Planning for learning – a road well travelled
Most schools have a long term plan of how the national curriculum will be delivered for each subject and in each year group. This could be cross-curricular topics, discrete subject teaching, specific teaching of specialised objectives in grammar and phonics or any combination of the above. When it comes to the unit of work, or weekly lesson planning stage, there is often less strategic direction; and with a new curriculum teachers can find themselves wondering how best to meet the needs of the children in their class.
When planning units of work for children it’s all too easy to lose focus on the purpose of the learning and slip into a planning frenzy led by fabulous activities and inspirational resources that you’ve found in a book/online/had in your cupboards for years. We’ve all done it, but does it really work? Grabbing the children’s attention is important, but when time is scarce and pressure is on us to reach attainment and progress targets we need to think carefully about the purposefulness of what we plan. This is where planning through the metaphor of a journey can help focus our minds on the learning taking place and how each lesson works as a tiny step towards a final destination.
Map it out
Forgive me for stating the obvious here, but when you set off on a journey (unless you’re planning on taking a mystery tour) it’s best to know where you’re going! Shift this logic to the teaching arena and we can see that planning for learning requires us to know where we’re taking the children. This sounds easy but when the school’s long term plan is a list of topic headings or genre types we need to give special focus to what it is that the children need to learn by the end of the week/unit of work; and the source of this is the national curriculum. The first stage then on your learning journey is to decide which national curriculum objectives the children need to master by the end of that unit of work. Tip one: start at the end.
Planes, trains and automobiles
Once you’ve decided which objectives the children need to master by the end of the week/unit of work you need to decide how you are going to get them there. This is aboutchoosing your mode of transport.
Let me explain with reference to my fictional class and some genuine Y3 and Y4 English (Writing – composition) objectives:
- organising paragraphs around a theme
- in narrative, creating settings, characters and plot
- in non-narrative material, using simple organisational devices [for example, headings and sub-headings]
I know from my assessments that the majority of my class have not yet mastered bullet point 2 and my school’s long term plan says I need to teach a narrative unit in the second half of the autumn term. My vehicle of choice for this unit will be a quality text; and at the end of the unit I want the children to write a similar piece of narrative where they create characters, setting and plot.
My school has directed me to do some non-narrative writing in the first half of the spring term, which will give me the opportunity to work on bullets 1 and 3. As we’ll be studying Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age at this time I’ll use the topic as the vehicle, so that by the end of the unit children can write non-chronological reports using headings, sub-headings and paragraphs.
The vehicle you choose can change and should be informed by what is most suitable for the journey as well as by your knowledge of your children and how to make the learning meaningful for them. Tip two: choose a suitable context for the learning
Milestones and pit-stops
So, you know where you’re going and how you’re travelling. To ensure your little passengers arrive on time and in good shape you need to know the key milestones on route and take regular planned pit-stops. What does this mean though in terms of learning? At the beginning of a unit of work the final destination can seem distant but there will be key learning points that the children must meet whilst on route. If we think about the traditional structure for learning in English: we begin with familiarisation with features, usually in the form of great written examples from quality texts. We need children to be able to recognise and describe these features before we move onto the next stage of learning. We then need to give them time to learn about, and practice, using grammatical or organisational features that are present in the exemplar text and that we want them to replicate in their final written outcome. These are milestones – key markers on the journey and assessment points that must be passed if the learning is to be successful. If we find learning is insecure at these points, then we need to take a pit-stop or possibly a detour to revisit parts of the learning journey. We may be able to continue with our journey at the planned pace or even find that we need to hop onto the toll-road to accelerate the pace of learning. Tip three: plan assessment points which inform progress toward the final outcome.
In-car entertainment and passenger participation
Now you know where you’re going, the mode of transport you’ll be using and the milestones that you need to meet, you’re ready to start thinking about those all important learning activities. The amount of steps you need to take towards each milestone and the types of learning that will support mastery of those skills should now be visible. It may now be that those fabulous resources you’ve been hoarding for years can be used to support the learning of your class. Without any hesitation though, if they don’t support the journey towards the milestones or the final destination then I must tell you to, “Put them back in the cupboard!” as successful learning journeys recognise that every lesson counts and there is no time for delays and traffic jams. Tip four: plan for learning not for activity.
Provide an itinerary
“Are we there yet?” If you want to avoid this refrain then you need to make sure that your little travellers know where they’re going and what they can expect to see on their journey. I like to convert one display board in the classroom into the learning journey. I turn it into a road with the final outcome and success criteria (key national curriculum objectives not genre features) indicated at the end. The milestones are marked out and every day we move our car along the road and annotate what we’ve learned on our journey up to that point. This makes the learning transparent to everyone involved: me, the children, the TA and any visitors who come into the room. It also means that the children can see the purpose in their learning and how the tasks that we’re undertaking support their learning beyond the immediate lesson. Top tip 5: make the learning explicit.
I hope you can see now how starting at the end and thinking of the learning process as a journey can help you to plan meaningful and purposefulness lessons. This process isn’t exclusive to English teaching, it works across the curriculum and is an easy way to articulate to children what it is they’re learning and why they’re doing it.
Rachel Clarke, Director: Primary English Education Consultancy Limited.
A version of this article first appeared in Teach Primary magazine.
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