Is it time to ditch the rule of three?

4th May 2012 at 01:00
Ofsted says it's a 'myth' that it only wants to see rigid, three-part lessons. Helen Ward considers the alternatives

"Everywhere you go, you find leadership teams demanding a 'teaching by numbers' approach," a former head from Stafford wrote to TES recently. "They expect all teachers to complete a lesson-planning form detailing a 'starter', a 'main part' and a 'plenary'. Straitjackets come to mind." ("Sir Michael, you are spoiling us", Letters, 6 April.)

The predictable three-act lesson of modern teaching has become a template that many educators in England and Wales feel forced to follow.

It grew out of the national literacy and numeracy strategies, brought in after Labour was elected in 1997. The literacy hour came first in 1998, although it was, in fact, a rigid four-act lesson: 15 minutes of whole-class reading or writing; 15 minutes on word and sentence work; 20 minutes of group work; and a 10-minute plenary. The literacy strategy framework said that teaching needed "a sense of urgency, driven by the need to make progress and succeed".

It was the numeracy hour, which arrived a year later, that cemented the three-act format - a whole-class "starter" activity, the main lesson and a plenary.

To their credit, the strategies appear to have had a strong impact. Those children who began Year 1 in 1998 took their A levels last summer, clocking up the highest pass rate for the 29th consecutive year.

The national strategies no longer exist, as they were first merged and finally scrapped last year. But the three-act lesson has taken on a life of its own. In some cases, headteachers insist on it because they think it is what inspectors want.

However, two recent pronouncements from Ofsted show that this is no longer true. The first was in Ofsted's report Moving English Forward, published in March, in which it says that standards are not yet high enough for all pupils. It suggests that children are being hampered by the "myths" of what makes a good lesson, saying these lead to "excessive pace, overloading of activities, inflexible planning and limited time for pupils to work independently".

Last month, the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was even blunter in an article in TES ("We can do better", 30 March). "I want to lay to rest the myth that inspectors want to see a certain kind of lesson," he wrote. Lessons, he said, should be planned but not "formulaic".

"If an inspector walks into a classroom and the pupils are working on an extended task for the whole time, that's fine," he argued. "If a teacher is reading a play with the class and they are all engaged, that's fine too. There should be no prescription about lesson structure."

So is it time to ditch the three-act lesson? Or does the plenary have life in it yet?

The starter

Pie Corbett is a respected consultant on primary education. He believes that there is nothing inherently wrong with the classic three-part lesson, where the teacher introduces a topic, the children practise it and then there is discussion about, and assessment of, what has been learned. But he is keen for teachers to realise that this is not the only way to teach.

"Some sessions may not start with teaching at all," he suggests. "For instance, the children might enter the room to find there are floury footprints everywhere and the bin has been turned over - what has happened?"

Enquiry-based approaches like this have certainly proved popular in primary schools. Hence, around the country, pupils arrive at school to discover that aliens have crash-landed or dinosaur eggs have appeared overnight. Meanwhile, other pupils put their coats on to go out and interview people for their class newspaper or do research for tourist information leaflets.

Similarly, some members of the The Write Team, an organisation that sends professional writers into schools, like to start lessons with a suitcase full of items, leaving pupils to decide on the story of the owner.

And there are other ways to start a lesson that do not go for the "surprise" option or the more standard starter activity with the lesson objective on the board. These include asking the children to listen to a story read by another class or watching a poet perform on screen.

If you are taking a more standard approach, and starting a lesson by saying what you are going to do, Corbett believes it can also be worth asking pupils what they already know, to help shape the lesson and avoid covering old ground.

Teachers should also be careful about assuming that the start of the lesson is the best place for something exciting and attention-grabbing. Research from Dan Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in the US, shows that, while teachers often look for a hook to begin the lesson, this is not the only place - indeed, not even necessarily the most suitable place - for the attention-grabber. Instead, what about at the end of the lesson, to help to consolidate what has been learned?

The middle

In his book Visible Learning for Teachers, Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne in Australia recommends that lessons contain just two vital sections. Teachers should start by helping pupils to understand the intention of the lesson and show them what success might look like at the end.

However, he also points out that the middle needs attention, too: open-ended activities such as discovery learning and preparing PowerPoint presentations can make it difficult to keep pupils focused on what matters.

Any teaching method needs prompt feedback to teachers so they can see whether the pupils are thinking about what is being taught in the right way.

Ian Worthington, head of Castle View Primary in Runcorn, believes it is important to ensure that teachers do this throughout the lesson, rather than leaving it to a plenary at the end.

The school runs regular "writing workshops" for pupils, structured around the importance of teacher feedback. "I would describe our writing workshops as an ongoing plenary," Worthington says. "It's about reviewing during the lesson."

The lessons in the workshop do, in fact, begin with a starter activity linked to that day's task, lasting perhaps five or 10 minutes. Next, the teacher introduces a particular type of writing, such as suspense writing, encourages pupils to come up with ideas of their own and draws their attention to factors such as paragraph structuring.

"The children feed back and teachers share these ideas around, so children can steal ideas from one another," Worthington says. "Then we go on to individual writing for 20-25 minutes with a lot of input from the teacher. The teacher may work with one group or walk around looking over shoulders. I expect them to be assessing how every child is responding to the task."

This approach means that all the work in that lesson, whether it is talking, writing or reading, is aimed at feeding into the final piece of writing.

The school's programme is so successful that it was included in Ofsted's 2011 Excellence in English report. About half the school's pupils are eligible for free school meals, but every one of them made two levels of progress between Years 2 and 6 in the three consecutive years to 2010.

The plenary

One of the largest pieces of research into the impact of education in England, the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) study, comes out in favour of plenaries.

For the study, observers watched teachers in 125 schools impart - or fail to impart - knowledge from 2004-05. The resulting EPPSE report, Effective Primary Pedagogical Strategies in English and Mathematics in Key Stage 2, says: "Organisation (of classroom routines and the structure of lessons) is almost universally accepted as an important element of effective pedagogy.

"Regarding lesson structure, observed practice was rated more favourably in classes where plenaries - an essential part of each lesson as outlined in the National Strategies - took place."

The plenary is supposed to be an opportunity to draw together what has been taught and highlight the most important points. Pupils should reflect on and summarise what they have learned, giving teachers the chance to rectify misunderstandings and assess progress.

However, in many schools it appears to have turned into something else: teachers standing at the front, telling children what they have learned.

Ofsted has warned that the plenary session is the weakest part of the literacy hour. Inspectors say that effective plenaries are not just about summing up, but going forward. In one Year 1 lesson they highlighted, in which the class had written half a story together, the teacher used the plenary to ask pupils: "I wonder if you can tell me tomorrow what Molly Mouse did next."

Sara Bubb, senior lecturer at the University of London's Institute of Education, is an expert in teacher training. "I've seen plenty of plenaries done for their own sake, where it is just like show and tell and it doesn't add anything to the learning," she says. "Plenaries should be about pulling together children's learning, so they don't need to be just at the end of the lesson. You can have mini-plenaries throughout a lesson when you look at what has been learned and what children need to know. They can be done through peer-marking or self-marking.

"I've seen a class where children were asked to grade the lesson on three points: how much they enjoyed it, how much they learned, and how much effort they put in. Then they could reflect on the interlinking between those grades - the fact that you can enjoy something but not learn much if you put no effort in."

Corbett suggests that teachers could also consider a two-day lesson, in which the plenary is held at the start of the following day's lesson, with pupils giving their feedback. The other advantage of this is that teachers can adjust their plans according to pupils' work on the first day.


Planning and pace are important. The EPPSE study found that excellent teachers maintained a good pace and ensured that every second counted. In contrast, those in poor schools had lessons that started off slowly, drifted around and wasted time between one activity and the next.

But, as Ofsted has indicated, if you go overboard and hurry through an overly detailed plan, this can lead to formulaic and ineffective teaching. Corbett agrees. "There is a real problem with 'overplanning' in many schools," he says. "The difficulty is that young teachers feel they have to stick rigidly to (the three-act lesson), so they spend hours drawing this plan up and end up not teaching, but going through a plan.

"A strong and detailed medium plan is essential. However, weekly teaching notes need to be adapted as (teachers) move through the sessions, so that what happens on Monday determines Tuesday and what happens on Tuesday shapes Wednesday.

"Teachers have to 'read the class' rather like a conductor working with an orchestra - slowing down, speeding up, pausing for thinking time."

Worthington agrees that primary teachers should think more in terms of a week than a single lesson. He has helped to support schools in writing and has seen well-structured and pacy lessons, where children were asked to complete a whole series of different tasks during the week and then expected to write a story that had no relation to any of those tasks on Friday. The lesson structure was there, but the lack of a week-long structure confused the pupils.

"That's the structure you need," he says. "I don't think anybody needs a big clock - all it does is suggest to children that some parts of the lesson are worth more time than others."

This view is shared by Bubb. "In the old literacy hour, the structure overtook things and people were absolutely clock-watching. They couldn't go over the 10 minutes allocated for a task, even if the children were fully engaged and it was really valuable."

Corbett is wary of anything that distracts teachers from their core purpose of teaching, whether that is feeling that they have to stick to an over-paced, inflexible lesson, or trying to do something more flexible but without the preparation needed to ensure that all children benefit.

"I think, like many teachers, that some of my most effective sessions have been when a thought has come to me and I have 'invented' something totally unplanned, on the spot with the children," he says. "Of course, I have internalised patterns for teaching, but it is true that following a hunch, teaching instinctively, can be very powerful."


Hattie, J. Visible Learning for Teachers: maximizing impact on learning (2011). Routledge

Moving English Forward: action to raise standards in English (2012). Ofsted

Excellence in English: what we can learn from 12 outstanding schools (2011). Ofsted

The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools (1996). Ofsted

Siraj-Blatchford, I. et al. Effective Primary Pedagogical Strategies in English and Mathematics in Key Stage 2: a study of Year 5 classroom practice from the EPPSE 3-16 longitudinal study (2011). Department for Education


1. Classic three-part. The teacher introduces and teaches. Children practise and apply. The threads are pulled together at the end and the teacher checks what has been learned.

2. Two-day lesson. On day one, the children keep working. The plenary is held on day two. It begins with feedback from the previous day, often using a visualiser (a modern version of an overhead projector) with a few children talking through their work. Not only do children spend more time working on day one, but the teacher can look at the children's work and use it to think about how to run the next day's session.

3. Some sessions might not start with teaching at all. For instance, the children might enter the room to find that there are floury footprints everywhere and the bin has been turned over - what has happened?

4. Some sessions might start with the teacher saying, "This is what we are going to do," but then asking the pupils, "What do you already know?" In some subjects, eliciting prior knowledge is vital as it helps the teacher to shape what needs to be learned next and avoids covering old ground.


Pace was once a defining characteristic of the literacy hour, but has it accelerated out of control? Pace can be useful as an indication of how well-planned a lesson is, but simply doing things quickly is not an end in itself.

Pace itself is a fairly slippery concept. While it has many definitions, the National Literacy Strategy seemed to have just one. "Like the approach to lesson structure, the approach to pace was monolithic," says Professor Robin Alexander (below), director of the Cambridge Primary Review, in the body's final report.

Citing his own research, he points out: "To focus on organisational pace as an end in itself was probably counterproductive. The pace that matters in classrooms in 'interactive pace' (the pace of teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil exchanges), 'cognitive pace' (the speed at which conceptual ground is covered) and 'learning pace' (how fast pupils actually learn). The critical issue ... has to be the relationship of interactive pace to cognition and learning."

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