Medium-Term Planning 3: ‘Introductions and Conclusions’, not ‘Starters and Plenaries’

The way in which lessons begin and end is very important in medium-term planning, though sadly I think careful reflection on this was rather swamped in the rhetoric of the ‘three-part lesson’. I want to begin by challenging, or at least raising concern about, some common terminology. ‘Plenary’ is a perfectly valid term to describe a moment in a lesson when pupils get chance to take stock and to reflect on what they have learnt and for teachers to assess what new knowledge and understandings the pupils have. My concern over this word is that it is often taken to indicate the end of a lesson, when in fact plenaries can take place at multiple points in a lesson. The end of a lesson might well consist of a plenary, but this is not the only time when such activities take place. The word ‘conclusion’ is, I think, a much better term for the final part of a lesson.

The word ‘starter’ is, for me, less useful, particularly when it gets put in front of the word ‘activity’. In particular, a ‘starter’ that has nothing to do with the rest of the lesson is, generally speaking, a waste of precious time. This might just be playing with semantics, but I find the word ‘introduction’ is a more powerful explanation of what I want the first part of my lesson to be, particularly because it implies that it is an introduction to something, rather than a standalone activity. I do not want to get too bogged down in terminology, but I would suggest that ‘introduction’ and ‘conclusion’ are more meaningful terms than ‘starter’ and ‘plenary’ for the beginning and end of a lesson.

What makes a good lesson introduction?

Lesson introductions invariably serve multiple purposes. In terms of basics, the first few minutes of a lesson are vital for setting the tone of a lesson and the behaviour expectations that teachers have of pupils. I typically begin all my lessons in the same way (greet pupils at door, tell them to sit down, not talk, copy down the date and to answer their names on a register). I suspect that all teachers have their own routines that work for them. My main aim in the first five to ten minutes of a lesson is always to try and achieve the following:

  • build a sense of excitement and anticipation about what the lesson will involve
  • pose some form of puzzle or concern about what will be learnt in the lesson
  • relate the individual lesson to the overarching enquiry

Note that this could involve, though does not necessarily require, pupils to write down ‘lesson objectives’. I think attitudes to these vary from subject to subject, though most history teachers I know see little use in them, preferring instead to use the enquiry question to set the direction and aims of the lesson. Understanding the purpose of a lesson is vital but I think this can be achieved without pupils copying down lesson objectives, and indeed I worry that telling pupils precisely what they are going to learn before they learn it can spoil the unfolding drama of a great historical narrative.

Probably over half of my lessons followed a model advocated by Rob Phillips which involved using ‘initial stimulus material’. The idea is simple: you begin a lesson with something puzzling, something that engenders interest and creates questions. Take the following example: I used to teach an enquiry on how interpretations of Oliver Cromwell changed over time. It’s a great enquiry for teaching pupils about the way in which context affects interpretation, and it doubles up as a way of zooming-out and placing Cromwell’s Protectorate in the chronological context of what followed. I began the first lesson of the enquiry by reading pupils extracts from this description of Cromwell’s funeral in 1658.

I then showed them this plaque from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. Depending on my mood and the class, pupils then had either to write down something puzzling about the plaque or discuss in pairs what was odd about it.

Invariably pupils noticed the two oddities. It is only Cromwell’s head that is buried in Sidney Sussex College, and that the head was buried there over three centuries after he died. Instantly there is a puzzle there waiting to be resolved, and I rarely had much difficulty getting pupils interested in finding out why Cromwell’s head was buried without a body three centuries after his death. The beauty of this introduction is that it encapsulates the very story I wanted my pupils to grasp; it is only by learning how Cromwell was subsequently interpreted that we can answer the puzzle posed in the introduction. Historians have it easy when it comes to finding initial stimulus material: a quotation, a painting, a photograph, a piece of music or a (short) video clip all offer endless possibilities for getting pupils excited about the lesson.

Whatever the introduction consists of, I think it is then important to use the opportunity to relate what the lesson will be about to the wider medium-term plan and enquiry question. There are arguments for why an enquiry question might be shared at other points in the first lesson of an enquiry, but I normally found that the moment after the introduction was best. The introduction can be used to get pupils excited about the question, and the time when they are writing down the question is, practically, a useful moment for dishing out worksheets or other resources. It should be noted, too, that this applies as much in the middle of an enquiry as at the beginning: in my experience pupils often found it difficult to keep the overarching enquiry question in their heads, and returning back to it at the beginning of each lesson was vital for maintain continuity and coherence across the medium-term plan.

What makes a good lesson conclusion? 

The enquiry question is a powerful tool for joining up separate lessons in a medium-term plan and introductions are a key moment in the lesson for achieving that. As important, however, are the lesson conclusions. In many ways these are much harder to do effectively, not least because it requires discipline in time management. As with the introduction, the lesson conclusion plays a vital role in situating the individual lesson in the wider context of the enquiry under study. A conclusion, however, has to solve multiple roles, and these were very helpfully put to paper by the Cambridge Conclusions Project in 2003. In this project, teachers of five subjects (including history) came up with a list of tensions that teachers need to consider with respect to their conclusions. The two that I find most helpful in terms of medium-term planning are:

  1. Does the conclusion involve looking back (at previous learning) or forwards?
  2. Does the conclusion resolve issues from the lesson or pose new problems?

These two questions are vitally important in medium-term planning. A lesson at the beginning of an enquiry is likely to be ‘opening up’  more questions, producing more threads or, perhaps, sowing more confusion. A lesson at the end of an enquiry, however, might be more likely to resolve questions, or at least offer pragmatic ways in which the enquiry question might finally be addressed. The ebb and flow of ‘opening up’ and ‘closing down’ is a difficult thing to judge, but is vital in maintaining a clear sense of direction through an enquiry.

So what kinds of activities can fulfil these demands? I often found that the kinds of resources that serve for good introductions serve as well for good conclusions, though often with the emphasis shifted. For example, one might ask pupils to use their new knowledge to make sense of a quotation or image. I would sometimes give pupils a few statements of differing complexities and ask them to consider the extent to which those statements could be supported by what they had learnt during the lesson. A conclusion is an excellent opportunity for throwing a ‘curved ball’ at pupils – they might well have spent the lesson studying the reign of Mary Tudor through the usual lens of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, but to end a lesson with an extract from Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith might be a great opportunity to get them thinking in a different way about the new knowledge they have learned.

What about assessment, I hear you cry? I would argue that assessment (in various forms) can take place at multiple points in a lesson, of which the conclusion might be one; all of those examples I have above allow for some form of assessment. My understanding of formative assessment, however, is that it is effective when a teacher can quickly take the opportunity to correct errors and misunderstandings, and there is rarely time to do this well in a conclusion. This said, it is quite likely that misunderstandings might arise during a concluding activity, and for this reason it is likely that what pupils say or do in a conclusion will have some bearing on the way in which the subsequent lesson is designed.

The ‘holy grail’ of a conclusion, and one which I think most history teachers achieve now and then, is that when pupils leave the lesson, they carry on talking about what they have been studying. In several cases I have been waiting outside a room and listened as pupils have walked out from another teacher’s lesson still arguing about an issue that had emerged in the lesson conclusion. Clearly we cannot achieve this every lesson, but we are most likely to achieve this if our conclusions are as good as we can make them. This is why I am not a fan of using ‘games’ in a conclusion such as ‘fling the teacher’ – while perhaps a simple and (possibly) useful way of checking what pupils remember, I think such tasks close down the enthusiasm and excitement for the enquiry question. Checking factual recall is very important and there are a number of opportunities for when this can be done in a lesson; I would suggest that the conclusion is not necessarily the best place for it.

In short, I think the best introductions and conclusions involve teachers helping pupils to relate what they are about to learn and what they have learnt to the wider context of the medium-term enquiry. I tended to find that pupils remembered more when they could relate what they were learning to things they had already learnt. An enquiry involves an unravelling narrative or other form of framework, and explicitly and enthusiastically situating the knowledge gained from one lesson in relation to that framework can be achieved particularly well in introduction and conclusions.

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