Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Structure of Learning

The three part lesson. Beginning/middle/end. Starter/activity/plenary. This was what I was told was the best way to structure a lesson during my PGCE, so much so that every lesson plan was structured in this way. It was only during my placements, when I could speak to colleagues about different ways to structure a lesson, that I really thought about how important this is to a student's learning. Moving on to Cramlington Learning Village helped me further with the Accelerated Learning Cycle developed by Derek Wise, Mark Lovatt and Alistair Smith. Further reading of education blog posts, books and twitter has developed my thinking on the matter further, along with my development in my current role and school. So what is the right way of structuring a lesson?

Firstly, it's important to start out by saying that this is what works for me. It could work for other teachers, but ultimately you can't set out a learning structure for every teacher as they'll interpret in their own way. For instance, you could argue that every lesson that has ever been taught has the basic structure of the three-part lesson; it's just that teachers then interpret this in their own way. The Accelerated Learning Cycle has the elements of the three-part lesson; it is just broken down further.

To begin a lesson, you must always know where your students are in their knowledge. Unless you are trying to consolidate their knowledge, there is no point going over the same material again and again; you need to find out what they know and what they don't know. This needs to be done regularly, as what they might know one lesson, might be forgotten when it comes to the next lesson, hence the need for revisits to previous knowledge regularly. Therefore, the Do Now/Starter/Connect the Learning/Beginning needs to have some kind of assessment of the knowledge you are wanting them to learn, so that you know how to make progress with their understanding of that knowledge. To further complicate matters, this does not necessarily need to occur in that lesson, but might have happened in the previous lesson. The students' retrieval/understanding of that knowledge might have changed in that time, so it is always best to do the assessment at the start of the lesson.

This is where it gets even more complicated for the teacher! This is a crucial part of the lesson, as the teacher must decide (through their assessment of the students in the Do Now and the marking of the students' books) what they can do, as the teacher, to help the students' understanding/retrieval of the knowledge you want them to learn. Learning objectives/outcomes are shared (this is another future blog post of its own!) so that the pupils understand what they are attempting to learn, how they're going to learn it and how they will know that they are successful in doing so.

In order for the students to learn something, they need to have some new information shared with them. Whilst I initially thought this had to be done at the front in a didactic way, I have adjusted my thinking over the course of the last few years. All practitioners and theories seem to suggest that the new information should be shared via modelling and then the students practise the skill/knowledge learnt from it. This is present from a primary point of view, to active bloggers and from schools' lesson plan structures to education bigwigs. This could be argued to be the 'middle', the 'activity' or the 'demonstration of the new learning', but it should be present so that the students can essentially be introduced to the new idea and practise it.

Whilst this is going on, the teacher and student should be consistently assessing where the students are in their learning. The student should use the learning objectives shared at the start of the lesson to assess where they are in their learning and how they can learn even more essentially. This can include a 'final assessment' at the end of the lesson cycle structure, but the teacher and student should be seeing what stage the student is with their learning and what they can do to improve. 

The problem with all of this, is that it doesn't always nestle nicely into the time period allocated for a lesson. This is why I'd suggest that this isn't necessarily a 'lesson structure', but is instead a 'learning structure'. At the start of my practice, I was trying to neatly fit the Accelerated Learning Cycle into every lesson, which very rarely worked. When I spoke to Mark Lovatt about this, he instead suggested that it isn't designed for a lesson, but for part of a lesson, a one-off lesson, a series of lessons or longer. Thus you could have a whole 'lesson' of modelling and practising the knowledge with the consistent assessment embedded, if the knowledge/skill could not be learnt into a one-off lesson. A teacher should not be thinking about how to structure their lesson, but instead be thinking about how they can structure the students' learning.

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