I remember on my PGCE being presented with the following quote on a lecture slide:

“Students learn more in the last 5 minutes of lesson than they did in the first 55”

It was from some educationalist who I had never heard of then and can’t remember now. I bought it hook, line and sinker. I spent a lot of time planning mini-plenaries throughout my early career; these, surely, were the most important parts of my lesson.

I don’t agree with this anymore. I have quite a lot of reasons, and a few of them are below. But it shows that we do tend to think that different parts of the lesson are more or less important than others, even if by “important” we only mean “what I spend most of my time and mental faculties preparing.”

I had a TLR last year, but this year I have an incredibly full teaching timetable and despite the fact that I do want to climb the greasy pole at some point, at the moment I am relishing the fact that all I really do is teach. It’s given me the opportunity to really think about the way I am going to teach and plan my lessons, as well as what the most important parts of them are. Obviously all lessons, classes and teachers are different so I’ve tried to be as broad brush as I can without being meaningless.

In my opinion there are a few contenders for “most important part of a lesson.” And I really stress that; this is just my opinion. I haven’t necessarily made it up, it’s based on all the stuff I’ve read and tried and observed others doing but it’s still just my opinion. No doubt many people will disagree – I look forward to the conversation. So here are the contenders:

1. Greeting students outside the class/at the door

This is the kind of thing that behaviour consultants will swear blind will lead to good behaviour. In my last school the behaviour policy was that all students would line up outside the class in dead silence, the teacher would prowl up and down the line looking for uniform infringements and then students would file in in silence. This routine certainly supported good behaviour, but only because it was a routine across the school that everyone adhered to (or was supposed to). At my current school the students come in as a complete shower. There’s talking and fussing and bags on the racks, off the racks, to the seat, away from the seat, back to the seat etc etc. But then I generally manage, without too much difficulty, to get the kids quiet when I’m ready to start. And even at my last school there were plenty of teachers who had poor behaviour in the class despite the line-up policy and despite implementing it themselves. So does it help? Maybe, but certainly not universally.

Score: 6/10

2. Jazzy starter/engaging “hook”

I’ve seen loads of variations in this and examples include: crosswords, code-solving, an open question on the board, a Thunk!, a “what do these pictures have in common?” or a “guess the topic of the lesson” type thing. I suppose the purpose of these is two-fold; to get the students engaged in the topic and to start making them think about it too. Sometimes I’ve also seen them used to settle the class.

I don’t really do these anymore. Some of them are clearly just a case of “variety of activity = engagement in learning” thinking, and I’ve made my feelings on engagement pretty clear in the past. I don’t think there is anything inherently bad with a bit of work for students to quietly get on with as you take a register or deal with missing home-works or the dozen other admin things teachers need to deal with in class. But they seem like a lot of work when you can achieve the same thing, and in my opinion with better results, with some good old-fashioned questioning (see number 3).

Score: 5/10

3. Verbal questioning recap of prior learning

Rosenshine says that the most “effective” teachers spend the first 5-8 minutes of their lessons in review of prior learning. This makes a hell of a lot of sense. Firstly, it’s good retrieval practice. All subjects will cover a lot of material over the course of a year or two, and retrieval practice is vital to retention. Secondly, if you vary your methods you can ensure that all students are thinking about what you want them to be thinking about (there’s a monstrously good list of questioning techniques here). Thirdly, in a cumulative subject like science, it is imperative that students are completely on top of the prior topics covered. They simply won’t be able to gain today’s knowledge if yesterday’s knowledge is not firm. Fourthly, good questioning can set up the conflict involved in today’s lesson i.e. “if everything we have said so far is true, then how can it be that x, y and z?”

I don’t always start my lessons like this, but I really try to. The lessons always just seem to go a lot better when I do.

Score: 9/10

4. Instruction

Now the students actually need to learn something. Some teachers prefer students to learn most of the material themselves, and the next phase (5. Activity) will probably be the most important to them. When I used to teach student-led lessons I would want to try and minimise my talking as much as possible to stop the kids doing that boring listening stuff and get on with the exciting learning stuff. I don’t really do that any more and spend a lot of time really thinking about how best to structure my instruction. How will I slowly introduce new topics? How will I use analogies and diagrams to support my explanations? How will I use my questioning to keep all students listening and on their toes? Deans For Impact are my guide in this and they have yet to steer me wrong.

Score: 10/10

5. Activity/practice

I used to try and have the “work” phase of the lesson as a kind of guided discovery process. Students would be given resources and would have to use those to infer or extrapolate the knowledge of the day. Now, I tend to prepare them with the knowledge they require and then have them apply that knowledge. I try to make work difficult, but not too difficult, and provide aids for when they get stuck. I don’t “differentiate” per se, I just have the questions get increasingly tough with the final one or two being real bona fide extension activities. Often I will let students get on with textbook questions but unfortunately some of our text books are pants and I need to re-write the questions. I think all teachers would agree that this phase is dead important, my one hang-up is that ultimately learning only occurs over time, and solid work during this phase can lead to the illusion that the students are somehow done with this topic now.

Score: 8/10

6. Going over answers

I flipping hate marking, but I think that the notes students have in their books should be good. I also think that we often need to go back and clear up common mistakes and misconceptions (despite the fact that you may have accounted for them already). So I think students need to be trained to think deeply about their work and be able to make relevant improvements to it. In my opinion, done properly, this phase is also significantly more effective at “assessment for learning” then running mini-plenaries. My lab also has a visualiser so I can beam students’ work onto the board for whole-class dissection and discussion. Due to time constraints and other such things I often don’t give myself the time required for this phase, which is a big problem; it’s an area I definitely need to improve on.

Score: 9/10

7. Mini-plenaries

I used to spend a lot of time using coloured cards, traffic lights, smiley faces and thumbs to gauge the learning of my students. One of my PGCE students even used a fancy web-app to do this. After reading David Didau and Rob Coe I don’t do these any more. Not only do I think they are wastes of time (see linked pieces) but they are actually nefarious. They can make us, and the students, think that learning has been achieved when in reality no such thing has occurred. They can also make you try and fit lessons into arbitrary 1 hour slots. In reality, some topics take more time, and some take less. Don’t stress about trying to get a neat one-hour package lesson. Just carry on next time if you aren’t finished..

Score: 0/10