Five keys to learning: Teach less, learn more – and reflect

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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In the final part of his series dissecting his five key aspects of effective lessons, Matt Bromley describes keys four and five – teach less, learn more, and increasing the time for student reflection

This is the final of five articles in which I am exploring five principles of well-planned lessons. In part one, I outlined the five principles (A design for learning: The five lesson keys, SecEd, January 28, 2016: In short, these are:

  1. 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 (Five keys to learning: Making connections, SecEd, February 5, 2016:
  2. Well-planned lessons personalise the learning by ensuring that the learning is tailored to meet individual needs and to match individual skills, interests, and styles; and by ensuring 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 way the learning is planned (Five keys to learning: Personalise the learning, SecEd, February 25, 2016:
  3. Well-planned lessons grab students’ attentions by ensuring that learning activities grab and maintain attention from the very beginning by using sensory “hooks” and by ensuring that the learning is appropriately paced, and activities are appropriately varied and challenging (Five keys to learning: Grab students’ attention, SecEd, March 3, 2016:
  4. Well-planned lessons teach less so that students learn more. They ensure that students acquire the necessary experiences, knowledge and skills they need in order to meet the learning goal – but in so doing they cover a smaller amount of curriculum content but in far greater depth and detail, and from a range of different perspectives than they would be able to achieve if they attempted to “get through” more content.
  5. Well-planned lessons make time for students to reflect. They 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-assessment.

Key 4: Teach less, learn more
In this final article, we'll consider keys four and five. Here are some useful questions with which to start:

  • How will your students be engaged in exploring the big ideas and questions around which you have framed your scheme of work?
  • What activities, direct instruction, and support will equip your students for their final assessment?
  • What homework and interventions are needed in order to enable students to develop and deepen their understanding of important ideas?

Often teachers fail to adequately consider the gaps in students’ experiences and skills and then wrongly think that what they need to do in order to rectify this is teach more knowledge, cover more curriculum content. But understanding requires an iterative mix of experiences, reflections on those experiences, and targeted instruction in light of those experiences. Good lesson design involves the provision of sufficient real or simulated experiences in order to enable students’ understanding to develop.

It is the teacher’s job to equip and enable students to eventually perform with understanding and increasing autonomy. That is very different from preparing them for a test. In order to do this, teachers should ask themselves, What kinds of knowledge, skill and routines are prerequisites for a successful student outcome? What kinds of tasks and activities will help students develop and deepen their understanding of key ideas?

Teachers often complain that students cannot transfer what they have been taught into new problems and tasks – a concept I’ve written about before (Transferring learning into new contexts, SecEd, September 2015:

Yet, when you ask teachers to carefully consider all the prerequisites related to gaining an ability to transfer, they generally make no mention of their plan to help students learn how to transfer knowledge to different situations. The problem is typically regarded as a student deficit rather than a teaching need.

In my article on transfer, I argued that attempts to cover too many topics too quickly can hinder students’ learning and subsequent transfer, because either students learn only isolated sets of facts that are not organised and connected, or students are introduced to organising principles that they cannot possibly grasp because they lack sufficient and specific background knowledge to make the information meaningful.

Therefore, providing students with opportunities to engage with sufficient, specific information that is relevant to the topic they are learning creates “time for telling” that enables them to learn much more than students who do not have these opportunities.

Also, providing students with time to learn includes providing enough time for them to process information. Pezdek and Miceli (1982) found that on one particular task it took 3rd grade students in the US 15 seconds to integrate pictorial and verbal information. When given only eight seconds, they couldn’t mentally integrate the information, probably because of the limitations of short-term memory.

In other words, learning cannot be rushed; the complex cognitive activity involved in integrating information takes time. According to Klausmeier (1985), students, especially in school settings, are often faced with tasks that do not have apparent meaning or logic. It can be difficult for them to learn with understanding at the start; they may need to take time to explore underlying concepts and to generate connections to other information they possess.

And so, when planning lessons, we should aim to cover less curriculum content but to cover that content in greater depth. We should provide opportunities for students to explore the subject matter from a range of perspectives and to provide sufficient experience and context.

Finally, teaching less and learning more means repeating learning several times so that it penetrates students’ long-term memories. Tests are a good way of “interrupting forgetting” and revealing what’s actually been learnt as well as what gaps exist. Accordingly, as I argued in key 1 “connecting the learning”, we should run pre-tests at the start of every unit – perhaps as a multiple-choice quiz – which will provide cues and improve subsequent learning. Retrieval activities like this also help students to prepare for exams.

Key 5: Give students time to reflect

Students need time to reflect on their learning. Reflection might involve students rethinking their understanding of important ideas, perhaps with the teacher’s guidance. It might involve students improving their work through revision based on self-assessment and feedback. It might involve students reflecting on their learning and performance.

With big ideas and questions being central to our well-planned lessons, it stands to reason that taking a linear path through the curriculum content (teaching it once then moving on) is a mistake. After all, how can students master complex ideas and tasks if they encounter them only once? Therefore, the flow of the scheme of work must be iterative, students must be made fully aware of the need to rethink and revise in light of current learning, and the work must follow the trail back to the original big idea and learning goal.

Let’s take an example: in a key stage 3 humanities lesson students might explore the big question “What is democracy?” by discussing their experiences and by reading various texts about democracy. Students might then develop a theory of democracy and create a concept map for the topic. The teacher might then cause them to rethink their initial ideas by raising a second big question, using an appropriate example: “What is representative democracy and majority rule – and how does it work?”

The students might then modify their concept of democracy as they come to understand that democracy can sometimes feel disenfranchising and unfair if the majority of voters do not share your own beliefs and values and if your own MP votes against constituents’ wishes.

In-built rethinking and reflection is a critical and deliberate element of well-planned lessons; it is central to learning for understanding. We must, therefore, plan to make students constantly reconsider earlier understandings of the big ideas if they are ever to get beyond simplistic thinking and to the heart of deep understanding.


The most successful people in life have the capacity to self-monitor and self-adjust as needed. They proactively consider what is working, what isn’t, and what might be done better.

Another aspect of reflection, therefore, is self-assessment. Here it is worth considering, as part of the planning process, how students will engage in a final self-evaluation (in order to identify any remaining questions and to set future targets), and how students will be helped to take stock of what they have learned and what needs further inquiry or refinement.

Students need to be afforded opportunities to self-monitor, self-assess and self-adjust their work, individually and collectively, as the work progresses. Central to this kind of self-understanding is an honest self-assessment, based on increasing clarity about what we do understand and what we don’t; what we have accomplished and what remains to be done.

This is really all about meta-cognition: the importance of explicitly teaching and requiring self-monitoring and self-assessment. Because meta-cognition often takes the form of an internal dialogue, many students may be unaware of its importance unless the processes are explicitly emphasised by teachers. You might develop students’ meta-cognition by:

  • Allocating five minutes in the middle and at the end of a lesson in order to consider: “What have we found out? What remains unresolved or unanswered?”
  • Asking students to attach a self-assessment form to every formal piece of work they hand in.
  • Including a one-minute essay at the end of an instruction-based lesson in which students summarise the two or three main points and the questions that still remain for them (and, thus, next time, for the teacher).
  • Asking students to attach a note to any formal piece of work in which they are honest about what they do and do not understand.
  • Teaching students to evaluate work in the same way that teachers do so that students become more accurate as peer reviewers and self-assessors, and more inclined to “think like assessors” in their work.
  • Starting lessons with a survey of the most burning questions students have. Then, as part of the plenary, judge how well the questions were addressed, which ones remain and what new ones emerged.
  • Leaving the second half of a unit deliberately “open” to allow students to frame and pursue the inquiry (rather than be directed by the teacher) based on the key questions that remain and clues that emerge at the end of the first half.
  • Getting students to develop a profile of their strengths and weaknesses as learners at the start of the year whereby they consider how they learn best, what strategies work well for them, what type of learning is most difficult, and what they wish to improve upon. Then, structure periodic opportunities for students to monitor their efforts and reflect on their struggles and successes, and possible edits to their own profiles.


And that’s our five principles of well-planned lessons. Students are more likely to want to learn – and to actually learn – if their interest is piqued by something extraordinary and unfamiliar because human beings crave variety – we need lessons to ignite new sparks and pose new questions; we need lessons to unsettle us, to discomfort and challenge us.

As such, we cannot derive 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 this novelty relates to teaching methods not lesson structure – so although we can’t define the features of a great lesson, we can discern 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.

As such, by following these five principles of effective lessons, I hope teachers might have some semblance of structure around which they can build exciting, engaging and effective learning journeys.

Previous articles

To read previous articles in this series, as well as Matt Bromley’s other best practice articles for SecEd, go to


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