Five keys to learning: Making connections

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: iStock

Continuing his five-part series, Matt Bromley is dissecting his five key aspects of engaging and effective lessons. Key number one is connecting the learning...

Think back to your school days for a moment What most vividly sticks in your mind and, conversely, what memories of your student days have been swept away like grains of sand on the cold winds of time?

Confession: I’d have to concentrate hard in order to remember anything I learnt in Wednesday morning double maths lessons where I robotically laboured through pages of equations from a dusty and graffitied old textbook (copyright page: first published 1860).

However, I can still quote large chunks of King Lear from the English lessons where we never knew what to expect as we crossed the threshold to the classroom, and where we spent a lot of our time up on our feet and out of our comfort zones.

In short, what I remember most about school are the lessons that provided variety and novelty, the lessons that surprised and excited me.

You see, students are more likely to want to learn – and to actually learn – if their interest is piqued by something extraordinary and unfamiliar because, like the rest of us, students crave variety: they need lessons to ignite new sparks and pose new questions. They need lessons to unsettle them, to discomfort and challenge them, not bore them into a coma because students are more likely to remember something when it is out of the ordinary and makes them alert and alive to the learning experience.

As such, we cannot prescribe a list of ingredients for a great lesson. What works is what works and what works is, often, what’s new and exciting. You can’t prescribe the unpredictable; you can’t dictate differentness. But, as I said last week, this novelty relates to teaching methods and not lesson structure – so although we can’t define the features of a great lesson, we can derive a set of fundamental rules or guidelines for what constitutes an effectively planned and organised lesson. Because even unique lessons which are full of surprise possess some common elements of design and obey a set of shared principles.

So what are the principles of a well-planned lesson? In the first part in this series, I outlined my five principles (A design for learning: The five lesson keys, SecEd, January 28, 2015:

The five principles

First, well-planned lessons connect the learning in three ways: they articulate a clear learning goal that students understand; they articulate a clear purpose for the learning; and they ensure that students’ starting points are identified through pre-tests.

Second, well-planned lessons personalise the learning. They ensure that the learning is tailored to meet individual needs and to match individual skills, interests and styles.

They also ensure that this diagnostic data about students’ starting points and misconceptions (both that gathered from pre-tests and that gleaned from on-going assessments) is used to inform the lesson-planning process.

Third, well-planned lessons grab students’ attentions. They ensure that the learning activities get and maintain students’ attentions from the very beginning by using sensory “hooks” and by ensuring that the learning is appropriately paced, and appropriately varied and challenging.

Fourth, well-planned lessons teach less and learn more. They ensure that students acquire the necessary experiences, knowledge and skills to meet the learning goals but in so doing they remember that less is more: they cover a smaller amount of curriculum content so that they can explore it in greater depth and detail and from a range of perspectives.

Finally, well-planned lessons provide students with regular opportunities to reflect on their progress, to revise their thinking and to redraft their work, acting on the formative feedback they receive from teacher, peer and self-assessments.

Key 1: Connect the learning

Let’s take a look at the first principle in detail. Connecting the learning is about explicitly sharing learning goals with students – making clear what success looks like and how students are going to achieve it.

It is also about sharing the purpose of learning – making clear why students need to achieve the learning goals and of what use their learning will be to them in the future.

And, finally, it is about sharing students’ starting points – understanding, through diagnostic tests perhaps, what prior knowledge and skills (as well as misunderstandings) students bring with them to the classroom, and what their interests and talents are and how these might influence the way in which they learn.

Sharing the learning goals

Students need clear goals – they need to know what the performance you desire of them looks like and they need to know against what criteria that performance will be assessed.

Students also need to understand the general direction of travel – what can they expect in the scheme of work in relation to the key questions, tasks, tests, assignments, assessment criteria, and expected standards of work? In other words, the final outcome must be made transparent to students at the beginning of the scheme.

Once the learning goals have been articulated, students should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What do I have to understand by the end of this scheme of work?
  • What am I expected to produce at the end of this scheme of work in order to demonstrate my understanding? What will that understanding look like in practice?
  • What knowledge and skills should I currently possess, or will I need to acquire, in order to meet the assessment criteria and, therefore, demonstrate my understanding?
  • What resources and assistance will be available to help me learn?
  • How does the work I am doing today relate to what we did previously?
  • How will the work I am doing today help me to meet the final assessment criteria?
  • What aspects of today’s and future work demands the most attention?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in my current performance? What can I do to improve?
  • How will my final work be assessed?

Sharing the learning purpose

Students need to know that the work they are being asked to do is purposeful. In other words, in order for them to invest time and energy into producing high-quality work, students need to know why they are being asked to do what they are being asked to do: what’s the rationale, what’s the benefit?

Where work is abstract, it is important to transform the learning goals into intelligible, practical tasks and criteria that students can understand.

For example, if teaching An Inspector Calls, an English teacher might begin by articulating a performance challenge and by posing a big question in order to signal where the scheme of work is headed, how studying the play will be tackled, and how students’ final performance will be assessed. The teacher might say to the class.

“At the end of a close study of An Inspector Calls, you will act as the jury in the case against the Birling family in the matter of Eva Smith’s death. Using testimony from the Inspector, the Birling family and Gerald Croft, as well as diary extracts from Eva, you will decide which member of the Birling family is most responsible for Eva’s death and why.
“You will write a diagnostic report for the coroner and a prescriptive letter to Eva’s executor explaining what happened to Eva (the assessment criteria for the letter will also be distributed at this point).
“You will be given daily quizzes on your reading and a writing exercise in which you will describe Eva from the perspective of two different characters. Following each reading assignment and before the next lesson, you will respond in your exercise book to two questions: what is the most important thing you learn about Eva in this section of the play? What is the most important unanswered question about Eva at this point in the play? Your responses to these questions will begin and end our classroom discussions.
“At the end of the unit, you will be asked to reflect on your emerging understanding of the play, as chronicled in the daily entries you make in your exercise book. On the last day of this scheme, you will answer the following three questions: what changed about the way you saw Eva as the play progressed? What were your misunderstandings at any point during this scheme of work? If you were to teach this play to next year’s year 10, what would you do in order to ensure that they understand the play as opposed to just knowing some facts about it?”

What this approach does is give students a purpose and a context for their studies, along with a challenge. From the first lesson in the scheme, students know what is expected of them and how they will be assessed – which is to say in myriad different ways, including via a written response which will provide the teacher with evidence of students’ comprehension and engage students in becoming effective readers by summarising the text and posing questions.

Signalling the essential questions for this scheme of work to students from day one is also an effective means of articulating learning priorities – by knowing the essential questions and that those questions frame the main assessment tasks, students can study, do research, take notes, and ask questions with far greater clarity and confidence.

Sharing starting points

Another aspect of connecting the learning is to consider students’ starting points: what prior knowledge do they bring to this scheme of work? What misconceptions do they have? And what are their interests and talents (in as far as these may influence the way they learn and the way you teach)?

Once the answers to these questions have been ascertained, we need to use the information as rich diagnostic data in order to determine – or at least influence – the way in which we plan the scheme of work.

One common diagnostic technique and a means of acquiring data on students’ starting points is asking students at the beginning of a new scheme to identify what they already know (or think they know) about the topic they are about to study.

Their responses are then listed in a table or graphic organiser. The contents of the first column provides teachers with a sense of students’ prior knowledge, while also unmasking any misconceptions that may exist and therefore may need to be addressed.

Next, the teacher asks students to identify “what I want to learn” about the topic and asks them to raise any questions they may have about the topic at this early stage. These responses are recorded in the second column and serve as indicators of areas of interest.

As the unit unfolds, the knowledge and skills that students begin to acquire are recorded in the third column of the table, providing a record for students of “what I have learned”.

An alternative to this is to begin the scheme of work with an initial assessment, perhaps a low-stakes, non-graded multiple-choice quiz. The results of these pre-tests can yield invaluable evidence about students’ prior knowledge and misconceptions and, when repeated at various stages of the scheme, can provide evidence of students’ growing knowledge and understanding.

Regardless of the approach taken, information from diagnostic assessments can guide teachers in their planning so that lessons are more responsive to students’ needs and their existing knowledge-base.

An important practical implication, of course, is that teachers must remember to plan opportunities in their scheme for the assessments and allow sufficient wriggle room to make adjustments based on the feedback garnered by the assessments.

In-built flexibility like this is not just advisable, it is a key aspect of effective lesson-planning because it enables learning to be personalised to match the needs and pace of students’ learning. It ensures that gaps in students’ learning are identified and filled, which in turn avoids an off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all approach to lesson-planning and enables good progress to be made by all.

Talking of which, next time we will explore the second principle of well-planned lessons from our five-point plan: personalising the learning.

Further information

To read previous articles in this series, as well as Matt Bromley’s other best practice articles for SecEd, go to The next article in this series will publish on February 25.


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