by Tim Manson
Activity within a Lesson Plan (Explore the Learning and Questioning)
The third stage in creating a interesting, engaging and memorable lesson is all about how we help the student to embed the key concepts from the learning into their long term memory. We have thought already about the importance of the Introduction and the how new knowledge can be delivered to the learners. Now, we need to start to think about how teachers can create a series of activities within a lesson that will help the learners to embed these new concepts into their schema – making them accessible for quick recall.
Previously, we acknowledged that students can only consciously attend to a handful of stimuli at a time and noted that prior knowledge determines what students can learn. Our focus was on the first stage of our Learning Cycle – with a focus on Connecting the learning, the Big Picture and Learning Intentions. Parallel to this – we also looked at how we might improve working memory and looked at how Retrieval Practice might impact our lessons.
Subsequently, we spent more time considering the impact of how limited this working memory could actually be. We spent a bit more time looking into the effectiveness of Retrieval Practice and then considered how Cognitive Load Theory might impact our lesson planning. We moved on the second stage of our Learning Cycle and focused on different methods of lesson delivery – how could we sequence and present models to our students to give them something to base their memories/ learning on.
Now, however, we continue to make our way through the Learning Cycle and will be looking at Activity within a lesson – looking at how you might explore the learning and construct detailed and useful Question and Answer sessions. We will be considering how students might commit incomplete or incorrect ideas into their long-term memories (and how we might rectify this) but we also realise the reality that forgetting is inevitable and will consider further strategies like scaffolding and dual coding that might help embed thinking.
No two lessons are ever quite the same. Even if you were teaching the same subject to five different classes – the reality is that the lessons are not exactly the same. You might go in with the same learning intentions and success criteria and you might use the same resources and the same booklet; but the interaction you have with the class and how you develop some of the language of learning and the core concepts differently with each group of learners – means that no two lessons are the same.
Most teachers tend to think that the learning happens when we talk. The reality is that most of the learning happens when THEY talk, or they do something to process the knowledge that we are trying to convey.
The main focus of any lesson (in any subject; at any level/key stage) needs to be activity. This is where the majority of time needs to be spent. Yes – the introduction is vital and the delivery of new content helps to present new material and introduce this to the student schema, but activity is where this information will be processed, tested, practiced and embedded into the brain of our students.
There are a number of different ways that teachers can help student to explore their learning.
- Use direct activities that are focused on helping the student to explore and process the key content of the lesson
- Use activities that will help to embed knowledge/ students make sense of the content
- Ensure that students are involved in problem solving/ independent thinking/ decision making activities
- Guide student practice ®
- Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks ®
- Require and monitor independent practice ®
Questioning (I will look at this in detail in a different discussion document!)
- Use direct activities that are focused on helping the student to explore and process the key content of the lesson
Teachers will use a variety of learning activities that will often be specific to subject/ phase/ class or ability level. The key is making sure that you are not using the same activity (or resource) repeatedly but that you are varying the learning meal that the student receives. Let’s face it – we all get bored of doing the same thing over and over – so carefully consider how you use those notebooks, those worksheets, those workbooks, those revision books, those knowledge organisers and think about how (and why) you might need to change things up to keep things fresh. If you were going home to the same meal of beans on toast every single day you would soon get bored (and you might even turn orange in the process). So, ask yourself do we sometimes try to serve the same educational meal to every class across every period?
2. Use activities that will help to embed knowledge/ students make sense of the content
We already know the impact that metacognition plays within learning for students. The EEFhave established a seven-step model that explicitly sets up a series of metacognitive strategies which should be applied to learning. This involves:
- Activating prior knowledge
- Explicit strategy instruction
- Modelling of learned strategy
- Memorisation of strategy
- Guided practice
- Independent practice and
- Structured reflection.
The EEF then considers a very useful case study to show how this could be implemented using a fishbone diagram graphic organiser. This is included below.
3. Ensure that students are involved in problem solving/ independent thinking/ decision making activities
Sometimes there are particular skills that need to be practiced. It is all fine to talk about them but until students actually experience and practice these skills – they won’t actually understand what the main issues and challenges might be. They need to test the mental tools that they have for solving problems/ puzzles/ maths equations etc. They need to use their search function in their working (and long term) memory to find clues and they need to build these responses and kernels of knowledge into a scheme that is tested in response to decisions that have to be made.
Some authors refer to this as ‘deliberate practice’. Daisy Christodoulou (2016) notes that deliberate practice is “a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further”. She goes on to note that Prof K Anders Ericsson draws a distinction between work, or performance, and deliberate practice. Work activities offer some opportunity for learning, but these activities are constrained because of the focus on performance. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, is designed with learning in mind.
Dylan Wiliam (2011) suggests the following example of deliberate practice in a sporting context.
“The coach has to design a series of activities that will move athletes from their current state to the goal state. Often coaches will take a complex activity, such as the double play in baseball, and break it down into a series of components, each of which needs to be practiced until fluency is reached, and then the components are assembled. Not only does the coach have a clear notion of quality (the well-executed double play), he also understands the anatomy of quality; he is able to see a high quality performance as being composed of a series of elements that can be broken down into to a developmental sequence for the athlete. This skill of being able to break down a long learning journey – from where the student is right now the where she needs to be – into a series of small steps takes years for even the most capable coaches to develop.”
Wilam goes on to describe this process as creating a ‘model of progression’. John Hattie describes this as ‘direct instruction’ where, “the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to students, demonstrates by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have been told by tying it all together with closure.”
Think about the type of activities that you get students to do. How are they classified? What is the level of thinking required in each activity? This is where it might be useful to consider how Bloom’s taxonomy might fit in here.
Bloom’s taxonomy is a way of identifying the different modes of learning. Tom Sherrington describes, “the significance of placing ‘remembering’ or ‘knowledge’ at the bottom is that this is the foundation on which all the other are built – it is the most important element, not ‘low level’”.
Increasingly, researchers are advising us not to see this as a hierarchy where we want to improve our use of activities and questions to move from knowledge to understand and then to application/ analysis and then to the ‘higher order thinking skills’ of evaluate and create.
This graphic from TeachThought helps us to understand the different processes that might be involved at each stage of the model.
4. Guide student practice ®
The role of any teacher is to guide their students towards something better. The interaction that we have with students is crucial in this area. Sometimes, we have to harry and cajole. Sometimes, we have to listen, nod, interact, instruct and encourage. Other times, we have to point out the shortfalls, the lack of thinking, we have to motivate and restart the learning process. As (usually) the only adults in the room it is our job to guide the learner from a place of confusion to a place of consideration. Sometimes, we are the only ones who actually understand the big picture fully and where this little, vital, chunk of knowledge might fit into the wider context of tests and exams.
5. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks ®
We started to take a look at the role that scaffolding could play in learning last year when we started to look at lesson delivery.
The concepts behind the importance of scaffolding learning is so that learners get some level of support for what they are trying to process is something I was introduced to as a young teacher. I particularly enjoyed the ideas from Lev Vygotsky who created the concept of the zone of proximal development (or ZPD). Vygotsky thought that the language used by children to communicate both with peers and adults was a key process in learning and that social interactions were the most important for any learning to take place.
The ZPD was defined as being the difference between the current level of cognitive development and the potential level of cognitive development. Or, in other words – the difference between what a learner can do without help compared to what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement. When I was 7 years old, I was not the most independent of learners – yet when my mum made me sit and complete my homework at the kitchen table – even with minimal help – I became much more focused on what I needed to learn. With a more knowledgeable other (MKO) then the impact of the social interaction and the support leads to greater success. Vygotsky argued that any student was able to reach a particular learning goal through the completion of problem-solving tasks with their teacher or other learners who were more competent. Vygotsky did not use the term ‘scaffolding’ himself but outlined an approach where learners might complete small, manageable steps in order to reach a particular goal.
Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) note that, “Scaffolding consists of the activities provided by the educator, or more competent peer, to support the student as he or she is led through the zone of proximal development. Support is tapered off (ie withdrawn) as it becomes unnecessary, much as a scaffold is removed from a building during construction. The student will then be able to complete the task again on his own.” Therefore this scaffolding (or sometimes termed ‘guided learning’) is a process that allows a child/novice to solve a task or achieve a goal that would be beyond his unassisted effort.
Wood et al (1976) name 5 processes that aid effective scaffolding:
- Gaining and maintaining the learner’s interest in the task
- Making the task simple
- Emphasizing certain aspects that will help with the solution
- Control the child’s level of frustration
- Demonstrate the task.
6. Require and monitor independent practice ®
In many ways – the pinnacle of learning is when the student is asked to and then engages in their own independent work. In some subjects this aim is achieved very quickly within a lesson structure and in other subjects the independent practice only comes after a significant amount of modelling, teaching, scaffolding and guidance. In some subjects, there is a high degree of autonomy and the student can fail freely without too many consequences (and start again). However, in others, students need to know exactly what they are doing before they do it eg in Carpentry or Hospitality the addition of the wrong ingredient or the wrong oil might put a project back to the beginning (or the wrong use of a dangerous knife or saw might cause an injury if not used in a controlled manner).
Yet, that need for independence is something we need to make sure that we enable. Students crave an opportunity for creativity – even in subjects where that can be a difficult thing to accomplish.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, Rosenshine notes the need for the teacher to ‘monitor’ this practice. This means that teachers have to be active in their involvement once the task has been set. There needs to be interaction with the learners to ensure that they understand what they are doing and they don’t require extra help to enable them to achieve the success criteria. Again, this will look differently depending on the class, the year group, the ability level and even the time of day – but in order to ensure that students complete the task – teachers will need be engage and give instruction and feedback as required (more on this next year!).
As a fresh teacher, just out of my PGCE, a colleague told me that teachers needed to get to the activity as quickly as possible. However, as teaching professionals we need to ensure that we get the learning quickly but that we also make sure that the activities that we are using as vehicles for that learning are all as effective as possible. It is good to experiment and try new techniques in our classroom but we need to ensure that we are being reflective to consider whether the activity is helping to promote and embed learning in the way that we want it to.
To return to my point at the start of this piece – Most teachers tend to think that the learning happens when we talk. The reality is that most of the learning happens when they talk, or they do something to process the knowledge that we are trying to convey.
Teachers need to remember that is through activity and repeated practice that knowledge (and understanding) is embedded. Learning rarely happens the first time we see (or hear) anything. Learning takes time and repetition and we need to provide the basic structure of this for our students. Less talk from us, more talk from them and more ‘do’ from them as well.
 EEF (2021) Metacognition and self-regulated learning, Education Endowment Foundation
 Christodolou, D (2016) Making good progress, Oxford University Press
 Wiliam, D (2011) Embedded formative assessment, Solution tree Press
 Hattie, J (2009) Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge
 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
 Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.