The three-part lesson: starter, main and plenary.
Sound familiar? Probably. Sound effective? When you stop to think about it, it really doesn’t.
Even if we were to follow that structure religiously, what would each element actually entail? What does one do as a starter; what’s its purpose? Is the main bit called that because it takes the most amount of time? Do you even know the definition of the word plenary?
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During my time as a teacher I’ve discovered that learning doesn’t really fit neatly into a planning document that is split into three boxes. I’ve found out that one hour-ish slots of time (often called "lessons") shouldn’t all follow the same format.
What is a three-part lesson?
"Lessons" should be thought of as part of a longer sequence of learning, for a start; and, depending on what’s gone before and what is yet to come, the "lessons" can and should take different forms.
I’m not about to propose anything wacky, and many teachers will recognise this advice as just plain common sense, but for others it might be the licence they need to get out of the three-part lesson box.
Rosenshine’s principles of effective instruction are a great starting point for thinking through what a session (I’ll use this from now on to describe the allotted period of time for any particular class and subject you teach) should involve logistically.
In short, where session design is concerned, we should be factoring in the following: review of previous learning; presentation of new material in small steps supported by modelling; time for practice, both guided and independent; and questioning, including questions that check pupils’ understanding.
Changing the lesson
There are other aspects to take into account when planning the lesson’s specific content, but that’s another article for another day.
How might you change the format of your sessions to better suit the needs of the children? Here are a few pointers to get you thinking, but this is by no means an exhaustive list of possible lesson structures.
1. Review previous material first
This could be material taught during the previous session, concepts taught a week before, or a month before. Revisiting older content aids memory and provides a foundation for new learning to be built on. Choose what you review carefully and pupils will be ready to add to what they already know in a meaningful way.
2. Consider the nature of the review
Review could be adult-led, or it could be independent. Think about what the pupils could be doing to review previous material: a quiz, answering a question, writing an explanation, giving an example of a rule – none of these mean that the adult has to stand at the front and start the lesson. Instructions could be on the board as children come in, freeing the adult up to target children for extra input (based on assessment from a previous session).
3. Begin with assessment
The end of a previous session isn’t always the best time to attempt to find out what children have learned. If they have remembered it the next day or the next week, that is probably a better indicator of what they know. There’s nothing wrong with having pupils get on with a task straight away if it is going to inform how you teach them during the rest of the session.
4. Practice makes progress
Similar to review, this part of a session could conceivably come first if you know that the children just need more practice of material from a previous session. In such an instance, pupils will simply continue where they left off when the bell rang for break the previous day – when learning is planned as a sequence over several sessions, this is fairly likely to be the case. It may then be appropriate for the teacher to provide instruction after a period of such practice in order to move children on into another period of practice. Alternatively, children could complete a task that requires them to use and apply their previous knowledge in a particular way.
5. Build in regular understanding checks
Not to be confused with "mini-plenaries": plenary refers to a part of a meeting that all delegates must attend – it’s highly unlikely that stopping all children and attempting to find out what each one understands is actually possible. A major role of the adult in the classroom is to be checking for understanding and providing the necessary feedback – waiting until the end of the session to do this is counter-productive.
6. Small steps
Material to be taught should be broken down into small, manageable steps. Often, however, a big meaty chunk of time is spent explaining (and sometimes demonstrating, but not always, sadly) a complex process or idea before children are supposed to practise it. Think about how everything you teach might be broken down into bite-size pieces and then alternate between instruction from the teacher and guided or independent practice time for the children (with built-in understanding checks and feedback, of course).
7. Split input and staggered practice
Children work at different speeds, struggle with different concepts and require different amounts of support. When designing the format of a session always ask: do all children need to be a part of this part?
The answer will often be no and this can be planned for, with a bit of creative thinking.
For example (and there are myriad ways of exemplifying this), provide some whole-class instruction then set a task. As children complete the task, circle the room checking for understanding, asking questions and providing feedback where necessary.
As you do, make a list of children who have rapidly grasped the concept and move them on to something that develops their learning – an activity you have ready for such children. These children do not need to be part of a review of the task – others will need to go through the answers and have better ones modelled to them.
The main thing to bear in mind with this approach is to have a sequence of activities ready for children to move onto in their own time.
8. Targeted input and practice
Using assessment date from previous lessons (a simple page in a notebook with lists of names of children who achieved similarly helps here) something similar to the above can be done.
A group of children could receive instruction from the teacher, while other children complete a review activity or continue with further practice of the previous session’s concept.
Then, when those who received instruction get on with some practice, the teacher can provide some input to the other group, moving them on in their understanding.
Aidan Severs is a deputy head at a primary school in the North of England. He tweets @thatboycanteach