I am all for the research revolution in teaching: that we now interrogate our ideas through the filter of evidence is, overall, a good thing. But there is a risk here, too, of overcomplication.
Lost in the countless variables of interpreting research we can begin to make our teaching messier, not more effective.
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Planning is a particularly high-risk area. There is such a flood of research around how we sequence learning and what we need to consider that we could soon end up trying to cram too many considerations in, leaving us and the learners confused.
As a response to that, I work from a simple checklist when planning that ensures I stay on track. I share it in the hope it helps others do the same. It looks like this.
1. Start with the bigger picture
Before setting out what I want to do in individual lessons, I need to know how each unit of teaching time fits into the bigger picture. This means that, while teaching the lesson, I can take every opportunity possible to summarise and make links to wider learning.
2. Ensure each lesson has a clear objective
Too often, we can become fixed on knowledge acquisition – “by the end of this lesson, they will know ‘x’ and be able to move on to ‘y’”. Learning does not work like that. Consider how you are going to not only teach the information but also which activities you will use to establish tenable opportunities to rehearse previous learning, practice new learning and sharpen the skills that you have been working on over time. Ensure children know the purpose of what they are learning and what success will look like.
3. Prepare the right questions
Consider the types of questions you may want to introduce to support children to think deeply about the topic. We don’t want to just feed them the information, we also want them to question knowledge and assimilate it themselves. And we want them to consider the learning process, too. Example questions for this may include:
How do you know when you have learned or understood something?
What did you say in your head when you were learning?
When you find something difficult, what helps you?
How do you feel when you learn something new?
4. Include time for paired and group discussions
At our school, we believe that talk is one of the essential tools of teaching. Children (and adults) need opportunities to talk, and to experience a rich diet of spoken language, in order to think and learn. The development of language is an integral part of each learner’s cognitive development. So, we need to ensure this happens. Give opportunities to your children to talk about their learning. Give opportunities for children to build upon each other’s ideas and to debate and question each other. Ensure that you give sufficient thinking time to enable all children to have the opportunity to think before answering. This time for dialogue should, ideally, be built into your planning.
5. Ensure that you are challenging all children
Look over the plan. Is there enough challenge for every child? Too much challenge for some? We need to consider how you will meet the learning needs of all children. Effective differentiation is essential to ensure all children have equity and fairness of access to the curriculum. To be able to effectively differentiate, you will need to develop a holistic understanding of each child and this goes beyond simply ticking off targets. Take the time beforehand to visualise each child’s potential engagement in the learning activities.
Dr Kulvarn Atwal is currently executive headteacher of two large primary schools in the London Borough of Redbridge. He has just published his first book, The Thinking School – Developing a Dynamic Learning Community