Plenary vs Pedagogy

Last year I wrote two posts about the need for teachers to understand the why of teaching rather than being directed to follow a what of teaching (see What’s your why? and The ritual of teaching). I think many of the problems we see in teaching today stem from years of teachers being instructed in what to do in their classroom rather than being shown why something may work.

We can see this with plenaries. When I trained to teach and throughout the first few years of teaching the three part lesson was king. Every lesson needed a starter (which could have nothing to do with the rest of the lesson) a “main part” (I mean, really?) and then it must, must, have a plenary. The idea of the plenary was to demonstrate what learning had taken place in the lesson and was seen as so critical that many schools insisted that teachers drop everything if a member of SLT was on a learning walk to throw in a mini-plenary to demonstrate the learning that had taken place up until that point. I still hear of this happening in many schools up and down the country.

I was reminded of this when I saw this poll from @mathsmrgordon

The poll currently has an interesting spread of results. There is some very good why in the subject of the poll. I certainly find pupils learn best when they know the purpose of a task, lesson or unit of work and I try to make the links between these things as clear as I can. I also love a success criteria as I think pupils need to know what I am looking for in an excellent piece of work. I try to encourage self regulation by working towards them being able to create their own success criteria and, yes, self assess if they have met it. This is what they will need to do with any piece of work they produce independently in the future.

So my issue isn’t with the why of doing these things but with the way I have almost always seen them done – with the what.

When I hear people talking about assessing whether pupils have met the learning objectives what I see are dozens of terrible plenaries. These tend to involve some of the following (most of which I have used myself over the years in some misguided attempt to “demonstrate learning”.)

  1. Showing the learning objectives on the board and asking pupils to put their hands up if they feel they have met them.
  2. The recent irritant of various forms of “exit tickets” where pupils assess how they feel about their learning in a lesson – sometimes by circling smiley or sad faces.
  3. The teacher asking a few random kids a question to ascertain what the whole class have learnt.
  4. Pupils allowed to leave once they have answered a question or handed in some kind of exit ticket saying one thing they have learnt.

And dozens more of this ilk.

The problem is, the end of the lesson is the worst possible time to find out what pupils have learnt. Having just completed the work, with their notes in front of them and possibly on the board as well, what you are going to get is mimicry. Learning must mean they know, understand and/or can do it in days or weeks to come. Better yet, it should mean that they can do something else with the information and apply it to a new context. You aren’t going to get this from an exit ticket.

The other problem with the end of lesson plenary is that if you find out that pupils have come away with a load of misconceptions, what are you going to do about it in the last 30 seconds? They articulate something that you feel is completely wrong and you… leave them to go out with that becoming a permanent memory?

The alternative

The alternative is quite simple – return to the why. We want to know what progress pupils are making so we can respond to this information. I do this during the lesson through constant questioning during the explanation phase of the lesson so I can ensure that my explanation is having the desired outcome. Then, during the application, as pupils are working I am constantly circulating, looking at their work with them and discussing what they are doing. This gives me ample time to address any misconceptions before they become embedded. I also flick through a handful of books from a range of pupils after the lesson and make a note of any feedback they need to be given (see Making a fuss of feedback).

Then, to find out what has actually be learnt, I use low stakes quizzes and tests the next lesson and in future lessons. I also make sure that links between lessons are explicit and check learning of previous lessons by asking questions about it in the lessons that follow.


As with so much else that we do in the classroom we need to stop and consider why we are doing it. Once we have worked out what it is we are trying to achieve we can look for the best possible way to achieve it.

Plenaries, as I have often done them and have often seen them, are a way of wasting the last 5 minutes of a lesson. If we want to respond to what is being learnt we need to do this throughout a lesson and if we want to know what has been learnt we need to be patient and wait.

Lets ditch the plenary and demonstrating false learning for outside observers and instead embrace a lesson structure that actually works for us and our pupils.

5 thoughts on “Plenary vs Pedagogy

  1. This is important, so much rubbish happened in the name of starters and plenaries. I will take you up on exit tickets though. Perhaps they’re better in maths than humanities, but for me it’s so valuable to know what they can and can’t mimic at the end of a lesson. If they can’t even mimic the process of, say, solving a linear equation they have no hope in learning it long-term.

    I normally put three questions on mine, increasing in difficulty, and use them to see where to pick up next lesson: do we do more of the same? Can we move on a little and build on these techniques? I don’t pretend they tell me what’s been learned, but they do inform my planning and guide what comes next.

    They are only part of a bigger picture, however, which includes the things you’ve mentioned above like low-stakes quizzes.

    What you’d never see on them is a “today I have learned…” or any kind of smiley-based self-evaluation. Waste of time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks – that sounds like a great way to end a lesson. I do they same but by looking at a sample of books as well as my observations throughout the lesson. Easier to make these kinds of quick assessments in maths I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. I can’t comment on humanities. Have spoken to groups of teachers about exit tickets and often struggled to find examples outside of maths/science that seem as effective, but I expect that’s to do with the qualitative nature of other subjects in comparison.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: “Observation”…. the forbidden word! – The Student Mom

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