Picture the scene – you’ve spent ages planning what you think is a great lesson, delivery seems to have gone well so far and in the remaining five or ten minutes students complete your well-planned plenary activity. You review the response to the plenary, be it through questioning (targeted or otherwise), exit slips, mini whiteboard responses or quiz results, and find that students have demonstrated a great understanding of the topic/skill/concept that was covered.
Fast forward a few days. You have the same class again and, in an attempt to bring the previous lessons’ learning to the forefront of the mind, you have a few short questions for students to answer, maybe even differentiated to suit a range of abilities. But it becomes very quickly apparent that the fantastic understanding that the class had when they left the same room a few short days ago has all but vanished. This immediately puts you in a difficult position. Do you hope for the best and press ahead? Do you pause and decided to reteach part or maybe even all of the previous topic? Do you even have the luxury of choice, with a large specification to cover and little to no spare time? No easy answer and certainly no ‘always correct’ solution, depending on context. I have found myself in this situation and I would expect that many others have too. So what exactly went wrong? How could you potentially avoid this in the future?
As with most problems in a profession that has such an array of complex and ever-changing variables it is hard to pin down the exact reason. Could it be that the class have just come from a very intense lesson in another subject that has left them drained? I am most certainly guilty at times of forgetting that the hour I spend with a class is one of multiple across the day. Could it be that the gap between lessons with this class is longer than normal? Could it be that they have all simply forgotten?
I suspect that actually, it is none of the above-mentioned reasons which has resulted in this tricky situation. The most difficult aspect of the problem is being totally unaware of it beforehand, otherwise, it would have been possible to plan an appropriate intervention. I think the issue here is the plenary activity in the previous lesson. While these can take many forms, the purpose is similar – what can the pupils in this room demonstrate that they have learned in the lesson? There are a few issues with this. First, if a plenary demonstrates to you that a class do not have the desired understanding/met the desired outcomes of a lesson, surely the last minute is the worst possible time to become aware. Your only option is to let students leave and take with them a potentially damaging mix of misconceptions and misunderstandings. Granted, you can plan to address this, but there is a very real risk of these misconceptions festering and undoing previous hard work. The second – and most important issue for me – is how can you be sure that the ‘learning’ demonstrated in a plenary is actually that? Unless your plenary is particularly well designed, it is more likely that students are mimicking what they have seen in the lesson. Rendering the whole activity more or less pointless.
The alternative? Aim to spend as much of the lesson as possible conducting petite plenaries on a much smaller scale. Whilst students are working, visit as many of them as you can (I endeavour to get around to everyone, wherever possible!) and judge how well you feel they are grasping the material. Make use of targeted questioning and trust your professional judgement. This way, you can create an almost continuous feedback loop for yourself and ensure that any misunderstandings are dealt with swiftly and effectively. Whole class feedback can work well here and I try to have more than one activity in the locker ready to go to allow me to more easily respond to what I see unfolding, I then tend to set the other for homework if it is suitable and I am happy that it falls at the right time for the students based on what I’ve seen in the lesson. This means that my teaching can be more flexible in order to fit the needs of the individuals I have in front of me. If I teach a lesson to multiple classes in a single year, I find it useful to anonymise work from pupils and use it as a discussion point with other classes, almost preempting common problems based on recent experience. This can be especially useful for an NQT or anyone teaching a topic for the first time because it means that over a short period of time you can develop a sequence of lessons which has the benefit of multiple run-throughs.
Matt Pearson @mattpearson1991 is a Physics teacher in the UK. Recently working as Head of Physics at a secondary school in Buckinghamshire, he is currently starting work in ITT.