The Problem with Plenaries

If group work was the holy grail of my teacher training, effective plenaries were definitely the pedagogical white rabbit – the element of the lesson you always felt was achievable, but nevertheless remained elusive. Running out of time for a plenary during an official observation was almost to be expected, but cramming it in for two minutes was better than nothing.

Although there’s bound to be some variation, I think most teachers have a pretty similar idea of what a plenary is, or what it is suppose to be, even if they are sceptical about it’s efficacy. Here’s my definition of this ‘typical’ idea:

Plenaries are the stage in the lesson after the main task, where students complete an activity which promotes meta-cognition, getting them to articulate or reflect on what they have learnt. This is an AFL strategy that helps cement learning.

I’d like to discuss four potential problems with thinking about plenaries in this way, and then tentatively offer some possible solutions.

Problem One: The Progress Myth

I think the prevalence of the plenary is closely related to the idea that students make progress in lessons, and that plenaries are the best way of distilling this progress. Alongside the progress-in-lessons myth, is the equally unhelpful idea that this progress is somehow observable to a third party. If we believe that progress is observable within lessons, an effective plenary (or perhaps several!) is the best way to showcase to an observer that students are making progress in the observed lesson.

I think this idea is pretty widespread. I’ve not been teaching long enough to remember a time when three or four part lessons weren’t. My lesson planning document during my training was split into boxes. My lesson planning document during my NQT year was split into boxes – with the final box being entitled “Review: (Assessment of progress made, reflection time)

Maybe if we acknowledge that ‘lessons’ are not the most helpful unit of time to think about, as Bodil Isaksen suggests here, plenaries as a means of showcasing this learning become lesson important.

Problem Two: The illusion of learning

If a plenary goes excellently, with every student completing the task well, might this simply provide an illusion of learning? I haven’t done a huge amount of educational research, but from what little I’ve read it seems that actual learning might be a lot more difficult than that. Lives of Hidden Learners suggests that progress might not actually be observable. When we see a child engaging in a plenary, we are seeing them perform a task well, and this is different to actual learning. Nuthall also suggests that students need to revisit material or information 3 times in order for it to be remembered long term.

If the plenary goes well, might we be in danger of forgetting to revisit or properly cement that topic, because we believe the students have ‘got it’?

Problem Three: Rushed Metacognition

If plenaries typically happen at the end of the lesson, it’s easy for teachers to run out of time. The rigidity of this structure, if we choose to stick to it, might easily lead to piecemeal attempts at including a plenary. And if this is the case, students might not really have the time they need to engage critically with their work, or think deeply enough about their lesson.

I also think that students can easily pick up on this routine from the teacher. If they know that in the last five minutes of the lesson they always do a specific activity or task, chances are they’ll be thinking more about break time than the task in hand. As well as leading to superficial thinking, this can also lead to sloppy writing, as students rush to get their plenary ‘on the page’ without too much though about how they do this.

Problem Four: The dangers of Genericism

Alongside the problem of rushing plenaries, is the problem of the generic plenary – a go-to task which can be transferred into a different lesson for an easy, quick to plan end to a lesson. Take the plenary pyramid for example, which I found on one of my old lesson PowerPoints recently.

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James Theo has written before about how a generic, common language between different subject areas might be unhelpful, but I also think the same is true about generic activities. When I gave my students this generic plenary activity, I probably wasn’t thinking carefully about the content of my lesson and what I wanted students to think about. When they were filling it in, I have no guarantee they were thinking about what I wanted them to either – they were probably just trying to fill it in quickly so they could go to break.

It’s very easy to be fooled into thinking, as I was, that certain generic activities simply work regardless of context. Generic plenary activities seem to be an especially prevalent example of this.

Possible Solutions

  1. If we can let go of the myth of progress in lessons, and let go of the constraining four part lesson structure, then we can focus on longer term goals in our planning. Maybe, our plenary should be a reflective task based on a fortnight’s learning? Maybe, our so-called plenary could be a whole lesson, where students complete a challenging, extended task which encapsulates what they’ve been learning over a longer period. Perhaps, we should make more use of multiple choice tests, as Kris Boulton suggests, which can provide a much clearer assessment of our students’ learning.

  2. Perhaps we should be more upfront with our students about the illusion of learning. Instead of asking them to articulate what they have learnt, maybe asking them what they have been practising, what choices they have been making, or how this lesson reminds them of other previous lessons might be more productive.  We might even be more honest about how difficult learning is, making it clear that old content must be revisited to be fully mastered. Perhaps we could also make use of Andy Tharby’s memory platforms, and dedicate specific parts of the lesson revisiting this old content.

  3. What if, instead of a short meta-cognition task at the end of the lesson, we forced students to be more reflective of their work during the task. Could the slow writing approach force our students to be more reflective whilst completing written work and lead to better quality writing overall? Could we also use this approach to ensure that students think more carefully about how they write, leading to higher quality thinking overall? Might this higher quality writing come alongside a challenging question relating to the central concept of the lesson, rather than asking students to articulate their learning?

  4. What if, as subject specialists we were a little more skeptical about activities that ‘just work’. As Michael Fordham puts it, why should we fall for genericism? Perhaps instead of using slides like the plenary pyramid, I need to think more carefully about my subject – exactly what I want my students to know and be able to do. This may require a combination of the three solutions above. Firstly, I need to look beyond the lesson, and be more clear on the expectations for my students over a longer period. I also need to consider how exactly I will assess their progress, how regularly I will do this, and over what time period. Finally, I need to make sure that when students are reflecting on a particularly concept, or practising a certain skill, that they do so in a careful, reflective manner, with challenging questions and a high expectations on the quality of their final output.
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10 thoughts on “The Problem with Plenaries

  1. Thanks for this – there are some thought provoking ideas here.

    Something I’ve got into the habit of doing – when the moment just feels right – is stopping the class and asking them ‘why are we doing this?’. It’s not so much trying to assess what the class have learned, but getting them to try to spot what learning could come from it.

    I would also place greater value on starting the next lesson pulling together the learning from the previous one, than trying to do it at the end of a lesson. For one, it has given things time to sink in, and therefore is more likely to represent actual learning, secondly if spaced recall is meant to aid learning then it is more likely to lead to things subsequently sinking in, and also, it of course sets the scene quite well for where you’re going to go next – probably one of the best ways of actually ‘engaging’ pupils at the start of a lesson.

    • Ha! Of course I’ve just read your link to Andy Tharby’s Memory Platforms and found him recommending exactly what I was describing above. Oh well, consensus is a good thing!

      • Hi Chris.

        Thanks for the comments – yes I think the spaced recall thing is really useful habit to get into. What I find really interesting about Andy’s post is how students might be asked to recall something from a month ago, or even a term ago. I wonder how this sort of quizzing / spaced recall might help with memory after longer time periods.

        Dave

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  3. Thanks for the mention, David. A great post that really chimes with my own feelings about the plenary.

    One of my concerns, which you allude to in the post, is how superficial some plenary tasks are. I’ve been thinking recently about the importance of regular deliberate writing practice, of 15-20 minutes of sustained writing right up to the bell every lesson. It’s such a good time to do it because a) it should be high quality as it will have been scaffolded by the lesson and b) the regularity of it would help us to embed successful long-term habits. This kind of practice, just at the point when students are getting somewhere, can be ruined by the fluffy, generic plenary types you discuss.

    You wouldn’t be able to provide feedback on it all, but who cares? The regular practice itself is the key – leading towards more extended assessments every half-term or so.

    Anyway, just some thoughts. Thanks again for the post.

    Andy

  4. Hi Again – been thinking some more about this, and I definitely like Andy’s spread of questions at the beginning of sessions, linking back a mixture of time periods and also the power of the sustained writing at the end of a session, uninterrupted by trivial end of lesson activities.

    However… just a little thought in favour of some kind of exit ticket system (on occasion). Apart from the already mentioned ‘check of understanding’ (as opposed to check of learning) which can then be useful for deciding on how you now progress, a well judged question could also help to actually ‘encourage’ the learning process, if it pushes pupils to formulate in their own words what they have learned. In other words, the act of answering is an act of consolidation as well as assessment.

    Clearly this would require a written thought rather than a tokenistic symbol tick!

    Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss.

    Chris

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