A whole-school approach to lesson planning gives teachers licence to take risks and be more engaging, encouraging well-paced learning, as Saint Benedict School and Performing Arts College in Derby discovered

Claire Pass, Advanced Skills Teacher, Saint Benedict School and Performing Arts College, Derby 

School context

Saint Benedict Catholic School and Performing Arts College is a voluntary aided 11-19 comprehensive school located close to Derby city centre. The school has approximately 1,500 pupils on roll and it is a highly inclusive school, aiming to provide a quality education for all students, from all backgrounds. The Catholic nature of the school means that the catchment area is not restricted to the locality and the school takes pupils from all over the city and beyond. Attainment at entry exactly fits the national average profile. This shows that the school has a truly representative sample of students, with some coming from the most deprived wards in the country. We currently have 253 pupils with learning difficulties or disabilities in the main school, and 17 in the sixth form. In 2007, 93.7% of Year 11 pupils went on to either further education or employment, as did 94% of Year 13 students. The proportion of students gaining five or more A*–C grades at GCSE level was 70.21% for 2007.

Schools everywhere are having to re-evaluate their approach to lesson planning as they think about the implications the national agenda of personalised learning has for planning high-quality lessons.

The five compo­nents of personalised learning are:

  • assessment for learning (AfL)
  • teaching and learning and ICT strategies
  • enabling curriculum choice
  • organising the school for personalised learning
  • engaging with the community and beyond to develop the whole student

This agenda brings back to the fore the central point of education: we are not here to simply help pupils pass exams, but to equip them to become independent, lifelong learners. How do we plan for that?

Standard approach

A key barrier to improving UK education, according to the National College of School Leadership (NCSL), is ‘within-school variation’ – the different levels of achieve­ment by pupils in different subjects within the same school. A research project involving several second­ary schools explored different methods of reducing this varia­tion between depart­ments – see Narrowing the gap: reducing within-school variation in pupil outcomes (NCSL, 2006). Standardisation processes such as a ‘widely-owned model of learning for lesson planning’ were identified as a contributing factor in reducing ‘within-school variation’ (ldr online magazine).

Building a ‘widely-owned model’

At Saint Benedict, this move towards a ‘widely-owned model’ began in 2005 with a template for lesson planning, introduced to the whole staff by the deputy head.

It sprang from a need identified by the leadership team to provide consistency in pupils’ learning experiences. The rationale was to promote objective-led lessons, with a regularity of structure that would effect­ively signpost for pupils the key stages of the lesson and their learning. It seemed sensible to make lesson planning the starting point, as planning is the founda­­tion of innovative practice; a proforma that asks the right questions enables teachers to take risks and try out new ideas. Curricu­­­­lum directors were asked to provide generic lesson plans used by their depart­ments. The leadership team then reviewed these and, using Ofsted criteria as guid­ance, synthesised the most effective parts of each into the whole-school proforma – see the box below.

Lesson plan template – adapted by departments
Lesson in context
 Class code: Date:
Lesson 1 2 3 4 5
LSA?   Yes   No  No. boys: No. girls:
SEN action: SEN action +:  Statemented: Statemented:
Previous learning    

Learning objectives
(please ensure this is not a list of tasks)

Assessment strategies Differentiation strategies 

The lesson template produced indicated the need to plan for a clear lesson structure and include clearly defined lesson objectives and learning outcomes. It was designed to be a practical, usable document, intended to provide structure without restricting creativ­ity and provide prompts to help give lessons pace and focus without being so dense with requirements that it became a paper exercise rather than a working document.

Each department was encouraged to take the template and adapt it further to suit the specific needs of their subject area, but a conscious decision was made to keep the whole-school plan simple so that it could be used with ease and in a practical way.

The school’s 2006 Ofsted report said that:

Teaching is most effective where well-planned lessons have pace and challenge and require students to be active learners. Clear time deadlines together with incisive questioning keep students engaged.

Monitoring implementation

The next step forward as a school was to develop a culture of sharing this good practice, ensuring that the ‘well-planned lessons’ became the standard experience of all students.

Department monitoring weeks were implemented by an assistant headteacher. Initially, these were informal observations involving staff from all subject areas observing one another across departments. English, for example, was paired with the maths department and staff used this as an opportunity to share different teaching methods and good practice. Although there are undoubted benefits to sharing experience in this way, the focus of the observations was vague, making giving feedback difficult.

So now observations are carried out within departments by curriculum leaders.  A standard form provides a focus for the observation and the subsequent discussion of the lesson. The form, which can be accessed by all staff, consists of a checklist that clarifies the principles that should underpin effective lesson planning – see the box below.

Lesson-plan checklist

  • Starter activity used
  • Has clear objectives and outcomes
  • Sense of cohesion with previous and following lessons
  • Variety of activities addressing various learning approaches
  • Good use of interesting and well-produced resources
  • Sound use of ongoing assessment to modify and manage learning
  • Pupils on task; level of engagement; level of enthusiasm
  • Appropriate work for pupils’ interests, ability and skills
  • Lesson related to unit of learning
  • Plenary activity
  • Use of support staff during lesson

The types of activities staff include in their lesson plans are not prescribed by leadership. Instead, people are encouraged to be innovative and training is provided for staff by their peers. For example, I ran an after-school Inset workshop on how interactive whiteboards could be used to appeal to different learning styles; another colleague arranged for whole-staff training in the use of Edward De Bono’s Six thinking hats (Penguin, 2000). Regular Inset and training is provided on teaching methodologies both by the school, and by the local authority.

Staff are expected to plan for inclusion, and this is an area prescribed on the lesson plan. It is up to curriculum managers to check that their departmental staff are using strategies to promote inclusion in their lessons (such as ‘no-hands up’ time during questioning) and interactive activities (such as coming up to the board during whole-class teaching, groupwork and discussion).

Problem with objectives

One of the key aims of the standard lesson-planning template was to encourage a sharper focus on the learning taking place, not just in the overarching scheme of work, but in each lesson.

Local authority advisors were invited into school to provide whole staff Inset on the difference between a learning objective and a learning outcome. An objective is the pur­pose of the lesson – what the pupils should learn; an outcome is the means by which the objective can be assessed – what have they done or produced to show that the objective has been met? What can pupils now do that they couldn’t before? Trainers also addressed the issue of how to set mean­ingful learning objectives based on continu­ous assessment of learners’ needs. This served as a refresher for staff and was followed by a whole-staff briefing where the deputy head provided laminated slips to be used in each classroom. They consisted of key phrases such as ‘Learning outcome:’ ‘Today’s learning objective is…’; ‘WALT’ (‘We are learning to…’); ‘WILF’ (‘What I’m looking for…’). In-house training was also given on the use of key data such as cognitive ability test (CAT) scores and Fischer Family Trust (FFT) targets to inform planning. Knowledge of where the pupils are and what they are capable of achieving is essential in setting meaningful objectives that serve to bridge that gap.

Pause for breath: examples of strategies

  • Which of the ‘WILFs’ have we covered so far? Tick them off.
  • WALT – how have we learned this so far?
  • What have we done to show that we have learned how to…?
  • Pupils share, come up to the board, question one another.

Role of AfL

A key component in the move towards personalised learning is assess­ment for learning. The Assessment Reform Group (2002), in the publication Assess­ment for learning: 10 principles, defined AfL as:

The process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.

The current DCSF Assessment for Learning Strategy (available via: http://publications.teachernet.gov.uk) states that AfL is a powerful way of raising pupils’ achievement. ‘It is not an add-on or a project; it is central to effective teaching and learning.’ As such, it needs to be a key part of effective planning.

During their 2006 visit, Ofsted commented of Saint Benedict:

When students are given the opportunity in lessons to take the lead, cooperate with one another and to identify what they need to do to improve, they respond well and make good progress.

Making AfL a standard feature of lessons and enabling all of our students to become independent learners was the next step on the school’s planning journey.

To introduce peer- and self-assessment to staff, voluntary after-school workshops were run by staff for their peers, to give examples of peer- and self-assessment and model how it might be taught. It was impor­tant to show staff that while success criteria might be linked to exam syllabus or national curriculum requirements, this need not automatically be the case – they could be linked quite simply to the lesson objective or learning outcome (the WILF) – for example, ‘I am looking for you to write in paragraphs/use a subordinate clause/use three different types of punctuation/use a simile’.

As WALT and WILF became commonplace terms among staff and students, staff needed to be able to assess WILF meaningfully, by planning time during the lesson and during the plenary to review progress towards WALT/WILF.

Role of starter and plenary
A plenary can be one of the most crucial parts of the lesson in terms of consolidating learning, but also in providing information to aid the planning of the next lesson. Targets and goals are all well and good for a long-term, umbrella view of the class’s learning and potential, but for effective day-to-day planning, a teacher must know where their class is now – today – and what they need to target next lesson.

The original lesson-plan template (see the box above) had provided an overall structure for the lesson – providing a standard approach to planning for learning and encouraging lessons with pace and varied activities. There was space to plan for a starter and a plenary – but what is the point of a starter? What is the point of a plenary if not to assess learning and move it forward? There is a danger that terms like ‘starter’ and ‘plenary’ are used to describe ‘quietening-down’ activities at the start of a lesson or ‘summing-up’ activities at the end. Thinking of starters and plenaries as key points of learning in a lesson means that planning for them becomes as important as planning the central activities in the lesson – this was a culture shift to over­come. The school’s distributed leadership model helped in this respect, as the change in culture came from the ‘bottom up’ and the ‘middle out’, not just from the ‘top down’.

Sharing good practice
The ‘eight schools project’ focused on how schools approached establishing AfL on a whole school level. The study revealed that ‘fundamental to developing the leadership and management of whole-school change is developing distributed leadership’ (Assessment for learning eight schools project report, DfES, 2007; see: www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/secondary/keystage3/all/respub/afl8). It also noted that AfL is most successful when teachers share their practice and learn from ‘what they and their peers do well within and across departments’ (ldr online magazine).

At Saint Benedict, a conscious decision was made to focus on a ‘bottom up’ and ‘middle out’ approach to establishing AfL at the heart of lesson planning. The school’s leadership team organised a whole-school Inset where staff could share good practice.

I asked other members of staff to share ideas for plenaries that they had used and that had worked well. Afterwards, many staff remarked that this was one of the most practical and useful Inset sessions they had attended. This ‘ripple effect’ from the middle out had a real impact on staff and served as an effective vehicle for change.

Importance of pauses for breath
As a middle leader in school, I was encour­aged to work together with other staff to share good practice, jointly plan with indiv­iduals and teach demo lessons where AfL could be observed in practice. In working with individual staff and departments, one thing I found particularly useful was to help staff plan in time for assessment during the lesson. In addition to starters and plenaries, it is important to have periodic ‘pauses for breath’ in the lesson (see the box top right on page 8 for examples) – so that teacher and students can take stock and review their learning in light of the learning objec­tive. Having such periods of time on a lesson plan proforma is perhaps too rigid and prescriptive – the point of a proforma is ease of use – to ensure that it is used! However, pencilling these times in on a plan and considering when they will happen before a lesson is important if active learning is to take priority over lesson activities.

Effective questioning
Questioning during the lesson is the most immediate and accessible way for a teacher to assess learning – see the box here for examples of useful stems.

Planning for questions

Useful stems:

  • Why does…?
  • What if…?
  • How would you…?
  • Could you explain…?

Questions not only assess learning, but if carefully planned can move learning forward. They can be differentiated to support and challenge pupils as required. They should be closely linked to learning objectives and staged so that the level of challenge increases as the lesson proceeds.

As with other aspects of assessment for learning, peer observation and sharing good practice has had the largest impact on day-to-day lesson planning. The local authority also gave training on request for individual departments and provided useful strategies for using questions to open up discussion, rather than close it down and to actively include all pupils in the lesson. Examples of questioning strategies that arose from this are given in the box below.

Questioning strategies

  • Pose, pause, pounce, bounce
  • Opportunities for pupils to formulate questions
  • No-hands up rule
  • Partners formulate response
  • Create discussion opportunities – what do you think? Do you agree?

An advanced skills teacher (AST) from another local school suggested that question stems could be colour-coded according to the level of challenge they offered and that these could be displayed in classrooms to act as a visual prompt to the teacher – see the box below. These visual prompts in a classroom can be much more useful than a box on a proforma.

Different levels of stems using Bloom’s taxonomy

Knowledge/comprehension (low)

  • What happened when…?
  • What are the main points…?
  • Why did…?

Application (middle)

  • Think of an alternative…
  • Can you use it in a different context…?
  • Can you think of another example that shows…?
  • Does the same idea apply to…?

Analysis (middle/high)

  • What effect is achieved by…?
  • Why do you think…?
  • Does this fit in with a pattern…?
  • Why do you agree/disagree with…?
  • What is suggested… How…?

Synthesis (high)

  • Where else can you see this…?
  • Create your own version of…

Evaluation (high)

  • What do you think of…?
  • Which is the most effective…?
  • Do you think this works well…? Why?
  • What are the weakest/strongest aspects of…?

(Based on Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals, by Benjamin Bloom, Addison Wesley, 1956)

Move toward constructivism

Traditional objective-led lessons focus on outcome. The constructivist approach focuses on learning. Some research suggests that a constructivist approach to learning achieves better results than objectivist teaching and enables pupils to apply their knowledge in different contexts (see, for example, the article by Jo Boaler, ‘Open and closed mathematics: student experiences and understandings’, in Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, vol 29, no 1, pp41–62, 1998).

At Saint Benedict, a more fluid approach to lesson planning has emerged, reflecting this shift towards constructivism in classrooms. Although the three-part lesson structure, providing clear lesson objectives and learning outcomes, remains the basis of the whole-school plan, there has been a subtle shift in focus. Perhaps as a result of the introduction of assessment for learning,
the focus in lessons is becoming increasingly about learning rather than outcomes. Ultimately, it is not completing activities or getting through curriculum content that is important. The move towards more fluid lessons is not a step back – far from it – it is another step towards personalised learning and developing independent learners.

Embedding good practice

  • Remember underlying principles – encouraging independent thinkers and learners
  • Ensure changes are not just from the top down
  • Focus on achieving small and manageable changes
  • Promote a whole-school culture of sharing best practice

Taking stock

This new approach to lesson planning has enabled a response to questions about the efficacy of the three-part lesson. Staff are now confident enough to explore innovative new ideas and use the three-part lesson, outlined on the school template, as a foundation for good practice rather than a rigid structure.

The impact of the school’s approach to lesson planning on learning is under con­stant review. However, it is what underpins the lesson planning (inclusivity, interactive teaching activities, assessment for learning) that is reviewed, rather than the proforma itself. The use of data to inform planning has also played an increasingly important role in recent years. Staff are now much better at using data than they were two years ago. Having a goal for every learner, in every subject, across every key stage means staff can easily assess how a pupil is progressing in their lesson. This focus on the use of data to inform planning has been sharpened by the requirement to use it as a tool when completing whole-school termly assessments to determine whether pupils are on, below or above subject targets.

In hindsight, it would have been better if we had begun the process sooner and, in the early stages, asked for more rigorous monit­oring and checking of plans by middle leaders. Although it was not difficult to con­vince staff of the benefits of effective planning, there are always some who will be resistant to change. This is one of the core challenges to helping all staff achieve effec­tive lesson plans. But the school’s culture of sharing methodology and ideas, encour­aging enthusiastic, junior staff to share their good practice and the active encouragement from leadership to view other people’s lessons has lead to an infectious desire to improve the quality of planning, teaching and learning across the school.

The solid foundation that has been established for lesson planning has enabled us to become risk-takers and move towards a more creative and innovative curriculum. Armed with the knowledge of what makes lessons effective, last year we introduced a new, alternative, curriculum for Year 7. This involves pupils being taught cross-curricular lessons by a home-base tutor for a large proportion of their timetable, while also attending skills lessons in core and practical subjects. This year, the alternative curriculum has been extended into Year 8, where students will be engaging in cross-curricular thematic lessons with one teaching covering a range of subject skills.

Toby Greany, NSCL’s director of policy and research, stated that:

At its simplest, personalised learning is about what is taught, how it’s taught, how it’s assessed and how learning is organised. (ldr online magazine)

This is the essence of planning effective and high-quality lessons. The introduction of a standard approach to lesson planning and planning for learning has not been – and is not – just another new initiative, but a change in culture. It has been about leading a sustainable change, which has a real and lasting impact on learning.

Claire Pass, Advanced Skills Teacher, Saint Benedict School, Derby