The Plenary

I took part in a discussion on Twitter in response to posts by Kevin McLaughlin who was describing his approach to teaching in 2012 where

2012 will be the year that my planning is based on what every child in my class wants to learn, open classroom learning and no timetable.

Kevin is an inspirational teacher who is the embodiment of what we need in our profession as we move towards the development teaching being led by schools. He is an action researcher of great bravery who also forces me to challenge my thinking with his uncompromising questioning of the norm. During the discussion he questioned whether there was anyone who wasn’t bored by the standard  ‘introduction, main activity, groups, plenary’ type of teaching and whilst I am a consultant who works with teachers supporting their use of  this approach I do have great sympathy with his view.

As this continued there was discussion of plenaries and whether they had a role in every lesson. Kevin’s view was  that “Plenaries can be used anywhere, tell your colleagues it’s formative assessment and much better than a token question taped on the end.”

This is certainly a view I agree with and has led me to prepare this blog post. There is a present wisdom doing the rounds that OFSTED  inspectors like a nice mini plenary in the middle of independent activities and this will improve the likelihood of getting better grades in an observation.
Again this perpepuates the game that we end up playing in Primary education where perceived wisdoms end up driving the way in which we teach rather than what is best for the children in our classes. This is not saying that mini plenaries or taking stock moments do not have the potential to be powerful teaching episodes but using them for the sake of it or as part of a mechanised approach to teaching will not your children as much as those based around their needs. In 2001 the OFSTED review of the Literacy Strategy stated that “the plenary is poorly used if it is simply a bolt-on-extra which provides an opportunity for groups of pupils to present their work daily; it is essential time for making sure that pupils have grasped the objectives and made progress, so that the next lesson can begin on firm foundations”

Definitions of a plenary

The term has been used in the teaching profession to describe when information is summarized. This often encourages class participation. (Wikipedia) An interesting definition from one online encyclopaedia is ‘The time at the end of a lesson in which the teacher finds out what children have learnt and re-emphasises the main points of the lesson.’

For me the plenary is a moment which inevitably takes place at the end of a lesson to allow children to confirm, extend and invigorate learning. It all has to be about learning and not about just about consolidation. The criticism I have and hear of many plenaries (where they exist) is that they are poorly thought out moments of consolidation of learning or confirming that tasks have been carried out.

The role of the plenary

The plenary will need to be based on the judgement of the teacher and will not always look like what they had planned or intended – some days it will may be a long session whilst on others it could be a cursory discussion (this could be in a session here there has already a lot of discussion or coverage of learning). Teachers need to trust their judgement on how the sequence will end.
The role of the plenary needs to be centred around pupil voice and opportunities for formative assessment. They present  a chance to engage with where the children are in their learning. Where I think that too many opportunities are missed is the lack of  pupil voice driving through the sessions.

When I am working with teachers on a repeated basis I try to train the children up to use the recorder tool in the IWB software so that groups are able to present their work. If the teacher is not using the IWB for guided teaching then there is a huge opportunity for a group of children to work independently at the board and then present their work in the plenary. As a teacher I would always (where appropriate) ask the children to record their methods (you can see an example on this blog post) this would then allow us to explore the skills involved in greater depth.

Children should be given the opportunity for meta-cognition (knowing how they know things) this is where the children  are able to develop their knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or problem solving.

Many of the schools in which I have worked have been in areas of social deprivation where the quality of speaking and listening has consistently needed modelling and support. The plenary seems to be the perfect moment for this and I will go through a range of plenary types which could help.

Plenary types

Assess learning – using the plenary as an opportunity for formative assessment through questioning or making judgements on children’s presentation of their work. In classes where speaking and listening has been modelled pupils’ questions of their peers presenting their work could provide an insight into their understanding of the work shown. Awareness of the next session – there are times when a plenary session may not be of great importance. For example when the session has been successful and children have met their objectives it might be effective to cover elements that would be focussed upon in the following lesson in the sequence.   What better way to avoid the same old introduction to lessons than to introduce the concepts the day before for the children to consider overnight? Consolidate learning – whilst I have said that too many plenaries are purely to consolidate learning there are occasions when this is appropriate for a class Check a specific group’s understanding – In a similar way to assess learning this would allow the teacher to assess how a group of children have fared in their understanding of a specific concept or against their objective Comment on children’s work - All too often plenaries are entirely teacher centred with children allowed to speak in passing. With direction and clear modelling children could lead the questioning or comment on their peers’ work. This is a key part of developing peer and pupil assessment.I am a great fan of using thinking dice to promote questioning – these could help pupils in forming questions for other pupils.  Revise learning from previous lessons – with the advent of IWBs in most classrooms teachers now have the ability to revisit work from previous lessons or sequences. There are times when during the lesson it will become clear that the some of the children may need to revisit previous concepts to support their work. This could be in a mathematics lesson where the children need to concrete their understanding before moving on. This is something which you cannot plan for it is an in-lesson judgement. Return to objective – This is, at times, not dissimilar to consolidating learning, but is focused on the objective and children being able to explain their understanding of it. I am reminded of the wonderful idea of Lo and Behold from Tim Rylands who suggests covering up the learning objective and only revealing it at the end of the lesson to see if it matches the children’s prediction of what they think it is. You know that the children have really “got it” if they can match what they have learned to the intention of the lesson. Extend learning - In the same way that there are days when the children simply don’t seem to learn at the pace intended by the teacher there are days when they seem to fly. If only you could bottle what happens on those days! There are times when rather aiming for vertical development it could be suitable to broaden the children’s understanding through application of their understanding through a different context. Evaluate personal learning – Rather than asking children to peer assess, evaluation of personal learning could be undertaken in the plenary. This could be a very cursory thumbs up thumbs down / traffic lighting but there is a danger that these become mechanistic lip service paying moments rather than strong use of AfL. The key question is why did they give it a thumbs up / green light – can the children explain why they think that they were successful? Elucidate - Speaking and listening again coming to the fore. Time to discuss their work and undertake meta cognition. Obviously the list is not exhaustive and conveniently only those which start the acronym ACRE! The success of the lesson is based upon the need of the children and the expertise of the teacher not what the perceived wisdom dictates.

11 Responses to “The Plenary”

  1. Kevin McLaughlin
    December 30, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    With reference to Oftsed’s apparent wish for plenaries, ‘this perpepuates the game that we end up playing in Primary education where perceived wisdoms end up driving the way in which we teach rather than what is best for the children in our classes’ a point that sums up everything wrong with plenaries as they are being used now. Your post goes some way to address this and provides a fantastic list of possible plenaries that could be used by teachers and teaching assistants.

  2. Jo Badge
    December 30, 2011 at 10:56 pm #

    Thanks for this – really really useful information for me as PGCE student :-))

    • Bill Lord
      December 31, 2011 at 9:52 am #

      I am glad that it is useful – please do share with your PGCE colleagues.

  3. Nicola Wheatley
    December 31, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Really interesting to read and thought provoking. Thinking of making an ACRE sign to make the children more aware if the purpose of the plenary.

    • Bill Lord
      December 31, 2011 at 10:37 am #

      Thanks Nicola – in terms of the display I am not convinced the kids need to know what type of plenary they are experiencing. The importance is that it is driven by where the children are in their learning and developing pupil voice. In terms of plenary purpose I would push the children to be aware of which skills they are using or the meta-cognition taking place.

  4. jenkenny (@genkijen)
    December 31, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    A great post to end the year . Food for thought and something I will be paying a lot of attention to whilst planning in the New Year . Again highlights the importance of speaking and listening skills . Going to make a lot of use of the flip cam ( wish I had more than one for my class) .

    • Bill Lord
      December 31, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

      Don’t underestimate the power of the recorder tool in your IWB software for plenaries – there is a blog post to follow about using it for teaching mathematical concepts as well.

  5. janetteww
    January 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    A lot of food for thought in this post. Our head is very keen on mini plenaries for the reasons that you state but I feel that it is just as short sighted as the more traditional 3 part lesson. I really like ACRE and definitely need to use the different methods more often.

  6. Lee Manning
    January 12, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    Cheers Bill. Your ideas on the potential use of the plenary are more enlightening than any I’ve been given in the past three months – (i.e: Check understanding/sum up and little else…)

  7. Paul
    June 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Thank you for this. I am currently in my 3rd year at uni studying PE teaching (QTS) and in the early stages of looking into the role of the plenary as a possible research area for my dissertation. I therefore found this blog very thought provoking as I too hold the view that the boring ‘introduction – main activity – plenary’ set-up in lessons isn’t always the most productive especially in the context of PE where stopping a lesson early to perform a plenary may not always be worthwhile if the students are working well in their final activity. I am however finding it difficult to find any published studies or articles that may have taken place looking into the role of plenaries that i could use to aid my research. Are you able to point me in the right direction of where to look? or know of any ‘must read’ articles that you believe may help me? Many thanks

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