Making the most of the plenary

The plenary, inspection evidence has consistently shown, is often the weakest element of any lesson. Indeed, my own observations of hundreds of lessons bears this out. The purpose of this article, then, is to clarify the function of a plenary and explore ways to make it as effective as it can be.

There is nothing magic about placing the plenary at the end of the lesson, but there is a logic. A teacher may choose to have a series of what they might call ‘mini-plenaries’, or collecting points at various stages in the lesson. However, this discussion is only about the closing phase of the lesson, whether we call it a plenary, a summary, a learning review…the name does not matter.

What matters is that we know why we are doing this. Far too frequently I see teachers say, ‘we’re running out of time so let’s have a quick check of our learning.’ This immediately puts a time squeeze on the action and the teacher becomes more concerned with getting this done before the bell rings. And this, in turn, frequently leads to sloppy practice; ‘thumbs up if you understand’ is pretty useless. It’s not about paying lip-service to plenaries, it’s about using them as the highly effective tool they can become. So, the first lesson about improving the plenary, is to allow plenty of time for it.

The reason that teachers don’t allow plenty of time is because they don’t fully understand the purpose of the plenary. So, let’s look at the four key purposes:

The plenary is the point where pupils are engaged with what they have learnt

If you have used a learning question, or questions, now is the time to see who can come up with answers. This is clearly going to involve a degree of discussion – and remember it’s the discussion that helps the memory and recall. So, we can ask, ‘what are the questions we’ve been exploring?’ (or the method we’ve been learning, or the problems we’ve been investigating…etc).   The other point of reference here is the key vocabulary. If you have introduced some conceptual words (and remember, three to five words are enough) then here is where you ask, ‘what are the words we have learnt today, and what do they mean?’ The checkpoint for you is, ‘will my pupils go home and say what they have done in my lesson, or what they have learnt?

The plenary is the point where you check who really understood the key points.

You will, of course, have been carrying out ongoing assessment as the lesson develops but this is where you have some kind of summary check because you need the information to plan pupils’ next steps. Don’t assume that, because you taught it, they learnt it. You need to know who got it, who really, really got it, who kind of got it and who didn’t have a scoobie doobie woo. If you want to use a thumbs up/ smiley face system to clock who got it then fine, but far, far more effective is the use of skilful questioning. And, if you have the luxury of a TA, then get them to jot down the ones who are going to need more help to move on. In these days of mastery curricula then we can’t ignore this. Use this key assessment information to inform your planning for the next lesson in the sequence.

The plenary is the only chance you have to reinforce the key teaching points.

You have spent the past hour teaching a carefully researched topic, skilfully structured so that the learning is properly deconstructed to support pupils’ learning. This, then, is where you reinforce those key learning points. This is especially important in a foundation subject, when pupils might not be here again for over a year. There is plenty of research that reflects the effectiveness of over-learning so use this time to strengthen pupils’ understanding of the key ideas. The old adage from 19th century America still applies – first I tell ‘em what I’m gonna tell ‘em; then I tell ‘em; then I tell ‘em what I told ‘em!  If you have one child that insists that the Bronze Age came after the Iron Age, then this might be your only chance to disabuse him.

The plenary is where you look over the hill to see what’s coming next.

Because very few lessons stand alone and almost all are sequential, this is a great opportunity for pupils to understand that, now they know this or can do that, they can go on to do this. I have been in lessons when pupils are so excited at what they have learnt that, at this point, there are audible gasps – gosh, we’ll be able to do this really hard work now. It aligns happily with Carol Dweck’s thinking about growth mindsets, but that’s for another time.

So, having populated the plenary with these four important ideas and stages, we can clearly see why a 30 second plenary, or even a 2-minute one, just doesn’t do the job.

Finally, something to avoid. This is something which I still see in some lessons, usually the ones where the teacher knew what the activity was but was less sure about the planned learning. This is the ‘show and tell’ plenary, where the teacher invites a representative from each working group to ‘show us what you’ve done’. This often provides an opportunity for an unwilling child to stand up with a badly crafted piece of work which they read badly in a voice that (often mercifully) nobody can hear. And then the teacher says ‘Excellent’!!! While there are skilled teachers who invite group contributions as part of the whole review of learning, simply inviting this pretty unplanned end to the lesson is pointless.

Send your pupils out talking about the learning. At some future point we can look at aspects of this in more detail when we think about exit cards.

Mike Gershon produces a series of incredibly helpful free downloadable resources. One of these is The Plenary Producer. Click here to go to Mike’s website to explore this and the other good things on offer


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