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.

Preparing For A New Year? Technology or Innovation or Do What We Did Last Year

How will you start the new year? Will you provide the same learning experience as last year or do you have some new initiatives to experiment with?
Seymour Papert in 1993 was quoted as saying “Nothing is more absurd than an experiment to place computers in classrooms where nothing else has changed”.
Technology has certainly evolved in the proceeding years with the influence of smart phones, interactive software and the connectivity and accessibility of the internet enabling teachers to be more creativity and innovative in the delivery of learning. At their fingertips, teachers are providing blended learning experiences, offering opportunities to both consolidate as well as extending students’ (and their own) learning. Providing a more personalized and targeted learning experience is now being seen as an important strategy for the effective teacher.
There has been many changes to the resources at our fingertips to value add to the learning experience which brings me back to Seymour’s quote. Simply providing new resources, technology will not in itself make sustained improvement in student learning. As George Couros’ recent tweet ponders, is simply placing the latest technology in the classroom innovative practice?
There needs to be a change in pedagogy, the way the teacher delivers the learning. Instructing the same way, doing the same thing, albeit with different resources, will not have the required impact. Simply replacing traditional classroom furniture with contemporary furniture may look different but if the teacher is still standing and delivering content, not much will change for the student. However, the adoption of an inquiry pedagogy with a collaborative expectation, peer to peer engagement and an engaging assessment approach will.
There will be plenty of teachers trying not to reinvent the wheel by utilizing last years units of work. While this is a useful beginning point, how they meet the needs of their new students will be the focus of the effective teacher.
How will you prepare for the new year? What are you going to do differently this year to improve your teaching and make sustained learning gains for your students?

Our Greatest Gift as Teachers

Instruction, Leadership, Teaching

Students of the 21st century are constantly defined as being techno savvy and engaged in the digital world. Perhaps as Vicktor Frankl, a renowned psychiatrist explains in a 1972 presentation, our greatest gift as a teacher is to not only recognise the student’s search for meaning but help them become who they want to be.

This focus on learning is further explored in Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation at the 2010 TED conference. In the presentation Sir Ken discusses the need to transform learning to meet the needs of the digital learners. (His wristwatch reference is a clear example of what schools need to address when planning elearning experiences).

The greatest gift a teacher can give students is the provision of a personalised learning environment. Knowing that all children learn differently, at different times and in different circumstances. it is important that our schools create the conditions that engages all students in their learning.

…..and this is not an easy task!

Why Data is Important for Teachers

Instruction, Leadership, Teaching

Over the years schools have evolved in the use of data. As our understanding of data grows we are more able to meet the needs of our students. Data, in the form of assessments, anecdotal records on student learning activities and even information on out of school events, can be used effectively to improve student learning.

The important aspect of data is getting it into the hands of teachers. This is essential because effective teachers use data to help understand their students, their progress and direct students to understand where they are going. However, collecting data is only a part of the learning process.

One of the significant barriers to data is teachers’ understanding of data. It is the role of an effective leadership team is to help teachers understand the data given to them. Once teachers understand what the data is and what it can do for them, then it becomes a powerful tool for improving learning. Just as important (if not more important) is that students also understand the data.

Students need to know where they are in the learning cycle and they need to know what they are working towards. Expert teachers provide examples of the end point and guide their students towards the benchmark standard.

What data do teachers need?
Teachers need to know their students. This is more than just their academic ability. It includes the social and behavioural needs. Teachers also need to know where the students’ are heading in their learning. An understanding of the syllabus to enable effective planning to take place. Guiding students learning towards key learning targets requires a deep knowledge of both curricula and where the student is.

Data and Planning for Learning
Teachers use data to make judgments about what students should be learning and how to get there.

Teachers need to have a clear understanding of what performance standards are. Furthermore this understanding must be consistent across the grade to ensure what constitutes an ‘A’ in one classroom is the same in another. To achieve this effective moderation of work samples between teachers is essential. Together with standardised testing benchmarks and class based assessments, teachers use many data sources to help make informed decisions on student learning.

Once student standards are identified the next step is to plan for differentiated learning.

Why classroom teachers use data
Data is collected from a variety of sources to:

  • determine specific learning deficiencies for individual students and to inform planning for individual student targeted learning
  • see how well concepts have being taught and to identify which concepts that need revision
  • collect evidence of student achievement to be used in reporting
  • tailor teaching to the specific needs of students
  • identify students that need additional support, and most importantly
  • allow teachers to reflect on their own teaching practice

Data offers teachers the evidence they need to make effective decisions about student learning.

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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Using Professional Readings to Support Teacher Learning

Leadership, Professional Learning

Schools today are charged with addressing ever-increasing demands: reducing the achievement gap, adopting evidence-based practices, meeting improvement in attainment levels, managing the requirements of special-needs students, and (most importantly) being up to date with changes in pedagogical approaches. Teachers must keep in front of the important developments that are occurring in education. This is where professional development is needed.

One key PD activity is the professional reading circle. Teachers and school leaders should read professionally on a regular basis to stay current within the various fields of teaching and learning. From professional blogs to google scholar to podcasts to journals and books, there are plenty of sites to build a selection of professional articles for this purpose.

In addition to professional reading undertaken individually, it is imperative that teachers and schools leaders discuss with each other the ideas and strategies gained as a result of reading the articles. Collaboration is essential to moving schools forward.

Here are six thoughts to help you use the readings on this website effectively. However, make sure teachers see the relevancy of what they are reading and how it applies to their personal context.

1. Determine interest: As a leader in the school/department you need to gauge the interest of your team and try and choose readings to match both the needs of the school and the needs of the teachers. Giving teachers the freedom to choose their professional readings, or at least letting them pick from a few pre-selected topics, gives them more ownership on this PD activity. (PD should be driven by student behavior and student performance.)
2. Keep the your team small: While you need the team to come together to discuss the readings, you need to have a small group to allow they have time to share thoughts and ideas.
3. Meet as often as possible: While monthly gatherings seem reasonable, given a busy school environment it may not be possible. If you have a large department, be sure to be organized so that people can easily break into groups and have ample time for discussion during the larger meeting.
4. Have teachers report on what they’ve learned: By doing so, others will benefit as well. You need to encourage each teacher to give feedback and to continue learning.
5. Provide Nibblies at Meetings: Providing snacks during a professional development session also puts teachers at ease because the food is an unexpected or appreciated perk, and this can make teachers comfortable enough to ask questions they might not have asked in a stiff setting.
6. Development Action Plans: As a leader you need to help teachers connect the essence of the reading to their role in the classroom. You need to identify what success will look like when implementing the targeted actions and what (after reading the article) teachers must expect to see reflected in student performance.

As we begin a new academic year, school leaders need to help keep professional learning focused on improving practice.

End of Year Reflection


It is hard to believe that I have completed my first academic year at Dar Al Marefa. It feels like yesterday that I arrived in the Dubai to take on a new leadership position in a new country. The personal learning has been immense and very rewarding both personally and professionally.

As such, the end of the academic year is an exciting time for a school community. While everyone is looking forward to the summer break, the effective principal will use the time to focus on school improvement planning for the following year. At some point the principal will take stock of the year and spend some serious time reflecting on the events of the school year. Reflection is a critical practice of the effective leader.

Most reflections begin with a meditative approach, looking back and remembering the events month by month. This offers the principal with the timeline of the school. Completing the first year of a new school this process helps to focus on what’s important, what’s valued by the staff and school community. While each event has it’s mini evaluation after the fact during the year, recalling the various activities allows the principal to pinpoint what our school stands for. Looking at the events of the year questions like the following can be asked:

  • Do the events of our school reflect our vision & mission?
  • Are the events simply annual activities that we do……..(because that’s what we do?) Do the same people do the same things year in and year out?
  • What innovations have we introduced to the school?

For me, there are a few key questions that arise to guide my reflections as a principal leading the school. As leader this year have I:

  • Shared a clear understanding of what I stand for in teaching and learning?
  • made explicit the school action plan and its implementation?
  • Supported staff in their efforts to improve their instructional practice?
  • Increased the focus on student achievement? Has the student engagement increased?
  • Instilled confidence and fostered individual teacher aspirations
  • Value added to staff development? Did I delegate and empower or did I listen but made my own decisions?
  • Acknowledged the achievements of staff?
  • Celebrated success?

Such questions are great discussion starters to have with your staff, leadership team, students and parents. By doing so the effective leader is able to rate the climate of the school. It can be quite sobering to find out what staff say about your leadership of the school. (What does it say about the leader who doesn’t ask the questions?….) This is an important consideration because the  Gallup’s 2013 Global Workforce Study found that only 13% of people in 142 countries reported they were engaged in their work, while nearly a quarter reported they were “actively disengaged.”

When leaders speak about their key achievements as leader of their school, the community is not wanting responses on your personal milestones (eg I completed my first marathon this year). Although important to the well being side of leadership they are looking for some depth from the professional sphere. Furthermore, they are not looking for generic type answers either.

Focusing on your action plan should give you plenty to talk about when someone asks you……have you made a difference this year?

Classrooms Are Complex Environments


In a single day the classroom teacher may participate in more than 1 000 interpersonal exchanges with students. Not only do teachers have numerous interactions with students, they must also interpret complex classroom behaviour on the spot. For the international school teacher, where their classroom’s are often a diverse mixture of cultural backgrounds, interpreting meaning becomes more challenging.

It is not surprising that most teachers are hard pressed to keep track of the number and the substance of contacts that they share with each pupil each day. Although it may not be important for a teacher to remember all classroom contacts; teachers must recall certain information (i.e. a student who has trouble with specific blend during reading, or understanding that the numeral 1 in the 10s column is ten and not one, etc) and then be able to act upon that specific information.

Because teachers constantly respond to the immediate needs of the students while they teach, they have little time during teaching to consider future planning for their class. This classroom preparation is completed outside school time, often unseen by the general parent population and reflects the complex events that occur within the classroom.

When teachers make decisions about the activity within their classrooms the following aspects of classroom settings must be taken into consideration.

  1. Many different tasks and events exist in the classroom. Records and schedules must be kept and work must be monitored, collected and evaluated. A single event can have multiple consequences.
  2. Many things happen at the same time in classrooms. During a discussion a teacher not only listens and helps improve students’ answers but also monitors students who do not respond for signs of comprehension and tries to keep the lesson moving at a good pace.
  3. The pace of classroom events is rapid. Research suggests that teachers evaluated pupil conduct in public on the average of 15.89 times per hour or 87 times per day or an estimated 16 000 times a year. Time is all too important and needs to be utilised carefully.
  4. While a teacher is thoroughly prepared for each day, often many events that occur are unanticipated. These include interruptions student behaviour, achievement levels and expectations. Furthermore, much of what happens to a student is seen by many other students as well and they make their own judgments. Student esteem is important and therefore decisions need to be consistent.
  5. Actions/,programmes and expectations all play a part in developing background for decision making. Research suggests that history often influences that way classrooms run. (We have all heard of the great class/ difficult class.)

Co-ordinating student learning and providing the opportunities to grow is a complex task. Parental support in providing information is always appreciated. Informed decision making is an ideal we strive for. To increase the positive aspects of schooling it is imperative that support for out teachers is publicly acclaimed.

Remember, self esteem of teachers is an important part of the education process. Be proud of them and offer them your support. They have your child’s interest in their hearts.