Mike O’Neill believes that at the heart of good provision for gifted and talented (G&T) students lies careful lesson planning

Experts spend more time planning and preparing than novices. This is true in a variety of human endeavours such as athletics, art, novel writing, science, mathematics or cookery. The same is true in the classroom – truly outstanding teachers and learners have become highly proficient because they have planned, monitored, reflected on and evaluated their own practice.

Lessons can be structured in a number of ways, with the ‘three-part lesson’ and the ‘accelerated learning cycle’ being two commonly used types. In fact, any lesson structure can be effective provided that it promotes learning and achieves its intended goals. The best lessons are constructed to include the following elements:

  • Clear learning objectives and outcomes.
  • High-pace questioning to diagnose prior learning and current levels of understanding (or misunderstanding).
  • Activities that give students access to visual, auditory and kinaesthetic stimuli and that provide opportunities for working both inside and outside their preferred learning styles.
  • Problem-solving activities that involve a variety of open and closed questions which allow students to develop higher-order thinking skills and to make progress.
  • Opportunities for fun, games, drama and performance.
  • The chance for students to think for themselves and to work with others.
  • Allowing children to struggle but providing support when appropriate.
  • Appropriate assessment and timely feedback.
  • A creative element, whether through independent thinking or in collaboration with others.

Key points for lesson planning

  • Keep the lesson plan simple; if it is too complex, it will be impossible to deliver.
  • Explain to students what you (and they) are going to do in the lesson and ‘where you are going’, via clear and simple objectives.
  • Ascertain students’ existing knowledge and misunderstandings.
  • Provide opportunity for a variety of activities that will allow students to think for themselves and work with peers.
  • Set high expectations – children want you to want them to succeed.
  • Don’t ask too many questions – get a balance between low-level recall questions and high-level thinking questions.
  • Be ‘the guide at the side’ not the ‘sage on the stage’ – the students should be doing most of the thinking.
  • Give clear, regular and personalised feedback.
  • Make it fun!

Effective questioning

Questioning is a key skill. Teachers ask many questions for a number of reasons: to motivate, to test knowledge, to promote reflection, analysis or enquiry. Sometimes, such as during the starter activity, questions are used to find out what students already know about a topic; good planning ensures that there are appropriate activities waiting for those who exceed the general level of knowledge and understanding. The teacher who is prepared for this situation will not be caught out by a child who has a long-standing interest in the Romans/ spiders/canals, and actually knows more about them than you do!

The diagram in box 1 shows some key functions of questions. The right side of the diagram where questions are used to test recall of information relates to lower level thinking; the left side where questions are used to make students think, is more concerned with higher-order skills.

Box 1







Rouse curiosity and interest Elicit views, feeling and experiences   Check understanding Revise






Focus attention Stimulate discussion   Diagnose difficulties Lead on to new learning

Encourage students to question each other. Research indicates that teaching, questioning and assessing one another enables over 90% of the taught material to be understood.

Key points for effective questioning

  • Write down your key questions in advance of the lesson, making sure that you have a range to suit all abilities.
  • Ask fewer, better questions.
  • Model a ‘questioning mind’ by thinking aloud and asking good questions.
  • Seek better answers. With fewer, better questions, you will have time to invite more responses, extend thinking time and probe more deeply.
  • Encourage students to ask more questions. The ability to question is one of the the keys to effective learning and it comes with practice. Value children’s questions as much as their answers.
  • Use a variety of questioning techniques to ensure that questions are well distributed; try
  • to ask each student a question during the
  • course of the lesson (avoid using the ‘hands-up’ technique).
  • Use Bloom’s Taxonomy and consider when to use low-, medium- and higher-order questions (see box 2).

Box 2: higher-order questioning

Higher-order questioning and a creative approach to answers can help pupils to:

  • develop logical thinking habits – to think critically, creatively and reflectively
  • think imaginatively, using their initiative and flexibility when solving problems
  • identify and prioritise key issues
  • define and redefine problems to be solved
  • analyse questions, think with a wider view
  • make connections, establish patterns and relationships
  • make decisions on the basis of experience and supporting evidence
  • evaluate processes and outcomes
  • develop further questions.

From The Primary G&T Handbook by John Senior, Optimus Education

  • Allow students time to think before answering, and give yourself time to think about their answers.
  • Make your classroom a ‘questioning environment’.

The case studies

The case studies illustrate how teachers can provide opportunities for students to be independent in their learning and take responsibility for lesson outcomes, within an agreed, but flexible framework. This is a key component of personalisation and an effective strategy in helping children and young people to ‘achieve exceptional performance’ (see Deborah Eyre’s article).

The first case study describes a sequence of lessons where pupils were encouraged to take the lead in learning about historical phenomena. Careful planning and preparation ensured that a variety of information sources was at their disposal and the teacher and teaching assistant circulated among groups to provide appropriate support and encouragement, posing higher-order questions to challenge the most able children and extend their thinking.

Case study 1
A class of Year 5/6 students were tasked with a ‘history mystery’ (Stonehenge, the Loch Ness monster, the Marie Celeste, Easter Island). The lesson began with the teacher asking what the children already knew about each phenomenon, sharing existing knowledge and clarifying the difference between fact and speculation/mythology.

Acting as detectives and working collaboratively, they devised a list of questions to be answered: what do we want to find out? The students then investigated the mysteries using a variety of sources. This involved analysing and synthesising information from books, photographs, newspaper cuttings, internet sites and video footage and evaluating its importance/credibility.

The second lesson saw the students preparing presentations for the rest of the class on what they had found out, and on their evaluation of different sources (presented in lesson 3). During this project, the teacher visited each group to question their thinking, encouraging them to think aloud and challenge each piece of information. This enabled her to assess each student and monitor progress without doing too much of the talking.

The second case study emphasises the importance of relationships between students, and between students and teacher. Where there is mutual respect underpinning pupil-teacher partnerships, teachers can be more innovative in their planning and delivery of lessons; they can ‘loosen the reins’ and take more risks. Supporting colleagues in achieving this status can be an important feature of the G&T coordinator’s role.

Case study 2
Students at Hull Collegiate School had been studying the story of Cinderella during their Spanish lessons. Having analysed much information about the story via the internet, they decided to produce their own version of the fairy-tale and act it out.

Their audience of Year 9 students assessed their performance and gave them constructive feedback. These activities provided a variety of teaching and learning techniques including thinking skills, research, creativity and drama. The fact that the teacher agreed to wear a blond wig and a male student agreed to wear a ball gown for the performance, proves that they were obviously enjoying themselves! As well as ensuring that the content and structure of a lesson are well planned and conducted, an excellent teacher will also ensure that excellent relationships are fostered and developed. Learning will always be better when those involved are smiling.

‘A poor question is a dead thing. It leaves thinking where it was and may even limit thinking. A good question makes the mind buzz. It offers a challenge to thinking; a search for understanding. They are troublesome and rarely rooted in certainty, but provide a thoughtful response. They
are productive and generate something new.’ – Robert Fisher

Dr Mike O’Neill is director of educational strategies, United Church Schools Trust and United Learning Trust