Lightbulb #1 – The Problem with Plenaries

Don’t get me wrong. Of course we have to bring our lessons to a clear, sharp close – even better when students are able to reflect on their learning and you can get an accurate idea of whether students have learnt what you want them to. And of course, mini-plenaries throughout the lesson are key to establishing the pace in which you need to deliver the lesson and provide support if anything has been misunderstood. In an ideal world, a plenary will:

…draw out learning and refer back to the lesson objectives […]  round off and summarise the lesson, […] underline what has been accomplished [and] refocus pupils on the objectives that have featured in the lesson…

But this doesn’t always happen, certainly not for me. Perhaps this is a dreadful confession and I’m a terrible teacher and should swiftly search for a new career path. However, I get the impression that I’m not alone in this – the fact that the amazing Plenary Producer has (at the time of writing) over 100,000 downloads and over 300,000 views on TES is testament to the fact that this is something that many of us find a challenging element of our practice.

So why on earth is this such a problem, and what can we do about it?

Problem 1 – Running out of time

I’m blessed with some lovely classes, particularly my delightful Year 11s who are very motivated, clearly enjoy English, and who are frankly hilarious, even when they don’t particularly like the text. Their ability to lampoon the stalwarts of the English Literature GCSE syllabus is infectious. And, almost inevitably with classes like this, we go off on tangents, discuss things aren’t quite relevant but are interesting anyway. No teacher wants to quash that sort of enthusiasm.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are times when you misjudge how long it will take students to complete a task, or gaps in their knowledge you weren’t aware of become evident and you now have to address, and the same snowballing of thoughts occurs.

So, quite often, I find these thoughts running through my head: yes, we only have 15 minutes left of the lesson but you’ve raised such an interesting point, and we haven’t even got onto the final activity yet, so I’m going to have to change what I was going to give you for homework, and I have a couple of notices to give you…and I need to leave 10 minutes for you to reflect on the lesson as a whole and consider your progress in the skill we’ve been practising.

I wonder what is more valuable: keeping my enthusiastic class enthusiastic and questioning, or ticking the plenary box. I know which one I’d rather do…but we do still need to make sure that students have learnt what we want them to.

So, what can we do about it?

Possible solutions

– Technology: we have recently rolled out iPads in Years 7 and 12, and apps like Socrative are fantastic, and the best bit is that Socrative is very simple to use, has a web-based version, and has the potential to save time. I say potential, because trying to get a bunch of 11 year-olds to download and log into something efficiently can be similar to herding cats…

– Regular mini-plenaries: thumbs up; keeping a stash of post-it notes handy; votes; getting students to move to different parts of the classroom depending on their views. These are all good strategies and don’t take huge amounts of preparation. But this does not really solve the time issue: we just end up spreading the time taken up by plenaries across the lesson rather than at the end.

Problem 2 – Lessons

I think that part of the issue with plenaries is due to the nature of lessons, which the fantastic David Didau explains much better than I can in his piece on lesson planning. It makes perfect sense: of course not all students will progress at the same amount in this arbitrary measure of time that we call a lesson. And a lesson isn’t even the same length across the board. We have 65 minute lessons, some schools have 45 minutes, some have 100 minute lessons and there is any number of possibilities in between.

This begs the question – at what point is it worth students reflecting on their progress and you collecting information as to their understanding of the skill or content they have been learning? Shoving a plenary on the end of a lesson plan does not constitute thoughtful consideration of what students are learning, how difficult the concept that they are learning is, or indeed the nature of learning itself.

Possible solutions

Honestly, I don’t have much to offer here except proposing a change of culture regarding lesson planning. When I trained the word plenary wasn’t actually ever used: on our planning proforma we had a ‘conclusion’ – a much more flexible and catch-all term. Much better than end-of-lesson plenaries might be generating a clearer sense of the point at which students need to reflect. This might actually be 20 minutes before the end of the lesson and before another activity, at the start of the following lesson, as part of a homework activity…

Problem 3 – What students tend to be like

One of the most helpful pieces of advice from my PGCE mentor was the following nugget: the last five minutes of a lesson have to be the most interesting. Students already have their eye on the clock, and they’re beginning (if they haven’t started already) to think about lunch, or the next lesson, or the conversation they were having with their friend before the lesson and are eager to continue. Wrapping up the learning will ultimately occur amidst the low-level disruption of bag-packing – students are uncanny in their sense of when the lesson is gearing for a close, so even when you get started on the plenary, you will hear the unmistakable rustle of paper and pencil cases.

Then you have the problem of effort: how many students are going to pour the same amount of effort into doing a gimmicky consolidation task as the first time they tackled the concept? They’ve already done the work once, so why do they have to do it again?

Possible solutions

Again, I think this calls for a change of culture in our use of plenaries. Do plenaries have to be at the end of the lesson? Do you need to stop a valuable activity mid-flow in order to inadvertently signal that the lesson will end in ten minutes and that students can stop focusing on the lesson soon?

I don’t pretend to have solved the problem, or rather problems, of plenaries, and my solutions seem to have thrown up more questions than they have answered. But I do think it is worth teachers and schools challenging the accepted truth of plenaries as conclusions to lessons, and thinking more consciously about the most appropriate time to have students reflect on their learning. This won’t, and can’t, always be at the end of a lesson.

I’d love to know your thoughts – have you got any better solutions to mine? Are there other problems that you’ve noticed? Please comment!

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