Taking a risk with... Plenaries

Written by: Nadine Pittam | Published:
Photo: iStock

In the final part of her series on risk-taking in the classroom, Nadine Pittam discusses pushing the boundaries when it comes to your plenaries and learning consolidation

“Sleep after learning aids memory recall." It's true, apparently. Research proves it (Gais, Steffen, Brian Lucas, and Jan Born, 2006). Our plenaries should be nap-based. It would certainly be a risky choice when Ofsted are in...

But for those of us who don't have beds in our classrooms, we need to think of other solutions.

Phil Beadle, author of How to Teach: The book of plenary, here endeth the lesson, says we need to make our students work cognitively in our plenaries as well as in the main body of our lessons. We need to look at the higher levels of Blooms' Taxonomy, getting our students applying, analysing, evaluating and creating.

Mr Beadle states: “In performing a task that is specifically related to the learning (and to the objectives), students may come to realisations and make new connections they hadn't made earlier on in the lesson. Consequently, a decent plenary will extend and broaden their knowledge of the concept of skill being taught."

Perhaps this opening up of things in a plenary is riskier than the traditional wrapping up of things. Getting our students to lead plenaries may present us and them with more challenges but it is very likely to make the plenary more effective: “…students learn more when they are actively engaged in a task that they perform themselves," (Beadle again).

So here are some practical applications to encourage students to “perform" more during the plenary than the teacher.


Students are put under a metaphorical spotlight at the end of the lesson to defend or argue a point they have learned.

Benefits of taking this risk: Students are the ones expected to lead the session. All students are engaged either directly in debate or as an active critical observer in the audience. The plenary extends their understanding because they are having to apply the information they have learned to formulate coherent arguments. This application of what has been learnt is well known to be highly effective.

Conquerable concerns (because most risk can be managed with careful planning): What if students don't have the confidence – what if they don't have enough to say and their responses are brief or underdeveloped? What if things descend into a verbal brawl which has all the elegance of Prime Minister's Questions?

How can it be used? You could build your whole lesson into an information-gathering mission at the end of which your students debate in teams. Have a core of students debating and two layers of students making critical observations. For example, students who have learned about indigenous populations during a geography lesson could have to defend a specific people's right to not be decimated by the tourism industry.

Each one of the five students involved in the actual presentation/debate has assigned to them one critic and one supporter who notes down comments on their performance for a discussion at the start of the following lesson. Or they could have to defend their group of indigenous people in a balloon debate.

Or perhaps you might like to put your most confident student at the front and require them to present an aspect of the lesson's learning to the class. During this presentation, the audience has to work hard to identify any errors, inconsistencies or omissions and challenge the “sage on the stage".

Perhaps this challenger could then replace the sage, or maybe nominate another to take over.

Concept Maps

This is one of the most open-ended, thought-provoking consolidation activities at a teacher's disposal. At the end of a unit you could ask students to display their learning in a Concept Map.

Benefits of taking this risk: Students are having to process what they know and present it in another form. It is creative, imaginative and as challenging as you and the students need it to be. It is also flexible. You could combine this idea with others, such as Visual Notes (see further information).

Conquerable concerns: I am unsure how to explain such a broad concept the first time. I don't know how long it will take them. What if they get stuck?

How can it be used? Concept Maps are another creative way to consolidate learning as the students are transforming what they know into a different format. Students have to apply what they have learned. Even better if we can require our students to talk through their maps in front of others.

Even better still if we can require them to do this in a different place to where they learned the information – Mr Beadle tells us that learning is what he calls, “domain-specific": we learn information while in room W3 and our brains keep it safe for when we are next in W3; which is helpful unless we need it when we are in E12 or at the bus stop. So perhaps your students create their maps then go on tour to present them to a parallel class, either in your school or via Skype to another school...


A brave strategy for a plenary, one which you might only want to try when you are confident you won't be ripped apart just for the sake of it. Basically, you ask your students how the lesson went, and how they would go about improving it if you were to do it again.

Benefits of taking this risk: Professor John Hattie has said: “The lesson does not end when the bell goes. It ends when teachers interpret the evidence of the impact on student(s) during the lessons relative to their intended learning outcomes and the initial criteria of success – that is when teachers review the learning through the eyes of the students."

Prof Hattie regards feedback from class to teacher as being of more significance than feedback from teacher to class. Useful, also, as a diagnostic self-evaluative tool for your own development.

Conquerable concerns: What if the students toy with me like a cat toys with a mouse? What if the students think there is nothing of merit in my lesson? What if they are not forthcoming with suggestions for improvement?

How can it be used? Ask for feedback from your students (or the teaching assistant you may have in the lesson). What you ask is determined by what you want to find out. Do you want to know if they were challenged enough or too much? Was there a moment when the lightbulb went on which might have been better placed elsewhere?

Perhaps you would like your teaching assistant to frequently update you on where the challenges are in the room – ask your teaching assistant for genuine feedback as you move through the lesson, on how the students are understanding the stages in your lessons.

How did the lesson go? We could ask the people who spend the most time in lessons in the school: the students. One can imagine that, over time, a group of students asked to be constructively critical about their lessons is a class which is more metacognitively engaged. So make your plenary all about giving them a voice to comment on their own learning.

Open-ended questions

The National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) calls these “explicit reasoning" questions, and they are questions which, again, require the learning or knowledge to be processed and turned on its head in order to argue a point, and put the plenary in the hands of your students. They are questions which require your students to approach a subject from a more critical standpoint.

Benefits of taking this risk: Like with Concept Maps, the students are having to use the information learned to create something new; and because students aren't regurgitating information, but are asked for their opinion, they enjoy the activity. The task is incredibly creative and demands abstract and independent thought. There is no right or wrong.

Conquerable concerns: The students might go off on a tangent, and lose the essence of what I want them to learn. What if I can't think of an appropriate question?

How can it be used? Many simple questions could be turned into complex explicit reasoning questions to demand deeper engagement from your class. A closed question which might require the students to know if France is a democracy could be changed to: “What does it mean for a country to be a democracy?"

Instead of, “name three disadvantages of fossil fuels" students could be required to discuss “what the landscape, the human race and transport look like if there had never been any fossil fuels". Or when you might want to ask “how does photosynthesis work?", you could instead ask: “How would the world be different if human beings could photosynthesise?"

Get students to argue about why they may agree with or disagree with a contentious statement, using the information they have acquired during the lesson to make their argument. For example, after a science lesson studying cloning, ask students to argue the ethical case for cloning which proves to a reluctant listener (perhaps played by you or your teaching assistant) why it is safe and not a threat.

I will leave you with a final word from Mr Beadle: “What's the point of having thought really hard about the content of the lesson and then copped out just at the bit where they actually cement information in their heads? What's the point of painting something if you aren't going to varnish it? The colour will all wash off come the first passing shower."

  • Nadine Pittam is founder and director of the skills-based website of teaching ideas, www.spark-ed.co.uk

Taking a risk with...
This is the fifth and final article in this series about taking calculated risks in the classroom. Read the articles at www.sec-ed.co.uk/article-search/author/141
Photo: iStock


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