the workshops and mentoring sessions is that teachers find the structuring of lessons challenging.
In remote mentoring through the lesson plan, the process starts with a teacher submitting a lesson plan to a mentor. The mentor analyses the lesson plan and generates feedback that is submitted to the teacher via email, fax or other means. Then the teacher reviews his or her lesson plan based on the feedback received and the communication continues. After presenting the lesson based on the revised plan, the teacher and the mentor re-engage to discuss the successes and shortfalls of the lesson. The figure below illustrates this process.
2.1 The value of lesson plans in the mentoring process
Whatever format a lesson plan takes, it answers very specific questions about a lesson, regardless of the subject being taught. The answers to these questions enable the mentor to get a glimpse of a teacher’s thought processes in designing a lesson for his or her learners. The answers also provide the mentor with a glimpse of how a lesson is likely to unfold. This in turn assists the mentor to fathom appropriate ways in which to support the teacher. Seven of these questions are listed below.
What broad learning outcome does the lesson intend for the learners to achieve?
What are the specific learning outcomes that the lesson intends for the learners to achieve?
What teaching methodology will be employed in order to ensure that the learners achieve the specified learning outcomes?
What teaching and learning activities will be employed in order to ensure that the learners achieve the specified learning outcomes?
What teaching and learning support materials will be used in order to facilitate the teaching and learning activities that will enhance the achievement of the specified learning outcomes?
What assessment methodology and activities will be employed in order to assess the learners’ achievement of the specified learning outcomes?
How much time will the teacher and the learners spend on each of the selected teaching, learning and assessment activities in order for the learners to achieve the specified learning outcomes?
It is only when a teacher is clear about answers to questions such as these that he/she can deliver a coherent and effective lesson. Furthermore, it is only then that someone reading the lesson plan can understand the lesson’s dynamics. In fact, when the lesson plan is very clear about such questions, one can even hazard a guess at the success or failure of a lesson without seeing the lesson delivered. It must be noted, however, that it is not always the case that a good lesson plan is tantamount to good delivery. Thus, it can be asserted that analysis of a lesson plan can provide a significant indication of the possible successes and challenges of a lesson.
2.2 Advantages of remote mentoring through the lesson plan
Depersonalisation and objectivity: Because there is no face to face interaction between the mentor and the teacher, remote mentoring helps to take care of the “fear factor” for those teachers who do not feel at ease when being observed. In addition, the mentor may be more objective because he/she is dealing with written items, rather than fellow human beings: the mentor’s judgement is less likely to be influenced by emotions.
Affordability and sustainability: Remote mentoring has the potential to maximise the time of both the teachers and the mentors. This is mainly because it does not require either party to travel. This means that the teachers can receive more mentoring in a shorter time period. After all, the preparation of lesson plans is already supposed to be happening in the schools. In addition, remote mentoring is financially sustainable because it does not involve costs such as travel, accommodation and subsistence.
Professionalism: It cannot be emphasised enough that preparing written lesson plans is good professional practice. Hence, remote mentoring through the lesson plan promotes professionalism among teachers.
While the use of remote mentoring through the lesson plan has such important advantages, it also has some disadvantages. It has already been mentioned that the preparation of a good lesson plan does not necessarily guarantee good lesson delivery. Another thing that cannot be guaranteed is the authenticity of the lesson plan.
2.3 Conceptions of the lesson plan
While the need for teachers to prepare lesson plans appears to be clear in as far as the purpose of the plans is concerned, the situation on the ground presents a different picture, clearly indicating that a teachers’ job is not simple. There are different schools of thought regarding the concepts lesson plan and lesson planning among teachers and other education practitioners, including government officials. These different schools of thought interpret the practical realities of the lesson plan and lesson planning in a variety of ways. The conceptions of and misconceptions about the lesson plan and lesson planning that have been observed in the project so far can be summarised as follows.
2.3.1 Lesson plan versus lesson preparation and notes
One school of thought believes that teachers are required to prepare for every lesson, but do not necessarily have to produce documented lesson plans. They simply need to produce evidence that proves they prepared for the lessons. This kind of conception evokes at least two questions. Firstly, what is really the difference between preparing for a lesson and planning a lesson? Secondly, what better evidence can teachers produce to prove that they have prepared for lessons than documented lesson plans?
These two perceptions of a lesson plan translate into contrasting concepts: that is, lesson plans versus lesson notes. In some instances, a teacher may produce what he/she refers to as a lesson plan, but which is in fact lesson notes: a document that contains information such as definitions or explanations of concepts, examples or illustrations, solutions to problems and examples of questions that the teacher means to ask learners in order to determine whether learners are following the lesson. These instances lead to speculation that these teachers see lesson notes as being lesson plans. While a lesson note might be an indicator that a teacher has prepared for the lesson in terms of content, it does not necessarily imply that the teacher has put together a plan or structure through which the content will be delivered.
2.3.2 Structured versus non structured lesson plans
Following from the foregoing discussion, while some people believe that lesson plans ought to be developed following a particular set of guidelines that translate into a clear structure, others believe that a teacher should not be bound by any such set of guidelines or structure. However, can there really be a lesson plan that is not formulated according to a structure? The former group seems to miss the fact that structure is inherently part of any planning process. A lesson needs a clear structure, regardless of whether that lesson structure exists in the teacher’s mind or is expressed in some physical form. For instance, a teacher should know what goes into the introduction, the main body and the closure of a lesson. A lesson does not simply start when the teacher starts talking to the learners, and it does not simply end when the bell or siren marking the end of a period goes off. It should be noted that, even in instances where people agree that a lesson plan should reflect a structure, the structure itself becomes a bone of contention. There are numerous templates that different people and institutions have developed over the years.
2.3.3 Lesson plans seen as compulsory requirements versus practice
There is a disparity between official requirements and what actually happens in the schools. While teachers themselves, department officials and other education practitioners generally profess that there should be a lesson plan for every lesson, when teachers are asked for documented lesson plans, these are often unavailable.
2.3.4 Readymade lesson plans versus teacher generated lesson plans
Some teachers believe that the national department as well as the various provincial departments of education supply readymade lesson plans for use in the classroom. These teachers claim that these plans are embodied in documents such as work schedules. As such, they believe that compiling lesson plans is not a requirement of their jobs. The other group of teachers includes those who understand that the education departments do not necessarily supply readymade lesson plans. They understand that what the departments do provide for teachers are either lesson planning templates, and or exemplar lesson plans that teachers can use as models in the course of preparing their own plans.
2.3.5 Lesson plan versus daily preparation
There is yet another group of education practitioners who hold the opinion that a teacher’s planning or preparation is carried out at two levels: the lesson plan and the daily preparation (or the ‘daily prep’). The origin of such a conception of planning has not yet been unravelled. However, the interpretation that holders of this understanding of lesson planning embrace is that the lesson or teaching plan describes a long term activity, for instance, the two week teaching cycle for English first additional language (EFAL) stipulated in the Curriculum and Assessment Policies (CAPS), while daily preparation is a recurring daily activity. At the core of this juxtaposition lies the challenge that teachers have in understanding how “a lesson”, “a theme”, “a topic” and other such elements should be incorporated into their plans and preparation.
2.3.6 The old versus the new
Changes in the curriculum are usually accompanied by a shift in the official statement around lesson planning. This leads practitioners to distinguish between what they perceive to be the new way of planning and the old way of planning. One of the popular misconceptions that have arisen with the introduction of CAPS is that teachers are not required to develop lesson plans at all.
3 The way forward
In order for the use of remote mentoring through lesson plans to work effectively and efficiently, the following conditions must be met:
There should be an advocacy campaign to ensure that all stakeholders, including the government officials, the schools, the teachers and the unions buy into the idea, since this approach is a new phenomenon. This is in line with JET’s general approach to teacher development: JET’s experience has taught that project activities run more smoothly when all the stakeholders have bought into the innovations being implemented.
There should be one common understanding of the lesson plan and lesson planning such that the teachers, government officials and mentors are on the same page in as far as this is concerned. This means, for example, that there should be one common lesson plan template to be used by all stakeholders. There is also a need to standardise the analysis and interpretation of the lesson plans.
There should be a strong monitoring and support mechanism that will ensure that the teachers indeed prepare and submit fresh and authentic lesson plans to their mentors.
Lesson plan analysis appears to be a viable initiative to add to the teacher development model, to the extent that preparation of good lesson plans can be interpreted as an indicator of good lesson delivery, which can in turn be utilised to measure teaching competence. The extent to which teachers are able to articulate the basic elements of a lesson plan can thus, to some degree, be used to determine their level of teaching competence. Therefore, teachers should be encouraged and supported to develop and implement lesson plans. The confusion around the official status of lesson plans in the context of the changing curriculum must be resolved and a common understanding of the value, nature and form of lesson plans should be established.