It’s done when it’s done: ditching the lesson as the unit of planning

The perfect (Ofsted) lesson

I used to be a bit of an expert at planning lessons. I’d spend a lot of time doing it. In my early years of teaching it was the (then still fairly cutting edge) 3 part lesson. Engaging starter to hook them in, a meaty main section (where I’d find devious ways for pupils to discover things for themselves) and a snappy plenary to check understanding. This later evolved into the 5 part Accelerated Learning cycle, and then (in a different school) the similar TEEP cycle. There was a real craftsmanship to planning lessons like this, but it was time consuming and (despite best intentions at the start of the academic year) it was totally unsustainable. In reality I’d only plan in that level of detail when I was being observed (which was fairly often) or when I was putting together lesson plans and resources for other Science teachers to use.

The TEEP Learning Cycle: simple diagram, unnecessarily complex planning process.

There were many problems with this approach. What happened if the main part took longer than anticipated? Do you plough on and stick with the timings in your lesson plan, deliver the plenary and move on to the next class? Or do you spend more time on the main part and (OH THE HORROR) finish the lesson WITHOUT the plenary? And then the fantastic plenary you’d planned and produced resources for was no longer any use. Or what if you finish early and don’t want to start the content from next lesson yet?

My lesson planning Bible in the ’00s

Reusing the lesson plans was also often ineffective. Different classes would require a different teaching approach, the timings would be out and you’d end up planning a different lesson for every class.

To do the job “properly” I pretty much had to spend more time planning the lessons than I spent delivering them. Then around 2012 Hattie’s Visible Learning unwittingly triggered a Marking and Feedback frenzy. Add triple marking to the level of planning I was doing and I had no chance. The workload broke me. That is a story for another time, but ultimately my teaching career was saved by cognitive science and evidence-informed practice.

My lesson planning present

Now the structure of my lessons is very different. I plan teaching sequences well in advance (David Didau has written some good blog posts on this) but planning for individual lessons is a lot easier.

Two areas of cognitive science have had a big impact on how I plan lessons; Desirable Difficulties (particularly retrieval practice and the spacing effect) and Cognitive Load Theory.

If I were to describe my current lesson planning process in bullet points it would look a little like…

  • Plan the lesson (a post-it note often does the job) after (and not before) the previous lesson. How the previous lesson went is often the most important factor as to what I need to do next. There’s little point planning the individual lesson further ahead than this as I tend to have to then re-plan the lesson anyway. The exception is when I need practical resources and need to give the technicians time to sort kit.
  • Put together a Retrieval Practice starter. I tend to do a low stakes quiz at the start of most lessons. It’s become routine for pupils now, and they can really see the benefits. Sometimes I use retrieval roulette, sometimes I make up questions and project them via the visualiser. The questions are based on previous content, plus a few from the last few lessons to help prime pupils for the next part of the sequence. I’m going to try to tweak my routine for this slightly in light of Craig Barton’s talk at ResearchED Blackpool but building in Retrieval Practice is having a tangible effect on how much pupils retain. I’ve seen a real improvement when it comes to mock exams and answering questions from last year’s topics, and it’s also boosting pupil confidence.
  • Plan a recap of the last lesson(s). This is the most fluid part of the lesson planning process, as it really depends on how the previous lesson went. Sometimes it can be a 5 minute recap (lots of questioning) to remind pupils what we learned about in the previous lesson. More often than not it’s a quick recap followed by independent practice. These can be SLOP questions, a past paper question or two, or I get them to write a short paragraph… The only time I don’t do this is if I need the whole lesson for something like a required practical investigation, or if the new content is pretty much unrelated to what we did in last lesson (new unit, for example).
  • Plan for the delivery of new content. This is the bit that requires the most thought, but it’s also the bit that comes with experience. I can plan this very quickly when I’m teaching Physics but it requires more thought when I’m teaching Chemistry or Biology (less developed schema, fewer analogies and well practised descriptions to use, less hinterland knowledge).
  • What is it I want them to know? How can I articulate it clearly and effectively? What aspects of language/vocabulary do I need to consider? What misconceptions might pupils have that I can preempt? What questions should I ask that will get them to really think hard? This is why a clear, well-constructed curriculum and expert subject knowledge are so important. Most of this is done with handwritten notes (some written in advance, some written live as part of the modelling process) presented with a visualiser. Worked examples and modelling often make up a big part of this section of the lesson. I also often make use of Ruth Walker’s textbooks. The explanations and diagrams are excellent, and I think it’s good to get pupils to spend some time reading through the relevant chapter before I then add further explanation, demos and lots and lots of questioning.
  • Plan for independent practice. This is where Shed Loads of Practice (SLOP) comes in. Pupils spend a significant amount of time practising what they’ve learnt (with support and feedback when necessary). Thankfully there are already some brilliant resources out there so this is more about selecting the right resources than developing my own.

And that’s it. Reading it back it seems like a lot more work than it is. It really doesn’t take me that long to plan lessons any more. The bit that takes time is planning the delivery. However, a massive benefit of this approach is that much of it is reusable. The resources used for independent practice can be used again with other classes, or used when reviewing prior content in a later lesson. A lot of my notes are reusable, although when I use them I often find ways to improve them for next time.

What do the lessons look like?

The time spent in each phase of the lesson varies depending on how the pupils are doing, but typically pupils now spend as much time working with the content of previous lessons as they do learning new stuff. This would have been unthinkable 5 or 6 years ago in the era of “show progress in 20 minutes”. A lesson may typically look like

  • 10 – 15 mins: retrieval practice quiz and feedback
  • 10 – 15 mins: reviewing and practising content from last lesson
  • 30 mins: instruction, modelling, SLOP.

However, the beautiful (and sensible) thing is that it really doesn’t matter if any section takes longer than planned. We just carry on where we left off next time.

It’s done when it’s done

One big benefit of teaching in this way is that it removes any artificial constraints on timings. Previously I would feel pressure to “do Terminal Velocity in a lesson” etc. Not any more. It takes as long as it takes. We spend time on a topic until I’m confident that the pupils are confident. Then we move on. If something comes up in the retrieval/review part of the lesson, we spend time on it. It’s responsive teaching.

Pleasingly, it’s taking me any longer to deliver the course than it used to. I spend less time covering new content, but because the pupils can remember more of their previous learning they’re picking things up more quickly. More developed and more rapidly retrieved schema in their long term memory reduces the burden on their working memory. Previously I was encouraged to teach everything as quickly as possible so that we’d have time at the end of the topic/course to revise (reteach is probably a more accurate word) before the test. Now it may take me a little bit longer to get to the end of the course (not as long as I expected) but the need for reteaching is less. Pupils are learning and revising on the foundations of strong understanding.

Challenges

There are a couple of minor challenges as a result of teaching this way, but they are minor and happen for the right reasons.

  1. Lesson titles are a bit redundant. It’s our school policy (as in many schools) for pupils to write the title and date in their books at the start of each lesson. Which title do I use? A title that covers the previous lessons content, or one that covers the current lesson? And then sometimes you (rightly) spend more time than anticipated on the retrieval/review part and don’t even get to the new content… But ultimately, who cares? It doesn’t really matter.
  2. Keeping track of where you are. If you’ve got a few classes in roughly the same part of the learning sequence (and using similar resources) it can sometimes be tricky to keep track of where you are with each class. I spend 10 mins at the end of each day having a quick flick through a couple of books from each class and updating my diary accordingly. No big deal.
  3. The formal lesson observation pro forma doesn’t work. You know what? Good. Gives me a chance to change it and explain why I’m not using the pro forma…

Like so many things that are now part of my teaching, I desperately wish I’d been doing this sooner. My lessons are better and my planning time is reduced. Many of the ITT lesson planning pro forma I’ve seen still focus on the lesson as the unit of planning. I’m doing my best to let them know that there is another way…

Short reflections on ResearchED Blackpool

What a day! Really excellent ResearchED. From a logistical viewpoint; not too far from home (more northern ResearchEDs please!), easy parking, rooms all good size and close together, plenty of refreshments (no vegan options at lunch but I’m over it!), space to socialise and brilliant pupils helping out wherever possible.

The sessions were fantastic. Lots of choice with a good spread of topics. I wanted to quickly jot down some stuff before it leaves my brain, so here goes…

Keynote: Daniel Muijs

Daniel opened by concisely summarising why I became so passionate about evidence-informed practice in the first place. “Being evidence informed is a moral duty”. Ultimately it’s a social justice issue. We are morally obliged to do the best we can for our pupils, and we are best placed to do that if we have a good understanding of the research evidence that’s already available to us. The most disadvantaged pupils are those that need our help most.

Daniel mentioned that despite the big improvement in teacher awareness of research etc there was still a long way to go. I think he’s absolutely right. Despite the great turnout (on a Saturday) to events like ResearchED the number of teachers I’ve met who are aware of, for example Retrieval Practice is still a small minority. Research evidence needs disseminating effectively and staff need the time and resources to engage with it properly. Daniel suggests that we need to “invest further in intermediation”. This is something that I’ve considered a big part of my job for a while now, and I’m more convinced than ever that it’s vitally important.

Ruth Walker

She’ll probably cringe if she reads this, but I can’t think of anyone who has influenced my teaching more in the last few years than Ruth (sorry Adam Boxer, close second because Physics!). This is partly because she’s a force of nature and her output of quality blogs/resources is phenomenal (when does she sleep?) but also because of our (for lack of a better term) Zone of Proximal Development. She’s a fellow physicist on a similar evidence-informed journey, but she’s way ahead of me. I know enough to just about keep up and understand what she’s doing, but every interaction I have with her (whether it’s reading her blogs, watching her present, or discussing things with her) expands my horizons. Adam Boxer is the same. I’m like a year 7 pupil with brilliant Y11 mentors, and I honestly consider myself very privileged to know them.

Ruth’s session today was as mind-blowing as ever. I’d read her blogs on Legitimation Code Theory and love how it helps pick apart the structure of knowledge in Science (and other subjects). However, Ruth talking about it gave it extra clarity. I’m sure she’ll blog about her talk sometime soon, but the standout point for me was her discussion of how and why we should reclaim and rejuvenate How Science Works (although it may need rebranding).

Craig Barton

So much useful practical advice from Craig! I thought I had a pretty good retrieval practice/low stakes quizzing setup established but Craig has given me lots of ideas for how to tweak/improve.

Key points/things to do:

  1. Print quizzes out. I normally project them but printing means more heads down concentrating, fewer distractions. Think if I do this in a well organised way I can get benefits without too much workload increase (although I may get nagged about photocopying).
  2. Get pupils to add confidence scores. I’d read Craig’s blog posts on the Hypercorrection Effect, but his session has convinced me I need to start doing this. Errors made with high confidence are more likely to be corrected than those made in low confidence (Carpenter et al 2018). Craig suggests getting pupils to review wrong answers with the highest confidence scores first. Also has benefit of making pupils more aware of what they know and don’t know.
  3. Get teachers to write each other’s quizzes to avoid bias. This makes sense. Too often have I fired up Retrieval Roulette and repeatedly re-randomised until questions appear that I’m confident I’ve taught them well enough to answer. I shouldn’t avoid the tricky questions.

Amy Forrester and Rob Petrie

I’d already read Amy’s marvellous blog on the Performance Management system at Cockermouth High School. It’s a refreshingly simple and downright sensible system that removes really poor proxies for teacher quality like formal lesson observations and data targets and places personalised staff development as the ONLY focal point. It was great to hear Rob talk passionately about why they’ve taken this approach and to hear Amy talk so positively about the impact it has had on both staff development and workload. I was already convinced that this was the way forward for school appraisal systems but it was great to hear Amy and Rob talk about it first hand.

Robin Macpherson

Robin’s session was on effective questioning. He opened with the classic Ferris Bueller classroom scene (“Anyone? Anyone”) which was unnervingly familiar. A large number of questions that I see teachers ask in the classroom (and I’m guilty of this myself) often become just background noise and aren’t really effective in getting pupils thinking.

Robin highlighted some key strategies for effective questioning from Doug Lemov and Martin Robinson (as published in the excellent What Does It Look Like In The Classroom). An area I feel I need to work on is probing deeper with questions after the initial answer (rather than bouncing it on to another pupil), either by getting pupils to apply their answer to another context or to follow up with further questions (could be as simple as a “because” cue to get them to develop their answers). I could also do with expanding my range of question types, planning my questioning more and thinking more in terms of Ratio (See Lemov, TLAC). Lots to think about! The only thing that Robin suggested that I struggled to see much application of in my classroom was the Harkness method. I can see how it would be useful in other subjects but (at the moment, anyway) it feels like it would have limited usefulness for me (and would take some training to get pupils to use it effectively).

Deep Ghatura

Ok, Deep is my number one assessment expert/nerd, and there was so much to take away from his session that I can’t yet begin to summarise it here. Biggest things for me are:

  1. So much of the summative assessment we do in school is useless
  2. The way we try to measure progress is (at best) rubbish or (at worst) dangerously misleading, potentially leading to a huge opportunity cost by focussing interventions on the wrong pupils
  3. The Rasch method looks like one of the best ways of effectively measuring progress, but the assessments need to be set up carefully to make that possible
  4. Understanding of Assessment is one of my areas for development and I need further training on it. It’s not just me though. I feel I know as much as most of my colleagues do about assessment, but I think it’s something that generally teachers don’t know anywhere nearly enough about.

Deep is truly passionate about the effective use of assessment and it’s impossible to come away from his session without a feeling of excitement about a topic that I normally consider really dry. Deep’s session also included an amazing Physics question on temperature (as an analogy for the importance of zero point data) that I’m going to have to try using with pupils. Ruth and I figured out the answer but we had to think about it (although to be fair it was the end of a long day).

Overall another brilliant ResearchED. Thanks to everyone I listened to/conversed with. Now I need to sit down and do some action points so this valuable experience leads to something more tangible.

Already looking forward to ResearchED Rugby!

The Writing Revolution and blogging

I’ve never really got the hang of blogging. Partly due to time (lack of, although very busy people still seem to manage to do it) but mainly as I didn’t think I would write anything of value to anybody else. Why post stuff online?

This website was initially set up a few years back when I started a (very brief) career as a freelance educational consultant. It was mainly meant as a point of contact, place to explain what I do etc. I rarely used it, as I couldn’t see the point in writing anything. Everything felt a bit cringe. Why would anyone be interested?

I’ve wiped most of the website clean and decided to make an effort to blog more. Not because I’m trying to sell anything (I’m not a freelance consultant anymore, and have nothing to sell). Not (and this is the most liberating part) because I want anyone to read it. I really couldn’t give a monkeys if nobody ever reads this. It’s the writing that’s important.

I’ve been reading (and enjoying) Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution. Although only being about a quarter of the way in, it’s already changing my perception of writing and its benefits in both the Science classroom and my own professional development.

One of the key points that Hochman and Wexler make (and I’m intending to blog about some of the other points at a later date) is that when pupils write about what they’re learning they synthesise information and produce their own interpretations. The writing becomes a significant part of the learning process.

I’m sure to many this is stating the bleeding obvious. But for a significant proportion of my Science teaching career pupils writing was seen as getting in the way of learning Science rather than helping them. Reading and writing was the responsibility of the English department. Whole school literacy initiatives were something that you’d give a nod to in your formal lesson observations, but otherwise wouldn’t consider.

I’m not sure why recognising the value of writing as an aid to learning has taken me so long, but from having conversations with other teachers (both secondary and primary) I know I’m not alone. It seems really obvious to me now.

As Daniel Willingham is ALWAYS quoted as saying, “Memory is the residue of thought”. To write about something effectively requires deep thought.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how this has applied to my own learning. When planning CPD I read extensively, make notes, write my own summaries. It takes time, and the writing is really only extended note form. But the writing allows me to become clear about ideas, concepts, and my own thoughts. By writing stuff out I develop and consolidate my own understanding. Worth noting: this is not the same as the zombie edu-myth The Learning Pyramid (this was the top Duck Duck Go search at time of writing).

The Writing Revolution has some excellent, powerful and manageable strategies for using writing within the curriculum (as well as improving literacy) and I hope to make use of these in lessons next week and beyond. In fact, I can see them becoming an established part of almost every lesson. But that’s for a later post.

In terms of my own professional development, it’s inspired me to write. Not for the purpose of anyone else reading (in some ways I hope these blogs posts are pretty much ignored, although I’d love to hear other people’s perspectives on things, especially if they have contrasting views), but because by writing things down I’m consolidating and developing my own understanding.

I’m going to try and use this blog for exactly this purpose. Chances are it will be education based stuff, but it may also be about the other important things in my life (family, books, running, beer, whatever!)

Big thanks to Rosalind Walker for flagging this book up to me in the first place. I’ve still got a lot of it to read but it’s already making an impact.