An Effective and Reflective Guide to Planning your Lesson Activities

If you ask me about how the Mind, Brain, and Education Science or the Science of Learning can help teachers around the world, you’ll normally get the following answer:

There are no fixed formulas when it comes to learning and teaching


Despite abiding by these words, I must say that there are valid and not-so-valid attempts to summarize what should be taken into consideration when planning and delivering a lesson. Think of it as a recipe for pasta if you like. Some principles are universal and need to take place every time you cook pasta. Boiling the water, adding salt, and cooking the pasta inside the boiling water are examples of immutable actions without which it wouldn’t be possible to make the dish. But then comes the sauce. And that can vary a great deal, even though many Italians would be angry if you didn’t stick to the original recipe. A spaghetti carbonara uses only eggs, guanciale, pecorino cheese, and black pepper. No parsley, no cream, no ham, no butter.

The thing is, if you’re based in Goiânia, Midwestern Brazil, you may have a hard time finding guanciale and pecorino. Or they might be too expensive. So you’ll usually settle for regular bacon and parmesan. Allow me another analogy. The World Cup has everyone talking about soccer these days. Tite, the coach of our national team, as well as all the 22 players summoned by him to compete in Qatar know what they need to do to become world champions for the sixth time. It’s quite simple if you think about it. They need just win every match. In fact, not even that. A tie or even a loss during the first phase can still make them champions in the end. But the universal principle is that they need to have more points than their adversaries and at some point, that means winning all the matches. Winning matches requires Brazil to score goals. The whole point of the game is to kick the ball into your adversary’s goal and keep them from kicking into yours.

All the teams know that. Germany knew that and got sent home. Japan, a team that has failed many times before, on the other hand, carries on. Why do we fail sometimes even though we know what to do? Why can’t we get all our students to learn although we probably know how to plan a lesson? The answer is simple, perhaps a little philosophical and astrophysical:

It’s chaos. It’s because of chaos


We cannot possibly control every single variable when we cook, play soccer or teach a group of students. Sometimes the lack of ingredients, our adversaries, students’ lack of interest, and even air humidity (in all three cases) can work against us. That said, I often tell my students that we need to try and do our best to control – or at least organize – chaos. Imagine we’re shepherds with a club trying to get all the sheep to cross a creek or go through a tiny door in an orderly fashion. The objective is simple but not easy at all.

That said, what are the principles that can help anyone plan lessons more effectively? In fact, this is precisely the exercise I’m doing with my MBE students tomorrow. Their assignment is to plan a lesson based on our discussions and the three levels discussed in Tracey-Tokuhama Espinosa’s book Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science.

  1. Principles: universal features applied to all brains
  2. Tenets: principles that apply to all brains but vary greatly from person to person
  3. Instructional Guidelines: concepts/ideas based on principles and tenets to structure our lessons

Coincidentally, I’m also conducting the third session of our BRAZ-TESOL MBE SIG study group later today and had to revisit Tokuhama-Espinosa’s work to discuss Instructional Designs: Methods, Techniques, Strategies, Actions, and Activities. Another coincidence is that last Sunday I talked about making thinking and learning visible through aims, assessment, and outcomes on LanguagEd Day organized by Chiara Bruzzano with amazing speakers including my partners Rachel Tsateri and Sylvia Provenzano. Something else that happened just yesterday: I interviewed Ron Morrain and Silvina Mascitti for EdYOUfest Espresso Podcast and they discussed a new and exciting project called Lesson Plan Jam! I suppose all of this formed the perfect storm and urged me to write this post about Lesson Planning.

What to focus on?

On LanguagEd day, I discussed how we can make our students’ learning more visible if we start planning our lessons based on the idea of Backward Design by Wiggins & McTighe (2005). It goes like this:

We start by thinking at the end of our lesson. Then we think about how to assess whether our students reached those outcomes or not. Finally, we determine our aims. Naturally, when you’re teaching from a coursebook, you’ll have all those things ready for you and we can even say that the planning process is in fact a loop. Outcomes and aims will inform and interfere with each other and you’ll end up rethinking your assessment in the process. But here’s what you can ask yourself when you plan:

  1. What should my students know or be able to do by the end of the lesson?
  2. How can I check if they know or can do the things they should during the lesson?
  3. What specific and general aims should I have to help them know and do what they should?

In other words:

What activities should I plan to get my students as close as possible to what they should know and be able to do by the end of the lesson?

That brings us to planning our activities. Since Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa discusses 21 principles, 12 tenets, and 10 instructional guidelines, I highly recommend you read her book to be more familiar with them. Here I chose to focus on her best classroom practice number 16 – Employ Zemelman and Colleagues’ Best Practice Filters When Selecting Activities. She mentions that the principles, tenets, and instructional guidelines of MBE are associated with Zelmeman and colleagues’ work and that:

Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde (2012) considered successful classroom activities and then sorted them by similar characteristics. They found 13 characteristics common to activities that have the most impact in classrooms. […] learning is dependent on memory and attention, and activities that meet Zelmeman and colleagues’ best practice criteria are more likely to produce effective learning experiences because they are memorable or grab the attention of the learner.

Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014, p. 168)

Let’s look at the 13 characteristics:

Zemelman and Colleagues’ Best Practice

You probably noticed that the three characteristics that set the tone are STUDENT-CENTEREDNESS, COGNITIVE, and SOCIAL. Let’s look at what each of them prioritizes

  1. Student-centeredness: Activities centered on students, differentiation and personalization
  2. Active: Students do more than simply “receive”, hands-on activities
  3. Holistic: Interdisciplinary activities that bridge learning across domains
  4. Authentic: real-life experiences, context-bound
  5. Expressive: Focus on more productive rather than receptive skills
  6. Reflective: Activities that provide time for thinking and breaks, journals, quick essays
  7. Social: Interaction with others
  8. Collaborative: Teamwork
  9. Democratic: Voice and Choice, co-authorship of learning
  10. Cognitive: Raise cognitive effort, increase deep learning
  11. Developmental: According to learners’ cognitive, emotional, and physical abilities
  12. Constructivist: Built upon students’ prior knowledge
  13. Challenging: Not too hard or too easy, Goldilocks principle

See? Even though there are some basic principles, they hardly make a fixed recipe. They may mean different things in different contexts. And we can’t control all the variables, remember? It’s not like grating the pecorino, dicing the guanciale or even passing the ball to another player. But we can say that if you are lecturing most of the time and your students are only listening, you basically neglected characteristics 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 (we could maybe add more). If your lesson doesn’t connect with students’ own lives, other subjects, and what they already know, then you’re neglecting characteristics 3, 4, 11, and 12 for sure.

What does an effective lesson look like?

Let’s say I’m teaching someone to make carbonara. I may start my lesson by grabbing their attention through an engaging activity. It could be a photo or a video of the dish. Then my students would have to guess the name of the dish so I can check their prior knowledge. They could do it in pairs to interact a little bit. Based on the photo or video, I could have flashcards with many different ingredients and they might need to pick the ingredients they think are necessary to prepare that dish. I can then talk about the ingredients and regions in Italy where this dish became popular. I could ask my students if they’d rather read the recipe or watch a video of someone preparing the dish. Then we’d reflect together on how challenging the preparation of the dish was. A sensitive stage of this dish involves not making scrambled eggs when you prepare the sauce. I might raise their attention and ask them what strategies they might use to avoid that. Then we might start preparing the dish together. I’d be modeling in front of them, going slow, step by step, trying to boost their motivation. I’d remind them that they could make this dish for their parents, friends, or boyfriend/girlfriend.

That’s one way to do it. I can think of different ways but I suppose you get the gist. I’d taste their carbonara to let them know if they did a good job, ask them to assess their performance, and then ask them to get feedback from their friends and even families later on if they decided to cook for them.

If you’re teaching English or math, you can rely on the same principles. Raise their interest, activate prior knowledge, promote social interaction, make bridges with other subjects, give them voice and choice, let them get their hands dirty, encourage them, make the experience relevant and real-life oriented, give feedback, allow self-reflection, and have fun. Chances are that you’ll help them have a memorable learning experience.


Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. WW Norton & Company.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. ASCD.

Zemelman, S., Daniels, H., & Hyde, A. A. (2012). Best practice: Bringing standards to life in America’s classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: