Part 2: Getting better at planning… confessions of an experienced teacher who should know better

7 Aug

Lesson plan no aim

In the last post, I shared with you my embarrassment at being the kind of teacher who gets over-excited at the sight of a new initiative and that I had been trying hard this year to work out what actually made a difference to students’ learning in my classroom. Luckily, Mel was on hand to share some of her pearls of wisdom as well. As I said before, I’ve been working on only trying to use six starter activities with my classes in the hope that they will get better at making a good start to lessons if they are familiar with the starter routines. The cycle of six starters has definitely made a positive difference to my students and I will continue to refine this when we return in September.

This post focuses on the main part of the lesson where effective planning should allow students to become immersed in their learning and improve their knowledge, understanding and skills. Now the problem that I suffer from, and have done for many years, is that sometimes I lose focus on what really matters: students developing their knowledge of English. I know for some this is a ‘Well, obviously!’ moment, but for me, other things can sometimes get in the way. Let me give you  a flavour of the clearly unimportant things that sometimes take precedence over deep learning.

Problem number one:  I am addicted to PowerPoint 

Death by PowerPoint

“Hello, my name is Debbie and I am a PowerPoint addict:” Without doubt, I need to attend PowerPoint Therapy. Why have I become so addicted to this pesky piece of software? Well, I like things to look nice. Yep, you heard it right. I like to make things look nice – clearly a very important consideration when planning a brilliant lesson…

I laughed out loud reading Alex Quigley’s post on PowerPoint because I am guilty of many of the crimes he exposes. You should read the post if you haven’t done so already.

Now don’t get me wrong. I still think that it’s important to have visual aids in my lessons because I believe that they support my EAL learners to understand new ideas. However, this is no excuse for the ridiculous amount of time I have been known to spend on getting the right auto shape or custom animation for a particular slide. In the past, there have been many times that I’ve looked at my lesson and thought to myself smugly: ‘Wow, this lesson looks the business!’ The reality of me delivering that lesson has been distinctly average. Why? The activities have not been challenging enough or I’ve pitched them too high. This is my first problem that I have had to overcome: spending less time on the aesthetics and more time on the quality of the activity.

Problem number two: I like a busy classroom

Busy classroom

In my classroom, you’d be hard-pressed sometimes to work out what the hell is going on! Students are up and about, talking to each other, looking up things on the computer, moving around tables, doing some role play – and that’s just the first ten minutes. I’ve always detested a quiet classroom but I’ve had this nagging feeling for a while that my students look like they’re learning a lot but in reality might just be working at a superficial level. I’ve had to take a step back this year after reading Stephen Tierney’s post about the difference between good and outstanding learning.

The teacher who consistently teaches good lessons is encouraged to do more and more of the same and eventually ends up confused, trying to tick too many boxes or even worse going backwards. This is a misguided approach as consistently outstanding is about a mindset shift, and as Dylan Wiliam would say, “giving up good things to do great things”. Outstanding is not simply doing more; it’s doing different.

David Didau looks at the problems with progress and makes a distinction in his blog between learning and performance. He discusses what he calls the ‘Monkey Dance’.

This is the Monkey Dance, and is a fairly accurate description of what goes on in far too many observed lessons. Teachers are primed to demonstrate their students’ performance and their observer can nod, smile and tick away to their embittered heart’s content. But there may be little or no learning taking place.

This is a trap I fall into all too often. How on earth are my students expected to really get to grips with something difficult if I’m moving them onto the next exciting thing every ten minutes?! I need to remind myself that two activities can be perfectly sufficient for what they need to learn in a lesson. As Stephen says, it’s about the learner, not the activities. Plan for their needs, not what sounds fun.

Problem number three: I like to talk a lot and I like my students to talk a lot too!

Noisy classroom

I have been known to ask the class a question at the start of the lesson, get really involved with what they’re saying; next thing I know, I look up at the clock and we’ve been talking away for 25 minutes! There goes the lesson plan down the proverbial drain… However, in my mind, the problem isn’t really the discussion that goes on in my classroom – it’s the unfocused, unstructured nature of the talk that needs reigning in. Robin Alexander, in his book Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk, makes the case for talk playing a central role in students’ cognitive development. He argues that students need to be trained how to participate in whole class and group talk. Effective talk, according to Alexander, is when the purpose of the talk is primarily cognitive rather than social.

Neil Mercer uses the term ‘exploratory talk’ in The Guided Construction of Knowledge: talk amongst teachers and learners, which is defined by listening actively; asking questions; challenging other students’ ideas but treating these ideas with respect; giving clear reasons for challenging other ideas; and building on previous ideas to develop a more sophisticated viewpoint. Having read research from Alexander and Mercer, I have been working hard to create firmer boundaries in the classroom so that certain students (and me!) do not dominate the discussion and to ensure that there are some really good questions planned to get students thinking deeply.

So how have I overcome these three big planning problems: caring more about the look of something rather than the quality of the activity; reducing the amount of activities and giving students time to immerse themselves in their learning; and structuring talk to focus on developing students’ cognitive processes rather than just the social aspects of learning.

Overcoming problem one: challenging students through differentiated tasks

Rather than worrying too much about what my PowerPoint looks like, I’ve been focusing my attentions on getting the students into the routine of choosing their main learning task. These are labelled ‘warm’, ‘hot’ and ‘scorching’. Although students can choose, I talk with students about what I think they should be aiming to achieve. I encourage them to push themselves and there is a climate of trust in my classroom so that it’s absolutely fine for a student to work through a ‘warm’ and ‘hot’ task or perhaps start with the ‘scorching’ task and realise they’re not quite there yet and so need to attempt the ‘hot’ one first. I still use PowerPoint but I use it to draw three coloured squares with the task descriptions in them. Here is an example from An Inspector Calls lesson.

Warm task

Hot task

Scorching task

In every lesson, students see these different coloured tasks. At first, some students didn’t push themselves and opted for the warm task but after seeing that I was keeping a record of what tasks they were choosing as well as some healthy competition amongst their peers, students soon started to choose an appropriate level of challenge. When deciding on whether a task was ‘warm’, ‘hot’ or ‘scorching’, I use the different SOLO taxonomy stages; I find this very useful in ensuring there is increasing challenge in knowledge and understanding.

Overcoming problem two: slowing down the learning

Apart from using the ‘warm’, ‘hot’, ‘scorching’ model, I have adapted the way I teach to include more modelling and critiquing of what is produced by students in class. Before, I was so concerned with pace that I missed many opportunities for students to really think about what they were doing, how well they were doing it and how they can use their new knowledge, understanding or skills effectively in different contexts.

Modelling is absolutely key to students mastering anything new. In English, students need to be articulate and confident speakers, read critically and write fluently. In the past, I have taken for granted that students can do these things naturally; many of them can’t and need exemplars so they know what excellence looks like. To help students use an academic register, my main strategy is to put some informal words on the board so students have an idea about what it is I will be explaining. When I am talking, I asks students to listen out for any words that I use which correspond to the informal words written on the board. After I finish, students tell me academic words they heard and we discuss what they informal counterpart might be. At the back of students’ books, we record new vocabulary that we hear or read during lessons. This vocabulary building is essential if students are to progress in English. Below is an example from an Of Mice and Men lesson of how I highlight the difference between informal and academic vocabulary with my classes.

Informal languageAcademic language

If we are reading, I’ll model first with a short passage from a text how I would read actively using our four reading roles.


What questions would you ask the writer?

Content Summariser

What are the key points raised in the text?

Language Locater

What language does the writer use to make the reader have a specific reaction?

Structure Commentator

How is the text organised to create a particular effect on the reader?

If we are writing, I’ll display my first draft on the board and ask students to come up and edit it using the ABC critique model: add something new; build on an idea that is underdeveloped; correct or challenge something that you have read.

Critiquing each other’s work takes a long time but I believe it’s been worth it and has made a significant difference to the quality of my students’ work. Since my students are only doing a couple of activities a lesson rather than four or five more superficial activities, they are writing more now; this has allowed students to really critique the work and give specific feedback to each other using Ron Berger’s rules.

Be Kind.

Be Specific.

Be Helpful.

After students have received their feedback, we now build in time for students to act upon their feedback and understand that preparing a speech, analysing a text or writing their own original pieces is a constant cycle of drafting, critiquing and editing.

Overcoming problem three: structuring our talk

This year, I have used Socratic questioning to structure the talk that happens in my class. If I’m honest, students found this much more difficult than I had anticipated. I thought they would happily ask these questions and, hey presto, their thinking would transform overnight. These are the questions students have been using.

  • What has made you think this?
  • Will this always be the case?
  • What evidence is there to confirm your point?
  • Is there another way of looking at this?
  • How does X affect Y?
  • Why do you think the original question I posed is important?

The reality is it’s been a hard slog. They resisted initially and either stopped talking altogether or tried to have a quiet chat that they hoped I wouldn’t be able to hear. To overcome this, I chose a topic that I knew they had much to say on: all students at our school should be given an iPad (only our 6th formers have an iPad at present). I made them go through the different questions to really hone their argument and they were able to do this well. Once they’d been able to engage with Socratic questioning, they were able to do it with different stimuli. It is still difficult months on but I think this level of challenge is necessary and shouldn’t be shied away from just because it’s hard.

So that’s it folks. These three changes this year have made such a difference to what goes on in my classroom. In the next post, Mel will be sharing with you some of the tweaks she has made to her planning to develop the quality of her students’ learning.

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