Ideas for the classroom
Using plenaries effectively
For some time, our colleagues in the schools sector have been encouraged to structure their lessons around a starter activity, a main activity and a plenary. Like the recommended essay structure of an introduction, main text and conclusion, this idea has much to recommend it.
Starting a lesson is usually easy. All learners are notionally starting from the same place and the rationale for the lesson can be explained.
Beginning the main part of a lesson is easy too, if the lesson is thoroughly planned and resources are prepared and to hand. A conscious effort is made to address the needs of all learners through the use of open questions, rich tasks and differentiated materials, and learners can engage with these at their own pace.
And so you come to the plenary. What is it for? Here are some possibilities, in no particular order:
- To provide a full stop at the end of a lesson, particularly if the main activity has taken longer than planned.
- To assess whether learning objectives have been met.
- To assess what has been learnt during the current lesson (not always the same as the previous item.)
- To discuss issues that have arisen during the lesson.
- A time for reflection on what has taken place in the lesson.
- An opportunity to pose challenging questions for learners to think about between lessons.
- Formative assessment in preparation for the next lesson, so that the next lesson builds on what learners know already.
Many of us attempt to assess learning by asking learners to answer written questions which must be marked, and this can take valuable teacher time. Learners often pay more attention to the mark than to the errors that have been pointed out to them, so they learn little from this process (see Further reading no. 3). Why not consider asking learners to mark each other’s work using a mark scheme?
Here are some other activities you might use during a plenary:
- Mini whiteboards. If you haven’t yet used these yet you have a treat in store. Questions can be asked of learners and the results displayed for the teacher to see. This provides instant feedback, and the opportunity to amend subsequent questions in the light of the answers given. Sometimes it appears that the teacher has taught but the learners have failed to learn, and it is important to find this out.
- Traffic lights. Ask learners to self assess their learning according to how confident they feel about the lesson content. (Take care. How do you know that they are answering honestly? It takes a brave soul to confess ineptitude publicly.)
- Ask a learner or group of learners to summarise what they have learnt in the lesson.
- Ask groups of learners to prepare a poster summarising the lesson content.
- Ask learners to prepare an account of the lesson for an absent classmate.
- Ask the learners to prepare a question on the taught topic, and a specimen answer. Collect the questions together and use them for a class homework or a test.
- Ask the learners to stand up. Offer a rich mathematical situation and ask each learner to make individual observations about it. Less able learners should be encouraged to go first so that simpler observations may be made, leaving the more able the challenge of finding a unique observation towards the end of the plenary. Try it out with this bar chart.
- Examples of starters and plenaries. Mainly for primary age learners but many ideas could be adapted.
- Asking Mathematical Questions Mathematically
- Professor Dylan William on types of assessment that promote learning
- Some suggestions for using mini whiteboards.