NQT Special: Best laid (lesson) plans


The first thing many NQTs tackle at the end of their year is a review of their schemes of work and lesson plans in readiness for September. Matt Bromley offers some expert advice.

Congratulations, you’ve survived – no, you have thrived – during your NQT year and can now look forward to a well-deserved break over the summer. 

And make no mistake – the summer should be a time of rest and relaxation. You must not feel guilty about time spent sunbathing or swimming in the sea: you will need to be refreshed and raring to go in September.

But, as well as lazing by the pool, the six-week holidays are an ideal opportunity to reflect on the past year, to cast a self-critical eye over your schemes of work and lesson plans – noting what went well and what could have gone better. Here are some tips to consider when revising your lesson planning:

Make it clear

When I was a journalist, the first thing I learnt upon entering a busy newsroom was how to write using the inverted pyramid structure. The inverted pyramid is a metaphor to illustrate how information should be prioritised and structured and it looks and acts like a funnel: the upper part (the widest) represents the most important facts a journalist wishes to convey, and the lower part (which tapers towards the bottom) represents additional information which appears in order of diminishing importance.

The pyramid can be divided into three sections: the “lead”, “body”, and “tail”. The lead is the most important information and should address the following questions: Who? What? Where? When? The lead is usually around 30 words. The body is background information – addressing the why and how – such as interview quotes. And the tail is related content, such as contextual information, which may be of interest.

Now let’s connect this to what you can do in order to ensure your lesson planning maximises your students’ capacity for learning: you can review your schemes of work to make sure they follow the inverted pyramid structure. In other words, you could make sure each of the lessons in your scheme clearly articulates its “lead”.

The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham argues that lesson plans should be focused on what students will think about rather than what they will do. And, although we are not naturally good thinkers, we do enjoy problem-solving – so you should frame your key messages (or “lead”) around a problem to be solved or an enquiry to be investigated and answered. 

First, decide what the vital “take-away” messages are – rather than what will merely add hue and texture – then concentrate on writing questions rather than creating fun activities. Try to write a “big question” which forms the basis for the lesson. Alternatively, you could pose a hypothesis to be proven or disproven.

Make it satisfying

My wife is able to make snap judgements about whether or not she will like a film or television programme based on the first five minutes, a skill I find both admirable and irritating.

I, on the other hand, cannot start a film, television programme, or book without feeling the need to finish it. I have sat through some truly dreadful films as a result, refusing to give up because I’ve invested time in them. 

The problem is, once I’ve opened a gap in my knowledge I must fill it; once a problem has been brought to my attention, I must solve it. This explains why I watched Disaster Movie through to the bitter end.

Piquing curiosity like this may starve me of precious time but it is also key to effective teaching. Teachers tend to focus on imparting facts, but unless students know why those facts are important they are unlikely to retain them. Therefore, when reviewing your schemes of work, make sure that before teaching your students the facts, you take time to pique their curiosity and make them realise why they need those facts. 

The secret to convincing students that they need the information you intend to teach them, according to George Loewenstein, is to start by highlighting the knowledge they are missing. Another technique is to start a lesson by asking students to make a prediction. 

Make it concrete

Another tip for revising your schemes of work is to ensure your ideas “stick” by making them tangible. Students find it hard to care about or understand abstract concepts. Instead, try to make ideas concrete by grounding them in sensory reality. The more sensory “hooks” you use, the better the ideas will stick.

Take, for example, Jane Elliott’s famous “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” experiment with third grade students the day after Martin Luther King had been assassinated in 1968. The purpose of the exercise was to teach her students the effects of belonging to a minority. First, Elliott had a class discussion about racism but said she “could see that (the students) weren’t internalising a thing”. Instead, “they were doing what White people do ... when White people sit down to discuss racism ... (they experience) shared ignorance”.

Most of Elliott’s students were, like her, born and raised in a small town in Iowa, and were not normally exposed to Black people. She felt that simply talking about racism would not allow her all-White class to fully comprehend its meaning and effects.

Accordingly, she divided the class into the brown-eyed and the blue-eyed children. She said the blue-eyed children were the superior group, provided brown fabric collars and asked the blue-eyed students to wrap them around the necks of their brown-eyed peers as a method of easily identifying the minority group.

She gave the blue-eyed children extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, access to the new jungle gym, and five extra minutes at recess. The blue-eyed children sat in the front of the classroom, and the brown-eyed children were sent to sit in the back rows. 

The blue-eyed children were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyed children and to ignore those with brown eyes. Elliott often chastised the brown-eyed students when they did not follow the exercise’s rules. At first, there was resistance among the students in the minority group to the idea that blue-eyed children were better, but eventually those who were deemed “superior” became arrogant, bossy and otherwise unpleasant to their “inferior” classmates.

Their grades also improved, doing mathematical and reading tasks that had seemed outside their ability before. The “inferior” classmates also transformed into timid and subservient children who even during recess isolated themselves, including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children’s academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before.

Once she had concluded the experiment, she asked the children to reflect by writing down what they had learned and it became clear that her students had come to deeply understand racism because Elliot had made it feel real, she had grounded an abstract concept in sensory reality and thus engaged her students’ emotions.

If students are made to care about something, they are made to feel something and this is an important part of the learning process, because when our brains are exposed to new information, they process it then attempt to connect it to existing information (in other words, brains try to assimilate new knowledge with prior knowledge). The richer – sensorily and emotionally – the new information is, and the deeper the existing information is engrained, the more strongly new information will be encoded into memory. 

When revising your schemes of work, therefore, obey the maxim “show don’t tell” wherever possible. Telling students something means you do all the work for them; showing them means they have to work for themselves.

Make it real

Another useful strategy you can build into your schemes of work in order to make your big ideas “stick” is metaphor. Metaphor is often considered the domain of English teachers, but the language of every school subject is rich with metaphor; indeed, it is woven through the tapestry of each curriculum area. 

Metaphor is good at making ideas stick because it brings ideas to life, it draws connections between new knowledge and existing knowledge. For example, if you are trying to describe how electricity flows through a material, you’ll need to explain the structure of atoms. You might first use a metaphor which describes atoms as “nature’s building blocks” to help your students understand an atom’s function.

You will then need to explain how each atom is comprised of protons, which are positively charged, neutrons, which have no charge, and electrons, which are negatively charged. 

Then you would need to explain that, together, the protons and neutrons form the “nucleus” of the atom, and that the electrons travel around this nucleus. You might then use a metaphor which compares this “orbit” to the way the earth travels around the sun.

In each case, you are relating new information which students are unlikely to be able to process and therefore retain, with existing information (or prior knowledge) in order to help them imagine it, process it and retain it. 

To summarise

When revising your schemes of work this summer, you might wish to ensure that:

  • Each lesson has a clear “lead”, a take-away message that will make students think.

  • Each lesson is built around a question, hypothesis or prediction to pique curiosity.

  • Gaps in students’ knowledge are opened before they are filled.

  • New ideas are grounded in sensory reality to elicit an emotional response from students.

  • New ideas are made concrete by using metaphor.

  • New information is related to prior knowledge.

Some other tips

This summer, as well as revising your lesson planning, reflect too on the situations you did not deal with as well as you’d have liked, like the time you really lost it with that year 10 boy in front of the whole class, or the time you sat up all night marking essays in a wine-soaked despair, wondering why no-one had remembered what you’d told them.

For each misdemeanour or mistake, think what you have learnt and how it will affect your approach next time. After all, we assure students that making mistakes is a good thing because it means they’ll learn – now we need to practise what we preach.

Respond to your findings by drawing up a CPD plan listing all the gaps in your knowledge and how you intend to fill them. Search for training courses or webinars and online forums, and create a wish-list to share with your school’s CPD co-ordinator when you return to work.

Now might also be a good time to consider your career plan. Have you made a decision about which route – if any – you wish to take? Do you wish to pursue the pastoral route as a head of year or do you favour a curriculum route as a head of department? 

What opportunities are likely to arise in the coming months to assume extra responsibility and how might you prepare for them? Do you want to work-shadow a colleague or develop a new scheme of work for your department? Do you want to sit-in on some meetings with parents or external agencies? Do you want to find time to observe colleagues teach? 

Good schools will welcome your initiative and hunger and will gladly find a way of helping you to develop your knowledge and experience. You just need a clear idea of what you want and how you’re going to get it. Don’t be put off by the fact you are new to the profession: ability and skill trump age and experience every time.


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