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.

7 Ways to Support Your Professional (Educational) Reading

Leadership, Professional Development, Professional Learning

Every effective teacher wants to be a better practitioner tomorrow than they are today. They are always looking to improve. While attending conferences and workshops, undertaking courses or joining a professional association are helpful activities to develop your prowess as a teacher,  the reading of academic journals and educational texts/books is a good way to meet your own learning needs.

Here are 7 tips to help you read more:

  1. Set Targets: Aim to read a set number of books and articles in a chosen time period. By setting achievable goals you will build a positive reading habit. Set achievable goals to fit in with your own personal and professional life. 
  2. Set a time to read regularly: Whether you schedule to read before breakfast, while on commute to work or after the staff meeting, the important point is to develop a positive reading habit. Even if it is only for 15 minutes, setting time aside to read will keep you on track to reach your reading goal.
  3. Make a List: During your day to day teaching and learning cycle you will come across a field of ideas that you would like to know more about. Maybe it’s dealing with the SEN student or how to rearrange your teaching centres or how to ask questions more effectively. Write them down and make a list. This will direct your choice when visiting the bookshop or browsing the online store. It will also add more value to your teaching and learning as you become more reflective on your teaching practice.
  4. Read With a Purpose (and then take action): Whether you read to answer burning questions or just to learn new ideas and techniques, always take notes. Turn these notes into actionable items that you can use in your classroom.
  5. Set Up A School Book Club: Having colleagues read the same material and then discussing content material over a coffee helps to keep you on track (ie forces you to read!!). This collaborative professional learning activity will help everyone.
  6. Write About It: Share your reading through contributing to the publication field or even sharing with your colleagues. The more you read, the more you will be able to share with others. Writing helps to consolidate your thoughts and gives more clarity to your own reading.
  7. Keep a Book With You: There will be opportunity to read wherever you go (waiting for the Doctor; commuting on the train). While carrying a hard copy is useful, having your phone/tablet with the Kindle app is useful too. (Listening to a book/podcast is good too)

Learning for the Future – Building the Right Learning Environments


In recent years it seems every country has revised their curriculum articulating the knowledge and skills that students need for the new global workforce. With the close scrutiny that accompanies changes to current practice, the debate on quality and success follows. The consequence of such scrutiny has seen international comparative studies of student achievement, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], been used as the performance reference. This focus is such that “a global competition in educational achievement in core subject matter areas like reading, arithmetic/mathematics and science” has emerged.

There has been much written on what students need to know and be able to do in the twenty-first century. The establishment of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) has guided the conversation to ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in a world where change is constant and learning never stops. Their learning framework is explicit in the fact that twenty-first century learning is to be built on a foundation of basic knowledge taught through the core subjects focusing on a significant set of twenty-first century skills. With the rise of globalization and the increased role of technology in both our personal and work life, students
have access to information at a faster rate than ever before.

A few years ago, as part of an educational refurbishment to attempt to meet the learning needs of the “millennials” as a means to develop the necessary capabilities and aptitudes to embrace the future,  a personalised learning environment was created. This short video highlights our vision at the time. Time, and the explosion of personalised learning environments would indicate we were at the forefront of learning innovation.

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.

From Good to Outstanding


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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Student (and Teacher) Summer Brain Drain


The summer break (although almost over) is often referred to by educators as the “Brain Drain” holiday. Commonly referred to as the “Summer Brain Drain,” learning loss happens to nearly all students during the months of June, July and August. Researchers are now in agreement with what parents have already known (see ‘Summer Brain Drain’ Robs Some Students of Skills Gained During School Year). In fact there is a school of thought that suggests that “Most students — regardless of family income or background — lose 2 to 2 1/2 months of the math computational skills that they learned during the school year.” Over the life of a school student it is possible to lose up to two years of learning!

Furthermore,  there is some scholarship that suggests teachers too face a similar regression in learning. When everyone returns from the long break, while the main talk in the staff room might be about time spent with family and friends, I would hope there will be time for some professional learning as well. (In the article Sizzling Summer Tips for Super Teachers there are a number of great ideas to help teachers prepare for the new academic year).

However, the beginning of a new academic school year signals the start of new beginnings with teachers working overtime to minimize the impact of the summer break on learning. Watching teachers breathe new life into their classrooms and seeing students enthusiastically engaged is a sight to behold.

Enjoy the year!

Building Teacher Professional Learning


One of the benefits of leading an international school is the opportunity to engage in a mix of cultural backgrounds. One of the challenges of leading an international school is the drawing together of a mix of international teachers. While the goal of every principal or head of school is to raise student achievement, the path one takes may be as diverse as the teachers on their staff.

Educators interested in the international arena may enjoy reading the article, Raising Student Achievement: The work of the Internationally Minded Teacher which can be found at the International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change (

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