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Help Secondary Students Effectively Plan Their School Work

Planning isn’t something that comes naturally to young people – and when we understand that, we’re a step closer to helping them succeed

  • Help Secondary Students Effectively Plan Their School Work

Every year, around Christmas time, I watch the Bill Murray comedy, Groundhog Day; a family favourite with a memorable message.

And as educators, we are surely all familiar with the ‘Groundhog Day effect’ in the classroom – that is to say, students making the same mistakes, with teachers repeating the same teaching points, over and over.

In all of my years of teaching, asking students to ‘plan their learning’ has proven a classic Groundhog Day experience.

For exams and similar I remind them to plan their answers, and in class I ask them to plan their writing with care. Every time. The reality? Naturally, my learners forget to plan and rush on regardless. Annually, I see the depressing results: weaker answers and less-developed responses, over and over.

So, how do we persuade our students to plan, and what strategies can we deploy to support them in the classroom and beyond?

Inner turmoil

First (and with a respectful nod to David Didau’s reservations about the educational significance of neuroscience) it is very useful to understand what is going on inside our students’ brains when they fail to organise themselves or plan, despite our pleading and protestations.

In her research (summarised expertly in this accessible TED talk), Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, reveals how for teenagers the prefrontal cortex – which controls the majority of our planning and decision-making – is changing rapidly.

Teens therefore tend to make poor decisions, and planning simply takes a back seat.

Given these insights, it is useful to consider that if we are to get our students approaching work in the way we know will lead to greater success for them, we will need to focus more explicitly on teaching how to plan.

This includes: verbalising planning, modelling planning, and basically making the planning process of an expert in the forefront our our students’ minds – even while their brains are struggling against that very notion.

Model behaviour

In the simplest sense, we can model good planning by verbalising the questions an expert would ask, doing this over and over like Groundhog Day. However, as well as modelling and verbalising planning, we can train students to plan habitually with a range of different strategies, such as:

  • Reverse planning
    To flip the typical planning approach, you can use an exemplar answer (essay, project, exam answer etc). You can then get to students to reverse engineer a plan for that given exemplar. This has the double benefit of modelling excellence and encouraging planning.
  • Graphic organisers
    A long-standing teaching tool, graphic organisers are so useful for planning because the many different templates offer different planning models. From fishbone diagrams to mind-maps, students can choose the most appropriate planning approach for them, and for the task in hand.
  • Checklists
    This simple but powerful planning tool is too often derided as limiting creativity and expertise. When you consider that fighter pilots and surgeons use checklists extensively, it’s clear they are in fact a great starting point for planning and a memory aid for learning.
  • Rank and time
    Young people often underestimate the time needed to plan. By making them conscious of ranking what is most important for a given task or exam question, alongside considering likely time taken, we offer students a useful tool to better manage their own learning.

Just like in the movie, we may have to repeat ourselves time after time to reinforce the importance of planning; but the results will be worth it for our students.

Alex Quigley is Director of Huntington Research School and the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap (Routledge).

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