The words starter, main and plenary are deeply embedded in education – 10 years ago, no lesson would have been complete without any of these elements.
But as our understanding of teaching and learning changes, is this three-stage approach still an effective way of planning lessons?
In a word: no.
Quick read: How to teach effectively
Quick listen: How to spot education myths
Want more articles like this? Join our Tes Teaching and Learning Facebook group
In the earliest phases of training, teachers are introduced to three-stage lessons. The simplicity of the starter/main/plenary approach allows teachers to break learning into phases. The issue for me is that learning doesn’t work in these big chunks.
As a way of conceptualising the importance of different lesson phases, starters, mains and plenaries are a good introduction – but that’s where it stops.
Lessons need to be planned more intricately than this if we want students to truly succeed and teachers to be able to respond effectively to misconceptions in learning.
So what are the alternatives?
To go straight into new learning wouldn’t be an effective approach so a settling task is a good idea. What I contest, though, is that starter exercises need to be limited to the beginning of a lesson. Instead, we should think of starters as tasks that prompt learning or thinking. This creates a more fluid teaching process that doesn’t limit lessons to focusing on one topic.
Break down material into small steps
Thinking of lessons in anything other than five-minute chunks (except longer-response writing) should be questioned.
New material needs to be introduced in small steps to allow learners to assimilate and process the content. In a 15-minute “main” task, you risk overloading the learners’ working memory and they will quickly disengage.
Instead of thinking of the “main” task as being a huge chunk, break it down into a number of five-minute chunks, each with their own outcome.
The traditional main-task approach can lead to clumpy learning that actually focuses on application halfway through the learning time. Quick-fire tasks can be built up and then used to feed into a final application task instead – a much better use of time.
Checking for misconceptions
Inevitably, misconceptions will arise during learning. It’s our job as teachers to identify and address these misconceptions. By breaking lessons into small chunks, we are able to assess learning significantly more effectively than in a traditional three-part lesson.
Responsive teaching means that you spend more time on the parts of learning that are most difficult for students – that means you need to stop and check (or check while they’re working).
A simple three-part structure just doesn’t allow for that; instead, your teaching needs to be adaptable and reflexive.
Monitored application instead of gimmick plenaries
Traditionally, a plenary consists of five minutes of “checking learning”. We’ve all seen the gimmick exercises (exit cards, flashy games, traffic lights) that show a feeble (often loaded) evaluation of learning that has taken place in a lesson.
What use is this kind of reflection at the end of the lesson? The teacher has no time to address misconceptions that may have arisen.
For me, checking should be taking place while students are applying their new knowledge or understanding, not after a task has finished. Circulation during application means that you are able to effectively ascertain progress without interrupting the learning. Tracking misconceptions and giving live feedback is a much more effective way of evaluating the successes of learning than a five-minute task that took 35 minutes to create the resources for.
Ending a lesson with application also maximises learning time.
Adam Riches is a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English