How to plan an effective lesson!

Instruction, Leadership, Learning, Teaching

Effective teachers know their students, have strong content knowledge and possess a wide repertoire of teaching strategies. They are well planned and very intentional about the practices they implement in the classroom. Effective teachers do not leave learning to chance!

School leaders (and indeed the school community) can identify the effective teacher through the preparation of their lessons. This is the teachers’ “bread and butter”. Researchers show that effective teachers include a number of distinct processes and stages in their lesson planning.

At Al Yasat we have taken the research and built a targeted lesson outline that ensures not only quality teaching and learning but also consistency across the school. We call it the “8 Elements of an Effective Lesson”. It helps teachers direct their planning to the needs of students, while implementing our school’s written curriculum; it offers school leaders direction in our class observations and walkthroughs; it provides a platform for our coaching and mentoring practices and most importantly; it is embedded in the best practice research and the many studies of what works in enhancing student learning.

Let me introduce the elements to you.

Beginning of Lesson

Element One: The Essential Question

We believe in the use of an inquiry approach to our teaching and learning and the need for students to have an understanding and the purpose of the lesson. We know that good questions direct students to dig deeper into content and processes, and delve deeper into the subject matter. More importantly they propel students to learn to ask their own questions. And within a subject they help focus content on the crucial and important parts of that subject. This is more than just letting the students know what they are learning to do in the lesson. It is about connecting prior knowledge to future applications.

Essential questions are non-judgmental, open-ended, meaningful, purposeful and they relate to the students. It is through the essential question that we as teachers, connect to our students.

Element Two: An Initiating Strategy

The purpose of an initiating strategy is to help students frame their thinking and focus on the concept at hand. The most important part of a lesson occurs during the first five minutes. If the activity engages students right away, you know there will be enough “sparks” to fly for the rest of the lesson and your job will be relatively easy. If the activity however is not challenging, repetitious, (”We’ve done this before!” Sound familiar?) there will be “lulls” that more often than not, result in discipline problems. The key of course, is to keep the “sparks flying,” but it all really depends on how you can spark up your classroom right away.

Simply google “best lesson plan hooks” and you will have plenty of ideas to “hook” your students into the lesson.

The Main Body of the Lesson

Research tells us that 80% of what a child learns is from their peers. Therefore we need to be more student centred with bulk time in co-operative/collaborative activities.

Element Three: Limiting Teacher Talk

We all love to talk in the classroom! So, we should; after-all, we are teachers! But ‘teacher-talk’ can (not solely) be a root-cause of poor behaviour and debilitate student’s acquisition of knowledge and skill during a lesson. Reducing teacher talk and allowing more time in lessons for students to be active participants in their learning, we believe is an important aspect of developing outstanding teaching and learning.

Element Four: Use of Graphic Organisers

Graphic organizers are important and effective pedagogical tools for organizing content and ideas and facilitating learners’ comprehension of newly acquired information. Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences posits that students are better able to learn and internalize information when more than one learning modality is employed in an instructional strategy. Since graphic organizers present material through the visual and spatial modalities (and reinforce what is taught in the classroom), the use of graphic organizers helps students internalize what they are learning.

For today’s classroom, nothing is more essential to successful teaching and learning than strategy-based instruction. It is through the use of specific teaching strategies and learning tools that students can be more successful learners. Graphic organizers are teaching and learning tools; when they’re integrated into classroom experiences, students are better able to understand new material. Creating a strong visual picture, graphic organizers support students by enabling them to literally see connections and relationships between facts, information, and terms.

Graphic organizers have dual functions. They are effective as both a teaching and learning tool. As an instructional strategy it helps teachers:

  • Introduce a topic
  • Activate prior knowledge and linkit with new information
  • Organize content to be presented and a visually summarize the lesson once taught
  • Assess student comprehension, identify and address any questions or clarifications needed

Element Five: Differentiated Groups

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and describes differentiated instruction as factoring students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan. Research on the effectiveness of differentiation shows this method benefits a wide range of students, from those with learning disabilities to those who are considered high ability.

Differentiating instruction may mean teaching the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies, or it may require the teacher to deliver lessons at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of each student.

We know that teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom:

  • Design lessons based on students’ learning styles.
  • Group students by shared interest, topic, or ability for assignments.
  • Assess students’ learning using formative assessment.
  • Manage the classroom to create a safe and supportive environment.
  • Continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs.

Element Six: Targeted Instructional Strategies & Active Teacher Movement

Connected to the differentiated groups is the need to decide on the essential teaching strategy for that engages small groups of students. Educational researchers have known for decades that a student learns best when teaching is targeted to what he/she is ready to learn. If the material is too easy, students can become bored and disengage. If it is too hard, students will flounder and may choose to misbehave or give up rather than face continued failure. In either case, little is learnt. But if teaching is targeted at what students are ready to learn, powerful progress can be made.

Choosing appropriate teaching strategy is the key to this element. It is not about “busy work” while you work with a group of students. It is your direct intervention, checking for understanding, monitoring and providing feedback as you move from group to group.

The active teacher is roaming, identifying the disengaged student, and bringing them back on task.

Element Seven: Higher Order Questioning

In today’s world it is necessary, but not sufficient, for students to achieve minimal competence in areas such as reading, writing and numeracy. Beyond the achievement of minimal competence, students also need to develop what are often called ‘higher order’ thinking skills including critical literacy, critical numeracy and cross-curricular competencies. A useful conceptualisation of higher order thinking skills distinguishes two contexts in which these skills are employed: contexts where the thought processes are needed to solve problems and make decisions in everyday life; and contexts where mental processes are needed to benefit from instruction, including comparing, evaluating, justifying and making inferences. The ability to employ higher order thinking skills in both these contexts is seen as essential in a rapidly changing world and the first context in particular is being adopted as a starting point for international assessment programs.

Afterall, isn’t this is the outcome of implementing the vision of the school.

  • Remember: Retrieving relevant knowledge from long-term memory (recognizing, recalling)
  • Understand: Determining the meaning of instructional messages, including oral, written, and graphic communication (interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, explaining)
  • Apply: Carrying out or using a procedure in a given situation (executing, implementing)
  • Analyze: Breaking materials into its constituent parts and detecting how the parts relate to one another an to an overall structure or purpose (differentiating, organizing, attributing)
  • Evaluate: Making judgments based on criteria and standards (checking, critiquing)
  • Create: Putting elements together to form a novel, coherent whole or make an original product (generating, planning, producing)

Information learned and processed through higher-order thinking processes is remembered longer and more clearly than information that is processed through lower-order, rote memorization. This may be the most important benefit of high-order thinking. Knowledge obtained through higher-order thinking processes is more easily transferable, so that students with a deep conceptual understanding of an idea will be much more likely to be able to apply that knowledge to solve new problems.

End of Lesson

Element Eight: Summarise and Reflection

The closure of the lesson is the time when you wrap up a lesson plan and help students organize the information in a meaningful context in their minds. This helps students better understand what they have learned and provides a way in which they can apply it to the world around them. A strong closure involves summarising and reflecting on the lesson. It can help students better retain information beyond the immediate learning environment. A brief summary or overview is often appropriate; it doesn’t have to be an extensive review.

In order to maximise the lesson there are a number of tactics which can support you to make the time more organised and productive.

    • End early. Don’t try to cover too much material in one hit. Don’t mistake pace for manic activity. Leave at least eight minutes to finish off the lesson properly.
    • Use a structured plenary/reflection to end the session. This should be a group or individual reflection on what has been learned.
    • Ask the pupils to identify two or three key points they have learned from the lesson. These can be shared in small groups either written or as drawings and cartoons. A review of these points could become a regular feature of a homework routine.
    • Summarise the learning.
    • Set the scene for the following lesson.
    • Have clear routines for an organised departure. Don’t fall into the trap of not clearing away apparatus in good time.
    • Vary the way in which the pupils are dismissed, for example, row-by-row, small groups, alphabetically, one by one after answering a question. This will help keep the lesson focused right until the end.

The impact of effective lessons can not be underestimated, even for the more experienced teachers. Our lesson expectations offer teachers guidance and support for the teaching and learning, but more importantly, helps lead to improved outcomes for our students.

Four Key Facets of the School Leader

Leadership, Schools

There are plenty of articles both in the scholarly literature and in the commentary magazines that state that effective leadership is the foundation for improving school performance. While there are key leadership styles (eg transformation, servant, autocratic, laissez-faire, bureaucratic,  collaborative, charismatic, situational, democratic) I like to focus on the behavioural aspect.

There is no doubt that the effective leader must contextualise their approach to the school. In one context the leader needs  a leadership style to  enable staff, yet in another setting they might need to be transformational and motivate people.

Regardless of your particular leadership style, for me there are four key aspects  that any leader must posses. These leadership traits are uniquely intertwined into the core essence of the effective leader. In short they are:

  1. The Art of Decision Making: It is a given that school leaders need to be able to make decisions. But to make an effective decision is not always as straight forward as it seems. The leader needs to have a clear process to gather relevant information and then, after careful analysis, decide on the best way forward.
  2. The Art of Being Results Focused: Some leaders coast into a position and then go about managing a steady ship. These leaders are often called the “care taker leader” or the “close to retirement leader”.  However, the effective leader continually focuses on achieving results. They target strategies to achieve their objectives and regularly monitor their effectiveness. Analyzing and reflecting on school data helps to keep an effective leader on task.
  3. The Art of Pursuing Alternative Viewpoints: Have you witnessed the leader who asks for your viewpoint repeatedly only to dismiss and take their own advice? This shallow form of collaboration limits the richness of the knowledge and expertise of others.
  4. The Art of Caring: The effective leader is genuinely interested in the lives of their staff. They know their staff and build a sense of trust through actively looking for ways to enhance their well being.

Notwithstanding the many roles and functions the school leader undertakes, if you excel in these four key facets you will enjoy a successful leadership career.

Beyond Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk

Leadership, Professional Learning, Schools

A recent professional conversation with a small group of staff members on what makes an outstanding school led to the realisation that next year will see the 10th anniversary of the Ken Robinson’s TED talk on changing educational paradigms. Given the focus on a technological revolution coupled with Mark Treadwell’s explanation of the paradigm shift in education we are experiencing right now in his text Whatever!: School Version 2.0 and other leading educationalists purporting the need to transform education systems the question seems to be lost in translation…. Has learning been transformed?

With the prolific attention to school improvement through standardised testing measures and the subsequent outcry of its impact on learning, it might be an opportune time to see if learning has been transformed outside a few pockets here and there. The growing “personalising learning” commentary might have traction in professional development sessions but is it being embedded in the mainstream educational systems? Maybe a revisit to the infamous TED talk might garner a re-invigoration of schooling. Are we still in a factory model? Is it still a one size fits all approach?

Maybe its a matter of talking the talk but not walking the walk!

From Good to Outstanding

Leadership

While every school is concerned with school improvement initiatives as a means to improve student learning, research would suggest that the vast majority of these fail. The problem lies in the emphasis on what teachers believe ought to work rather than investigating and using evidence of what does work. It is not simply the programs that schools offer.

Typically, round table conversations follow a similar pattern. That is; a problem is identified, a brainstorm of possible solutions is held, a discernment process to choose one from the list to implement and the task is done! (How many times have you walked into schools to see a reliance on text books to ensure content is covered or see a number of commercially based programs peddled by a publisher as the panacea to the problem (eg spelling; writing; reading, etc)

Now when you look across the globe for exemplars of what outstanding schools do to raise student achievement you see some common threads. For me, I see the following:

  1. Know what outstanding looks like: If the school leader or the classroom teacher is not able to define what outstanding is, it is unlikely they will be outstanding. Most likely they will keep doing what they are doing and hoping that somehow they will get a better result.
  2. Teachers working in teams: Collaboration uses the wisdom of all to get a more informed result. Working in teams invites others to help you improve your practice and offers a focus on raising standards.
  3. Responding to student and school data:  One of the difficulties for the classroom teacher is the sustained response to individualised student data. The need to differentiate to meet student s’ learning needs relies on an effective evidence based approach to teaching and learning.
  4. Focusing on effective teaching: Teachers need to be responsive in their teaching and know their craft.
  5. More than classroom teaching: Outstanding schools attract and retain self driven/motivated teachers yearning to value add to their classroom teaching. They often (willingly) take on extra curricula activities to help meet the needs of their students. They see a need and not only offer a solution but implement it themselves.

However the most important consideration is that creating outstanding takes time. There is no silver bullet; it is through a positive collegiate culture that the essence of being outstanding is sewn.

I recently read a book called “The Leadership Triangle: From Compliance to Innovation” by Paul Kimmelman. In triangulating the three key concepts; Compliance, Leadership and Innovation he offers a framework for leading school improvement initiatives in a compliant driven world. It’s a useful tool a for leadership teams in schools to open up the dialogue and to make substantial improvements.

Creating the Outstanding School: Everyone’s Dream

Leadership, Professional Learning, Schools

As a principal focused on improving student learning I was heartened by the recent presentations at the Dubai International Education Conference recently held at Al Ghurair University, Dubai. With the key message that the teacher is the centre of improving student attainment, the various keynote and concurrent presentations offered insight into the effective impact of the role of the “Teacher as researcher.”

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The teacher as researcher can be distinguished from their colleagues as they attempt to better understand their TEACHing practice and how it impacts upon their students. In researching the relationship between teaching and learning the teacher researcher actively contributes to the conversation of what makes a difference to student learning. This is an evidenced based process and involves reflective inquiry, working in collaboration with other teachers, their students, parents and the community.

Interpreting real time data, analysing the data and them making informed decisions based upon this information is pivotal to improving the school outcomes. The challenge is ensuring that all schools improve. However, as shared by Professor David Lynch (Southern Cross University):

“It is interesting to note that the latest figures released by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (Dubai’s education authority) show that the number of private schools in Dubai will reach 250 by the year 2020 or 16 per year. There are currently 169 private schools in Dubai as of last year, but this number will increase by almost 50% in the next six years to accommodate the projected 50% increase in student population from the current 243,000 level to 366,000 by 2020 or by 24,000 per year. One of the big challenges for the UAE is to prepare or engage enough teachers to meet this demand profile.”

With the rapid increase in the number of schools in Dubai to meet the increasing demand and the KHDA prescribed inspection process identifying what makes an “outstanding school” on what constitutes an outstanding school will continue to create much debate. To help foster the dialogue perhaps our latest publication “Creating the Outstanding School” will help.

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