Wednesday 4 September 2013

Can I be that little bit planning lessons?

In my previous post I highlighted the point that after a number of years of rambling through new ideas, theories and strategies, it was time to actually sit down and reflect on how to improve the learning that takes place in my lessons.  It is time to cull the ineffective practice and gimmicks, in substitution for a deliberately chosen approach that reflects my current thinking.  It is time to think about designing lessons that get the best out of my students.  It is time to come up with a plan.....about planning.

As a PE teacher traditionally trained to deliver practical lessons, a very fundamental and ridiculously basic approach to planning a lesson could look something like this:

- Key question/Driving question/Hook into the lesson content/Learning intentions
Students get changed
- Warm up linked to the focus of the lesson content
- Teach the skill/tactic/content
- Deliberate practice of that skill
Planned opportunities throughout the practice to give and receive feedback
Teacher intervention, feedback and evaluation
- Teacher whole class feedback and error correction
- Opportunity to practice the skill/tactic/content and work on correcting errors
Planned opportunities throughout the practice to give and receive feedback
Teacher intervention, feedback and evaluation
- Apply the skill/tactic/content to a wider context (challenging, higher order task - a conditioned game for example)
Planned opportunities throughout the practice to give and receive feedback
Teacher intervention, feedback and evaluation
- Teacher whole class feedback (with student evaluation and feedback)
- Link to future learning (what is coming next and where today's lesson fits into the bigger scheme of things)

Now in addition to this, you would obviously plan the type of tasks you do to highlight or embed the learning.  You would plan how your groups would work, opportunities for responsibility, resources, questions and so on.  And after years of teaching practical lessons, I'd probably say that I am confident in delivering a a half decent one.  But here's the problem.  No one ever taught me how to teach theory lessons.  Not in any depth anyway.  We spent a small time at University touching the surface of the topic, but never actually spending time understanding the difference (mainly due to the fact we teach far more practical than theory).  

Many an early year I used my 30 slide powerpoint and chalked and talked my way through theory lessons.  Obviously students became restless, learning wasn't great and I never knew what was wrong.  I then went the complete opposite and chucked in numerous gimmicks and activities with fireworks, pyrotechnics and smoke machines.  Students were up and about, sorting cards, filling in sheets, speed dating, learning on their own......but were they?  Were they actually learning and remembering what I taught?  Again, something wasn't working but at last I had pretty much worked out what.  I'd realised that I had been at each end of the spectrum.  Neither approach I had used allowed me to get the content to be learnt in any real depth.  There was no real strategies to embed and ingrain the content to memory.  No meaningful recall.  Instead I was rambling my way through lessons full of shallow learning.  My planning and understanding of how to plan a great lesson was only just coming together.  

Since then a number of interesting and key points have become common practice.  They don't always produce great theory lessons.  Sometimes they bomb right in front of my eyes.  Putting all of these things in one lesson might not necessarily work or might over complicate things.  But what follows are a number of considerations and points that will form part of my thinking for the current year.  I won't use all of them all of the time, but having an understanding and an eye on them should make what I do that little bit more effective.

1 - Know your subject and content
This goes without question.  It is essential that we know the content and topics we are delivering.  As teachers we are the primary source of information for students and having a good grasp on what we are teaching is vital.  Many a lesson I have to re-read or recap what it is I will be teaching.  I aim to know enough that I can answer as many questions as possible, and have enough depth in my understanding that I can stretch theirs.  With a concrete subject knowledge it is then important to plan what to do with it.  As Hattie talks about in Visible Learning for Teachers, being able to determine what elements of a topic need to be concentrated on more, what sequence would be best to teach it, what context is most appropriate for the material and so on is very important.  Seeing things through the eyes of your class (which differ immensely from group to group) is a real skill and needs that planning time to ensure you deliver what they need to know the best way for them.  As a teacher, doing my homework and background preparation ensures I can plan effectively.

2 - Where possible, plan collaboratively
"Planning can be done in many ways, but the most powerful is when teachers work together to develop plans, develop common understandings of what is worth teaching, collaborate on understanding their beliefs of challenge and progress, and work together to evaluate the impact of their planning on student outcomes."
Hattie 2012

This isn't always possible with the endless paper tasks and additional responsibilities we all have.  It is though an important factor to consider and one which we should all make time for.  Using colleagues to bounce ideas off of can be an excellent way of designing lessons.  There have been numerous times when I actively seek out colleagues and run ideas past them.  I know many departments set time aside to collaboratively plan larger schemes of work, but having a critical buddy to work with on individual lessons can be a great resource.  

"The co-planning of lessons is the task that has one of the highest likelihoods of making a marked positive difference on student learning."
Hattie 2012
Find time, allocate it somewhere on your timetable and aim to meet up to plan lessons.  Ron Berger in his book 'An Ethic of Excellence' talks frequently about how his fellow teachers meet regularly and critique each others plans.  Jeff Robin from High Tech High always runs project tuning sessions within his faculty.  This scrutiny of ideas can only improve the quality of the lesson you are planning.

3 - Keep it simple
"Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler"
Albert Einstein 
I can't stress this enough.  In my own experience, if I can see that what I am planning seems a lot, it usually is.  Instead of lots of little tasks and activities, using a few with dedicated time committed to them allows my students the opportunity they need to spend time really learning the content.  Busy doesn't always mean they are learning. As Daniel T. Willingham talks about in Why Don't Students Like School, "without some attention, a lesson plan can become a long string of teacher explanations, with little opportunities for students to solve problems".  This has happened to me in my early stage where over complicating what we did in a lesson restricted the time to meaningfully engage in actual learning.  It also makes it difficult for students to remember things long term if there is not enough time spent thinking and making meaning about information. 

Over the years I have seen that the learning I plan in my lessons takes time if students are to grasp it.  As Willingham states, "thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain' so it's up to me to ensure there is time planned for this to happen.  Time to discuss, question, answer and reflect are better spent than simple tasks that rarely stretch the mind.  You'd be surprised at how quickly time can fly when students get fully involved in their learning.  Identify what is important.  What will make students think?  What will help students get a firm grasp of the content knowledge you are sharing?  Focus on that and ditch the rest.

4 - Learning objectives or not?

This will be the discussion of my next post where I aim to clarify poor use of them and how to have them make more of an impact in lessons.  Whether or not you believe in LO's, or even have a choice in using them, as Wiliam and Hattie talk about, lessons and learning need an aim/outcome/goal (as long as it doesn't spoil the journey - D.Wiliam).  Before planning the content of my lesson it's important to identify what the aim or intention is.  Students also need to know this so they understand what they have learnt, where they are and what they need to do next.  Understandably, hand in hand with LO's comes clear and transparent success criteria.  Planning to incorporate these in lessons is key.  Pull out these objectives or intentions from the curriculum, schemes of work or syllabus.  But don't let this restrict you.  Be brave enough to go beyond what is prescribed but be wary of time limitations.

5 - Learning first, then activities

"It is relatively easy to think up cool stuff for students to do in classrooms, but the problem with such activity based approach is that too often, it is not clear what the students are going to learn"
D.Wiliam 2011

Always plan what you want students to learn first.  Many a naive day as an early teacher I spent hours making and resourcing lessons with numerous activities.  Many of these rarely got beyond the surface level of what I was teaching and hardly got them thinking at all.  Cutting, sticking, putting in envelopes.....cripes!  Tessa Matthews tweeted a comment out a while back stating:

"Just remember the golden rule: If a resource takes longer to make than to deliver, don't do it!"  

Only because of mistakes in the past I now tend to agree.  Planning fewer and stronger activities with less resources and more thinking are far more purposeful.  If there is one thing I've learnt, it is that learning something takes time.  It can also be slow and we must allocate this time to students to focus on what is important.  If we consider what cognitive scientists say as well, sometimes these activities actually divert attention from the real learning and causes it not to be learnt at all.  I also feel that constructing less resourced activities means that I create more time to at home to mark students books, think about my opportunities for feedback, begin to identify the key questions I may ask in lessons and so on.  Personally this for me has been a much more effective use of my time and impacts the learning in my classroom more than anything else.  Think of simpler yet stronger questions.  Design activities that challenge and promote thinking.  Use tasks that help understand meaning as well analyse, evaluate, hypothesise and predict.  Time for me to be more effective and efficient.

6 - Looping the learning
This has been my thought for a long time from teaching practical lessons.  Cycles or loops play a very prevalent part in my planning.   Every time I teach a skill, it always loops back round and then spirals into the next lesson.  In fact it's the bread and butter of what PE teachers (in my experience) do.  It allows knowledge to be learnt, embedded, assessed and then applied to the next topic.  Bringing the learning full circle at the end of a lesson and seeing what has been achieved and what is still left to learn also informs future planning.  This was reinforced when I first dabbled with the Accelerated Learning Cycle in theory lessons (TEEP is an adapted version of this).  The cycle ensures that learning is visited, worked on, revisited, fed back upon, revisited.....  Since then the foundations of my planning has been focused on moving away from a linear pathway to a singular goal, instead looping the learning and then spiraling this into new topics.  Going full circle allows me to return to the aim of the lesson and ascertain whether it has been learnt.  If it hasn't, I can work through a cycle on that particular aspect and then return to assess understanding again.

7 - SOLO (Oh no!) and other structures
As a planning tool in itself, SOLO has been revolutionary in my teaching.  Love it or hate it, using it as made what I teach, the order or sequence I teach it in, much clearer.  It's fundamental ideology of teaching an idea, the facts, relating them and then extending or manipulating the content makes perfect sense to me.  As Hattie states in Visible Learning:

"Teachers need to move from the single idea to multiple ideas, and to relate and then extend those ideas such that learners construct, and reconstruct, knowledge and ideas.  It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner's construction of this knowledge and ideas that is critical"

SOLO has allowed me in terms of planning to structure what it is I intend to teach. Our subject (GCSE PE) requires knowing and understanding lots of individual pieces of information.  For the particular topic we're focusing on, it helps me break down what are the core components that need to be taught.  It allows me to build up knowledge very clearly which can then be built upon with new knowledge or meaning.  Once this knowledge is learnt it can then be linked to other concepts with their relationships explored.  We can then go even higher up the taxonomy and think about transferring this knowledge to new situations or asking abstract questions.  By it's nature it goes from shallow to deep learning.  SOLO doesn't have to be shared with students explicitly.  If its only use is to merely inform your planning it helps ensure the depth of content can be clearly and visibly covered.  SOLO isn't the only way of planning lessons though.  In fact I would strongly step away from prescribing a method.  There are no miracle cures or magic potions!  Find what is effective and works best for you and your students.

* Now you may have noticed in my previous point that I intend to loop the learning more.  Make my lessons more of a cycle and then link through into the next topic.  I aim to move away from a linear structure with a simple start and finish point.  But hold on, SOLO by its image looks very linear.  Well it is if you use it like that.  But after using it for a while I've become confident in exploring a topic through the taxonomy.  This topic itself becomes a multi-structural component of a larger unit.  The individual topic therefore loops and spirals into a broader area of study and allows students to create multiple links.

8 - Know your group

One of the most important things to consider when planning is knowing your group.  Using data and building upon prior achievement is essential.  Checking books, marking homework, formatively and summatively assessing students allows you to build up a picture of how secure students content knowledge is.  Hattie rates prior achievement as having a d=0.67 effect size and is 'is a powerful predictor of the outcome of lessons'.  It is therefore important to consult this before planning your next sequence of lessons.  What do students already know?  What still needs covering?  How best might I teach the content to this particular group?  All questions along these lines need you to have a finger on the pulse as it were.  From here you can then adequately pitch lessons and challenge students.

Understanding and knowing your students is also important.  Although I teach PE and the stereotype is that they are all sports playing students who love all activities, never once have I ever had two classes the same.  One student may be interested in Football with a different understanding of sport to a student who is interested in Gymnastics.  I therefore need to consider this in my planning, especially when thinking about how to explain an idea or put something into context.  As Willingham talks about in his book, one example for one student may not help another learn the same piece of information.  Knowing my students helps me plan to ensure this doesn't happen.  Variety is the key.

9 - Getting challenge right!
Planning and pitching the level of challenge of your lessons can be a difficult task.  It is important (as highlighted in my last point) that knowing your group and where they are will help this.  What you plan to do needs to be related to prior learning - which is why formative and summative assessment, and what you do with it, is so important.  For a while I thought I'd planned challenging lessons for all.  But that was the problem.  I rarely differentiated on an individual level and predominantly set the same task for all.  Challenge should apply to the learning, not merely the task.  And the learning needs to challenge all students.  Now this is a real skill and one that I have been honing for a while.

So when planning challenge this year, I will pay particular attention to the level of it in my lessons.  It's important the I pitch it right.  Too easy and there is no reward.  Feedback has less effect and becomes low value.  Too hard and it can provide a feeling that achieving this goal is unobtainable.  As Harry Webb talked about in a recent post, it needs to be not too hot and not too cold (love the Goldilocks analogy to ZPD).  The only way I will know if the levels are correct is if I go back and check prior attainment and know my group before planning my lesson.

So why pay more attention to challenge this year more than before?  Well because of the various factors that it links to.  Memory and feedback being two in particular.  If we are to get the glutamate and dopamine present whilst learning and thus commit what we are learning to memory, we need to ensure that what work we set is challenging (so there is potential for a reward - achieving the goal) and actually achievable (to release the reward - chemicals).  If work is too easy and not challenging, these chemicals aren't released as highly and won't be committed to the long term memory (the aim of learning).  Similarly, as stated above, the effect of feedback improves with the higher level of challenge.

10 - Memory, Curran, Willingham and Bjork

Now I talk more about memory in my next post as there is a lot to cover.  It's an area that I've been interested in for a number of years and one which I think can pose a number of considerations for planning.  There are a number of principles put forward by numerous cognitive scientists, psychologists and neurologists.  These principles talk about how we believe the brain and memory works, and many suggestions have been put forward to how these principles can improve long term memory and learning.  Even if you approach it with a sceptical eye, some of the considerations require only a small tweak to your planning, but the effects could improve how well a students learns and remembers what you teach them.

11 - Backward design
This is a point mentioned in Visible Learning for Teachers and is something we have used a lot in the past.  The principle is to decide on the end point or goal for a unit, topic, scheme or even lesson.  This is the main important information that you wish students to learn.  The procedure than involves working backwards and build up a route to the final intention.  The process is excellent as it allows you to map out the fundamental pieces of information that is required, and then built upon, in order to reach the final goal.  The process also allows you to identify the main concepts that need to be covered, as well as concepts that could be omitted, allowing you more time to cover the important information in depth.  From the point of a cognitive scientist, stripping back what you teach and spending more time reinforcing, thinking and making meaning of the important concepts is a more effective way to learn the content.  The process of working backwards and identifying the outcomes and goals at the start also means you spend the majority of your time planning the learning.  Only after this is done and fleshed out, do you then look at activities.

12 - Build in time for feedback and even more time to act upon it - high effect size so plan it

This is a topic that I will cover in depth at a later date in more detail.  Apologies for the buzz word, but if we are to 'close the gap' between where learners are and where they need to be, they need time to act upon any high quality feedback that they are given.  At times though it can feel like books can be meticulously marked, only for the comments and subsequent improvements to lay idle in students books.  If I am honest, in the past a large number of comments I have written have never been acted upon.  But why would it if I don't build time in lessons to act upon feedback?  And that is the big question.  When can we find the time.  With the mounting pressures of some subjects to get through endless content and fit it into a short time frame, finding that time to dedicate time to improving work can be tough.  But I really urge you to do so.  In my later post I will look at methods you could use to make things stick, but in terms of planning there are some ideas and considerations you could look to implement.  

A very simple way is marking books regularly, and upon returning them, setting aside the starter/bell work time, or even half of the lesson to allow students to improve their work.  Read the feedback and act upon it.  If it becomes regular enough students will become accustom to it.  Work will also improve.
Add DIRT time.  This is very similar to the idea above borrowed from David Didau.  Simply meaning Directed Improvement and Reflection Time, start planning some DIRT in your lessons and get students acting upon comments.

Or maybe, just maybe....?  If you want to take a step further and really revamp your planning, you could go a long way by using the ideas of Ron Berger and the process of critique.  I have blogged about this previously here but it involves spending a lesson critically analysing students draft work and providing extremely structured feedback for each other.  Time is dedicated to improving these these drafts and the process goes on.  So why is this different from the other suggestions?  Well, the quality of student-to-student feedback is a lot higher.  Also, the process of giving, receiving and then acting upon feedback becomes a culture of your classroom.

13 - Plan your key questions - not all but a few

As you plan your lesson and review it (particularly looking at it through the eyes of the students), try to think about particular things you need students to really know, and areas where students might become confused.  Take 2 minutes to look through your plan and think 'What would I ask if I was in this lesson?' Any common misconceptions you can spot?  For these times, can you preempt this and begin designing some of your questions?  I would encourage you to think about some strong questions which you can then use during the lesson to support the learning taking place.  What I would put caution to is planning out all of your questions.  When you get in the classroom the direction of students thinking can take multiple turns and there is no way you can plan questions for all eventualities.  As you become more experienced you will be better equipped to shoot from the hips and deal with the twists and turns of students learning.  Spending time thinking about a few key ones though are vital.

Plan your hinge questions as well.  What are these I hear you say?  They are questions you use at a key point in a lesson (usually after the main concept has been taught) to check the understanding.  Presented whole class and in the form of a multiple choice, they allow a very quick snap shot before proceeding with the lesson.  I'll talk more about these in a later blog.

Using a taxonomy such as Blooms or SOLO as a guide can also help you plan questions that increase in the level of thinking and challenge.  Don't forget that remembering and understanding questions can be just as important as evaluating and analysing.  More on this in a later post!

14 - Marking to inform your planning 
A very wise man by the name of Kenny Pieper once wrote a great blog post on how marking can inform so much in terms of your lessons and really drive your planning.  It is so important to act upon your marking and it gives a real insight into the understanding that students have.  Mark more regularly and let what you find out direct what you plan in subsequent lessons.  Were there any misconceptions and misunderstandings that you need to revisit next lesson?  Think about it, if you don't use your marking, you could go lessons without realising students really didn't get what you talked about a few weeks back.

Also, can you plan opportunities for marking within lessons?  Are there opportunities where you could plan an extended task (because its beneficial, not too just create time) where you can go and mark students books there and then.  Instant impact and instant feedback!

15 - And lastly, lesson plans (box ticking!!).
Is there a miracle planning tool?  The saviour of planning?  A best way of doing it?  This is a tough area to talk about as Ofsted say one thing, rumors from what inspectors have said contradict this.  Some (not all) SLT and leadership teams can also misinterpret messages from above and prescribe methods.  The key message though should be plan thoroughly in whatever format suits yourself, your subject, your students or your school.  Remember that there are key elements and ensure whatever planning format you choose, these key elements are included.  Mark work, formatively assess, use schemes and curriculum documents.......will all help.  Don't tick boxes for ticking boxes sake.  Do what is right to plan the best lessons for your students.

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