The anatomy of a lesson

This post comes with the usual caveats that it is based on my own experiences of teaching and learning which come almost entirely from an 11-18 context and usually in Geography – although I have always leapt at the chance to see other subjects in actions.

That said – what makes up the anatomy of a lesson? 

It was a post by Dawn Cox which started me thinking about this idea (For teaching to be effective you need to do this…). Every lesson is of course different but is there a certain structure that every lesson has, or should have, that holds it all together? What is the internal working of successful learning.

The first thing to consider is just what constitutes a lesson. We typically talk about a “lesson” being defined by a period of time – the 60 minutes that the class spend with us. In this context, though, I don’t think that is especially helpful.  Instead I would argue that a lesson can best be defined as “the acquiring of a new piece of learning”, an objective met; so a lesson could take place over several sessions, or several lessons might occur within one session. 

What does a lesson include?

Retrieval – Almost every lesson I have taught or observed has started with some sort of retrieval of previous learning. This might be a starter task which tests or recaps a previous lesson or something familiar which gives context to the lesson that will follow. This provides the hook for new information and allows the lesson to be retained. Last week my Year 7 class were learning about the monsoon climate of India. To prepare them for this we started by retrieving information about the climate of Uganda which they had looked at in October. 

New information – A lesson (by my own definition of the term) needs to include some new information; without it we are simply continuing or reinforcing a previous lesson (“over learning” being a good idea in itself). This new information may come from a range of sources: Direct instruction, video clips, reading material, shared research/experience, original sources, artefacts. To return to my Year 7 lesson on the monsoon, I talked them through the principle of air rising due to heat and creating low pressure with the aid of diagrams, we watched a couple of short clips showing the passage of the monsoon rains and read different accounts of the rains – this happened at different points throughout the session.

Questioning – Pupils receiving new informantion is one thing, but pretty useless unless they understand it. Questioning helps to not only check understanding but also to help pupils put different ideas together. Why would low pressure move at different points of the year? Why would air be drawn in to this area? Come and show me in the map why it would lead to a change in the weather. 

Deliberate practice – At some point in the lesson pupils need the chance to practice what they have learnt and apply it in different situations. This enables long term learning to happen. If we don’t use information we lose it. This could be the application of a skill or putting the knowledge to good use to develop a deeper understanding. It also allows the pupils to connect the information to previous information and discuss it synoptically. In the monsoon lesson the pupils completed a number of tasks in which they mapped the rains, annotated it to explain its movement and then wrote a comparison to the climate in Uganda in which they explained the differences. In a future lesson they will consider how the monsoon rains affect development in the region.

Assessment/feedback – At some point we need to check that the lesson has been learnt and give feedback for the next steps. This can of course occur in a myriad of ways: tests, exams, written marking, verbal feedback, whole class feedback, plenary sessions. This assessment can then be acted upon to correct misconceptions or pick up on particular weaknesses. 

Tight but loose

I would suggest that these are the bare bones of any lesson. Of course a session involves so much more: modelling excellent work, high expectations, behaviour management, building relationships. There are also as many ways to achieve learning as there are teachers (although some ways may be more effective than others in different contexts). It was Dawn’s post that got me thinking about this and I would certainly agree with her conclusions. We need a “tight but loose” approach when it comes to our expectations of what we would see during a lesson but perhaps we can agree on the fundamentals. 

Let me know what you think. Does this ring true for you or am I missing something? Can you have a successful lesson without these 5 areas? 

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