Messy Planning: Part Three

If you don’t use PowerPoint, what do your lessons look like?

In this final blog post on Messy Planning I want to convey a sense of what my lessons look like. The best way to do this, I think, is to take you through a typical lesson from start to finish, segueing into deeper explanation if I deem it necessary to do so.

Recently, a student told me, “It looks like you just decide what to teach on the day.” This disappointed me, because it’s not true. (I’ve talked about that here.) But, nevertheless, it worries me that the way my lessons ‘look’ leads students to think this way, given that student perception of a teacher’s capabilities goes some way to building those all-important relationships necessary for optimum learning. (Andy Tharby covers this in some detail, in Chapter Two of his new book, How to explain absolutely anything to absolutely anyone: The Art and Science of Teacher Explanation.) As such, what follows should not be read as an example of ‘How to do it’, but rather as simply an honest reflection of what a typical lesson looks like if you are a student in one of my classes.

1. Start of the lesson

Students will walk into the lesson and more often than not, there will not be a pre-prepared worksheet on the desk in front of them. Instead, students stand until I tell them so sit and then I’ll declare firmly, “Back of your books.” Students know right from the off that what’s about to take place is a low-stakes quiz. This means:

• They’re going to be asked to remember something they’ve been taught previously

• They’re going to be asked difficult questions

• I will not ask them for their answers

• I will not mark their answers

• I will not look at what they write

At the start of every year I talk to students about low-stakes quizzing and the importance of retrieval practice, and because they know what’s going on, they’ll carry out the quiz honestly. Typically, I’ll ask them a few questions about content learned in the previous lesson, with a few questions about something they did the previous, week, month, year etc. Sometimes, I won’t do this, but will just ask them to write down as many quotations as they can remember from a text we’ve been studying.

I’ll always give feedback on the quizzes and tell kids the answers to the questions. More often than not, this means re-teaching something. For example, if none of the students remember that ‘Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t’ is an example of antithesis, I’ll have to teach them the definition of antithesis, using examples and non-examples (from memory – I can do this because of how I spend my Planning and Preparation Time), again. I’ll make a mental note to question them on antithesis again later in the week. 9 times out of 10 I’ll remember to do this.

2. The Lesson

I give out the books and start reading. If we come to a section of the text that I think worthy of deeper analysis, I’ll put my own copy of the text under the visualiser. I use a relatively cheap one from Ipevo. I’ll question kids on the extract and I’ll annotate it on the board for them to see. If I’m asking them to annotate, I’ll encourage students to write annotations in their own words if at all possible.

Sometimes, it becomes necessary to use images. I rarely rely on pre-prepared images (unless I’m teaching something new for the first time). Often, a student will ask a question that will require an answer that uses images for elucidation and I’ll have to do a ‘live search’ there and then. For example, in a recent lesson with Year 11, as we were analysing some post-war poetry, many students had an uncertain grasp on the concept of Modernism. Thinking on my feet, I googled an image of the Mona Lisa and then another of a Picasso. I explained to students that the De Vinci represented a traditional view of the world, whilst the Picasso could be said to be modernist. I then went onto explain Modernism in more detail.

This sort of ‘live searching’ occurs often. It’s not perfect, and I’m sure it can be one of the reasons some students may think I’ve not ‘planned’ a lesson. For many students a planned lesson is a PowerPoint lesson. However, the fact is, I simply cannot anticipate every single question or misconception that all the individuals in any one lesson might present. Nor can I anticipate which extracts or texts from my long term memory will be necessary to draw upon to make clear these misconceptions up and so, often, students will see me darting to my office to come back with a dusty book to whack under the visualiser to aid learning or understanding.

Generally, I talk lots. My talking is great at times – I think I can stretch kids pretty far and I think over the years I’ve developed some pretty good explanations. At other times, I talk too much and I rely on humour too much. As I get older I think it seems a little desperate. I need to work on this.

I’m pretty handy at drawing so I like to occasionally draw on the white board to aid kids’ understanding. For example, I’ll draw Ozymandias as I’m teaching it. That looks like this.

Once I’ve done my talking I’ll ask kids to do a written task. Generally, before they get on with it, I’ll model a live example on the board. Live modelling is important. After all:

When kids get to work I’ll try and be silent, but again, I need to get better at this. As kids are working I’ll keep an eye on who’s struggling and I’ll talk to kids about their work as they do it, asking questions to prompt students to think about mistakes they may have committed. I’ll always find the time to stop the class and read out examples of good work.

Ideally, everytime students conduct written work, I’ll take the time to see each kids work individually, and I’ll give verbal feedback to the whole class, before setting them DIRT tasks aimed at rectifying common errors. But this doesn’t always happen. It happens, but not always.

At the end of the lesson a bell will go and I’ll realise I haven’t set homework so I’ll ask kids to finish off what they didn’t do during class, or, as is usually the case, I’ll set them a question that they need to answer, based on what’s been learnt in lessons. Today, me and Year 8 read and watched Act 1 Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their homework was:

‘Harold Bloom said that “Bottom is Shakespeare’s Everyman.” What do you think this means? Tell me why you agree or disagree.’

I hadn’t planned this homework before the lesson, but it seemed the right thing to set based on what we got covered in class.

Told you it was messy.

Messy Planning: Part Two

If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?

In the first of this series of blog posts, I explained that I rarely employ the use of written lesson plans or presentation software to guide the direction of my lessons. I also asserted that it’s my use of planning and preparation (P+P) time that allows me to work this way.

The short answer to the question that opens this post is: I read. My reading can be split into two sorts: Pedagogical reading and subject reading. Because I spend as much as my P+P time reading, I believe I am a better teacher. I’d even go as far to say that if I spent my time endlessly creating Lesson Plans or PowerPoint presentations during my P+P time, instead of reading, I (emphasis on ‘I’) would be a worse teacher because of it. For me, every slide created is a page not read.

I tend to read with a coffee in one hand, a book in the other, and both feet up, either on a chair or a desk. This makes me comfortable and makes the reading experience more enjoyable. Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work. I highly recommend others teachers spend their P+P time this way.

But be careful.

In spending your time this way, you open yourself up to suspicion and criticism from colleagues. After all, in this time of austerity and accountability and data and data and data, it takes a brave soul to dare to lounge around with a book, especially when SLT are on the prowl and other teachers are hunched over computer screens organising slide transitions.

Daring to read a book is further perilous because the development of one’s subject knowledge is so often assumed to be something that one does ‘after school’, an assumption which fails to recognise that most teachers are actually humans for whom the prospect of eating and drinking whilst watching a celebrity eat a bollock is far more exciting, after a long day’s work, than reading anything more intellectually stimulating than [insert name of leading British tabloid here].

As I’ve already said, my reading is either pedagogy based, or subject based. Which is lucky, because Robert Coe et al found that ‘the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.’ I’d like to discuss each of these types of reading, briefly, and in turn.

Pedagogical Reading

I spend lots of time reading about teaching and learning. This reading material is found either in the form of blogs or books. I’ve read lots, but the reading on teaching, how to teach, learning, and how to learn, that really stands out, without looking at my book shelf, was found in these places:

What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? David Didau

Making Good Progress? Daisy Christodoulou

Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel Willingham

• Andy Tharby’s blog post on The Memory Platform

• Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex

• James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog

Spending time, in the school day, to read these has changed the way I will teach forever. That is to say, many of these books or blog posts has improved every lesson I will ever teach forever. Where they haven’t improved my lessons, they have definitely improved me as a teacher, more generally. I don’t think I can say either of these things about any time I’ve spent creating a Lesson Plan or PowerPoint presentation. I want to try and be specific. Allow me to explain:

-What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

Most significantly, this book made me realise the benefits of the testing effect. Because of this book, I test my students every lesson.

-Making Good Progress?

As a teacher, Daisy’s book helped me to design intelligent multiple choice questions that challenge children, whilst reducing my workload.

As a Head of Department, it was this book that helped me to help others in my school get us to a point where we assess summatively just twice across the whole year.

-Why Don’t Students Like School?

Willingham’s model of the memory means that I am always aware of the limits of the working memory, and also the ways that I, as a teacher, can reduce extraneous load to ensure student learning is enhanced.

-Andy Tharby’s blog on the Memory Platform

If Didau’s book taught me everything I needed to know about interleaving, it was Tharby’s memory platform that helped me to incorporate it regularly (twice a week minimum) and easily into all my lessons.

-Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex

For years people rolled their eyes at me as I cited research at them. This blog made me realise why. And as a result, I’m a little more patient and a little less of an arsehole.

-James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog

Because of James, now, when I want kids to know stuff, I tell them what I want to know, rather than asking stupid questions or engaging them in silly tasks in the hope that they’ll guess what’s already in my head.

I’ve been to some good CPD. But nothing I’ve ever had spoken to me, spoke to me like the stuff in these books. And unlike speakers, I can whack books on a shelf and open them again and again and again. A PowerPoint slide lasts as long as the memory stick takes to get lost. The stuff in these books stays, even if the books themselves are lost.

Subject Reading

Part of the reason I became a teacher was to indulge my passion for English, so an hour of reading a book around my subject is absolute joy. And it’s a joy that benefits my pupils. Reading around my subject, for me anyway, is not about reading a revision guide or revision website on the text I’m currently teaching. That’s just reading someone else’s reading about the reading. That’s not to say I never do this (of course I do – I teach Emily Dickinson), but what I prefer to do is read the following:

• Literary theory

• Critical essays

• Fiction written by contemporaries of authors we’re reading in class

• Other works of fiction written by the author of the text we’re studying in class

• Non-fiction texts written by the author of the text we’re studying in class

It is this sort of reading that makes me, occasionally, a great teacher.

It is this type of reading that allows me explain to kids, during a lesson looking at Mr Birling, ‘ George Orwell was writing about Mr Birling before Mr Birling was even a thing’, as I whack the following extract from The Road to Wigan Pier under the visualiser:

It is this type of reading that allows me to tell classes, year after year, as we read Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth, that the sibilant sounds that permeate the Macbeths’ speech make it sound like they’re whispering. That in fact, what the Macbeth’s are engaging in are the ‘conspiratorial whisperings’ outlined by Kermode in his book, Shakespeare’s Language.

It is this type of reading that allows me show kids extracts from The Grapes of Wrath in preparation for teaching Of Mice and Men.

This is the type of reading that warms.

The information gleaned from this sort of reading kindles fires that are always there, smouldering, just waiting to be ignited by the touch paper of a question from a student or something falling into place where it didn’t before.

Here’s a list of the fires, quietly burning, some for a while now, some begun only recently, just waiting to burst into flames as I teach Macbeth:

• Ellen Terry’s assertion that ‘It is strange that Lady Macbeth should be seen ‘as a sort of monster’, read in an article on the British Library website. ( )

• A.C. Bradley’s statement that, ‘Macbeth gives the impression of a black night broken by flashes of light and colour…and the colour is the colour of blood’, taken from A.C. Bradley’s famous Shakespearean Tragedy

• ‘The clown acts as a bridge between the stage and the audience’, taken from The Cambridge introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Conspiratorial Whisperings’, a phrase taken from Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language, which has also influenced my own phrase, ‘mono-syllabic splutterings’ to refer to Lady Macbeth’s final angst-ridden prose.

• The knowledge that actually, in asking ‘unsex me here’, Lady Macbeth is not asking to be stripped of her femininity, but rather she is asking almost the opposite: to be the most womanish of women; that is, an old woman. Taken from another article from the British Library (

These nuggets of information, found in books, will reveal themselves, shining, to form the basis of whole lessons, even a series of lessons which opens kids’ minds to perspectives rarely explored in revision guides or websites. As I said in the previous blog post in the series, this is the reading that provides me with the analogies, allusions, explanations, examples, non-examples, and counterpoints needed to ensure kids learn well.

In the next, and final, series of this blog series on Messy Planning, I’ll explain what all this looks like in the lesson.

Messy Planning: Part One

Earlier this week I tweeted one of those tweets I never write to generate attention:

Since then, a number of people have got in touch with me to ask either one of three questions:

1. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

2. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?

3. If you don’t use PowerPoint, what do your lessons look like?

I’ve called this series ‘Messy Planning’ because to some, my approach to lessons seems unorganised and unplanned. As if I rock up to school and just wing it. Partly because I want to convince myself that my methods aren’t as haphazard as they seem to others, partly because I’m sick of people telling me I never plan lessons, and partly in an attempt to reassure other messy planners, I want to answer each of these questions, in three separate blog posts, the first of which begins shortly.

Before I go on though, I want to clarify a few things:

• I have absolutely no problems with people who plan lessons using lesson plans.

• I have absolutely no problems with people who choose to use presentation software in lessons.

• From a teaching perspective, I think PowerPoints can be really bloody useful, particularly if you are new to teaching, or you are a teacher teaching a new topic or subject. The act of learning new information and transferring it into presentation form can be really useful in consolidating information. Also, slides are great prompts for discussion and questioning in class. Of course, the capacity to show diagrams to assist explanations is also very useful. However…

• …From a learning perspective I don’t know if PowerPoint presentations are always really bloody useful. Often, slides are overloaded and teachers lacking in confidence can put unnecessary cognitive load on students’ working memory by reading aloud, information that is there in writing on the slide for students to read. Also, over- reliance on slides can indicate to students a lack of confidence which may negatively impact student-teacher relationships, an important facet of learning.

Anyway. Let’s go.

Question One: If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

Put simply, I don’t plan lessons because learning doesn’t occur in those arbitrary units of time we decide to call ‘lessons’. Students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments dependant on the differing levels of pre-existing knowledge they bring to different lessons depending on the different variables impacting on their different lives at any given moment. Honestly, because of this, planning ‘lessons’ seems futile to me.

I choose to take some of the pressure off. Instead, I focus on the long game which sees the end of a unit of work as its end point. (And even then I keep in mind that the real end point is the end of the year, meaning that even once a unit is complete, I’ll have to keep revisiting that unit’s material in future units.) Below, is a picture of my ‘Brain Bank’ for Year 10’s study of An Inspector Calls:

It contains the most basic information I want all students to know as a minimum. This is the closest I come to writing anything down when it comes to planning. Then, knowing that this is the information I want to impart onto the students, I go into the lesson and begin teaching.

So what do I actually do?

I allow the texts-and the students’ responses to the texts – to dictate the pace and direction of my lessons. I do this because students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments … So every time I begin a new text for study, all I do (after a lesson providing some contextual background) is go into the class and start reading the text. I don’t write down on a PowerPoint slide or on a piece of paper, specific moments at which we’ll stop and do a task. Rarely do I employ the use of pre-prepared diagrams to elucidate understanding. I certainly never approach a lesson with the intention of ‘getting to a certain point’ in the text.

I just start reading.

I start reading the text and what happens in the lesson is determined by what I, as an expert in my subject, judge students to understand or not understand about what we’re reading. This isn’t to say I don’t have a plan. I do; it’s just in my head. For many of the texts I teach, I am now in my fifth, sixth or seventh year of teaching them. I know them inside out. Over the years I have developed a repertoire of analogies, explanations, and allusions to ensure students learn what’s important. I know when and how to draw upon these depending on the level of understanding of the individuals in front of me; I know the quotations to interrogate, the scenes to dwell on, and the critics to cite.

What is it that has imbued me with this power? Well, it’s what I get up to in my free periods, which you can read about in the next instalment. (Clue: It’s not creating lengthy PowerPoint slides.)

Messy Planning: Part Two can be found Here