A glimpse inside

Early on in my teacher training, before we had gone into our placements, I remember asking “How do you work out what to put in a lesson?”. We had spent a lot of time talking about differentiation, assessment for learning, behaviour management, but as far I could recall no one seemed to have talked about actual lessons. About what you teach and how they’d learn it. My question was met with frowns and puzzling references to lesson plans and schemes of work which might exist, but despite further questions from the rest of the group it was clear that no one was willing, or able, to explain what actually went in to a successful lesson. 

Fast forward on 14 years and I’m not convinced a huge amount has changed. I’ve been a PGCE mentor for most of my teaching life and still trainees come to us after a few weeks of work at university able to throw around some useful jargon but still very unsure of what a lesson involves. I figure it is my job to help them work it out. When looking through their lesson plans together, the thing I am most likely to ask is “And why are you asking them to do that?” One thing I think we all need to do more of is dissecting lessons and having a glimpse inside. We need to think about what we do and why we do it. 

I thought I’d give that a go here. This is a short sequence of lessons I taught this week to my mixed ability year 10 class. They are looking at the Urban Challenges unit of the new AQA specification which requires them to have a detailed case study of a city in a Low Income Country.

In their first session I wanted them to understand that Lagos is a diverse city. I also wanted them to know where Lagos is, how its location led to growth and why the city is important.

We started by describing the location. I gave them the task “Descibe the location of Lagos” and asked for three points (this is what the exam will require). I gave them no other guidance at this stage. I then asked some students to feed back their points and wrote them on the board in two columns. The ones on the left (In South-west Nigeria, close to the border with Benin, on the Gulf of Guinnea) where good descriptions whereas the ones on the right (South of the UK, east of Benin, near the sea) whilst true, were not useful as they are too vague. I explained this through questioning and they corrected their work.

I then asked them what they thought Lagos was like; before showing them some images of the city and a couple of brief video clips. They wrote a brief description of Lagos which included a list of key words. The aim to was to practice using these geographical terms in context.

The class had previously looked at why urbanisation takes place. In their next task they read some information on Lagos and used it to annotate a map of the city to explain its rapid growth. We looked at a few examples as a class – some which had only labels and needed improving, and some which were better examples, and then the class made corrections. As they were working I carried on circulating, questioning and giving feedback (you won’t see much marking in my books – most feedback happens live). 

It would be hard to sum up the objective of this lesson in to one pithy little phrase. The objective really was to apply their previous theoretical knowledge to a real world example (which will help them to recall it) and to give them the background information to Lagos which they will hook later ideas on to. 

In their second lesson we looked at the challenged faced by Lagos. During the lesson they made notes on a large mindmap on each challenge. The bulk of the lesson was largely a lecture with some short video clips and lots of images to illustrate the problems. Throughout the lesson I used a lot of questioning to check understanding to help them make links between the different problems facing the city. At the end of the lesson they were given one problem to research in more detail along with some useful sources of information. 

During the next lesson the pupils put together their research and had around 15 minutes to prepare a brief presentation to the class to convince them that the problem they had been looking at was the most significant. Our Deputy head was in the class for this lesson and one thing he commented on was just how knowledgable they were. They could confidently discus various issues with Lagos without needing to refer to their notes. 

While they were presenting the class made notes and then I asked some follow up questions. After the presentations we discussed how we would make the decision about which problem to tackle first and the need for a criteria.

Towards the end of the lesson I introduced them to an extended writing exam question “assess the significance of the challenges facing an urban area in an LIC” and unpicked it with them. I had created the start of an exemplar answer and they looked at what made this an excellent piece of work. I am trying to expose them to as much excellent work as possible and for them to understand the components that make it work. 

Next lesson we will have a quick knowledge test on Lagos and then they will try the question. I didn’t want to do it in the same lesson because I want them to have to think hard about answering it and not simply mimic what has just been said. 

That is just a little glimpse inside my classroom and the thinking that goes into a lesson. What I am always trying to do is ensure that pupils have a deep knowledge of the subject and that they can apply that knowledge to different situations. I guess that is the answer to the question I asked all those years ago. 


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