Are we wasting time on lesson plenaries?

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I’ll be honest. Most of my lessons end with ‘that’s all we’ve got time for, pack away’. But a call for plenaries that show progress on a teacher forum got me thinking.

Are we wasting time on lesson plenaries?

In the days of lesson observation and the demand for teachers to show ‘progress’ every 20 minutes, plenaries were perfect. You could start the lesson with an activity that showed they knew nothing about the topic, teach them and then at the end get them to do the same activity. Usefully, but possibly predictably, their responses would change so the assumption is that they’ve made progress. The problem with this is that whilst they could do that in the time frame given, if you gave them the same task a couple of weeks later, they wouldn’t have a clue. They were a temporary measure and without any sort of strategic spacing  in consequent lessons/weeks, that lesson might as well have been a write off.

Having looked at some of the research on memory and learning, I believe that the use of time in lesson should come down to two things: learning new stuff and repeating already learnt stuff to support long term retention. Everything else isn’t needed. So can the plenary fit that model?

Firstly, it could be part of the first time to get students to recall their learning from that lesson. Here it might be the 1st/2nd recall:

https://www.inkling.com/blog/2015/08/why-google-changed-the-forgetting-curve/

After that lesson, the next time you teach them, you need to get them to recall the previous learning. For most it will be a matter of days between lessons. If more than that, a homework might be appropriate for being the 1/2/6 days recall.

In my opinion the best, quickest, shortest way of recalling prior learning is a quick 1-10 at the start of the lesson. After several lessons this will need to include content from the last lesson and then previous lessons with increasing gaps.  The plenary of the lesson can then be the recap of that lesson. However a plenary doesn’t always need to be a separate part of the lesson at the end. The way I teach I am constantly making links and embedding that I naturally repeat the content throughout the lesson. I tend to talk quite a lot then apply it through a video clip. There is a natural repetition which is why I don’t plan plenaries.

So, I don’t necessarily think that plenaries are a waste of time. They have a function in long term learning. However I do think the days of using plenaries to ‘prove’ progress in lessons needs to be scrapped. If you really want to try to see progress during a lesson observation, doing a 1-10 starter which includes content from months ago is a better indicator, otherwise we’re just playing a silly game of ‘pretend they’ve learnt stuff’ when we all know it doesn’t really work like that.

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6 thoughts on “Are we wasting time on lesson plenaries?

  1. Agreed, Dawn. I do like a plenary because it brings the lesson to a nice neat end, drawing together the threads. But I’m not sure it tells me anything other than that some of the students can remember some of the things they’ve just covered, which is a pretty low bar to clear!

  2. Hmmm I agree. My plenaries are often asking students to write one clear paragraph summarising what they have learned that lesson. Starter to next one always low stakes test e.g. 10 questions from last lesson, last weeks lesson and earlier in the unit.

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