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Lesson planning – Use sequence learning to save yourself time

Forget flashy lessons – simple can be beautiful, and can give you your life back, says Aidan Severs…

Aidan Severs
by Aidan Severs
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Imagine a way of working that was not only more responsive to children’s needs, but was also better for teacher wellbeing. If there was such a way, surely we’d all want to be doing it?

I’d like to suggest it is possible; that by planning learning sequences and designing lessons flexibly we can provide for individual needs without it being a huge burden on our time and energy.

In order to ensure that our planning and teaching doesn’t impact negatively on our wellbeing, we have to find an efficient way to work. And in order for something to be efficient, it usually needs to be simple.

However, teaching can often be overcomplicated by myriad solutions for how to engage children, manage behaviour, include technology, make links to other subjects, and so on.

Often we begin lessons with an activity idea that we’ve seen on social media or used elsewhere in the past. Sometimes we come with preconceived ideas about what makes an outstanding lesson and we pull out all the stops and try to plan all-singing, all-dancing session.

Other times, often due to time pressures, we just don’t think carefully enough about what children need. All of these approaches can lead to a lesson being insufficiently structured to support learning.

The true way to simplify teaching begins at the planning stage. There are several things to think about when you’re sitting in your PPA session. Begin by asking yourself a simple set of questions. Here’s the first:

What do the children need to learn?

You’ll probably come up with several answers, because different children will need to learn different things.

This is where workload can begin to triple or quadruple: as soon as you identify the fact that one handful of children need to go over previous work whereas others are ready to move on, it can be easy to start thinking that you need to plan several different tasks.

This is where planning teaching sequences comes into play. Rather than planning five lessons, plan a sequence of activities that will help children to work through from not knowing how to do something to being fluent in it to being able to use and apply that knowledge or skill.

The next question to ask yourself will help you think about learning as steps towards a final goal:

How can I break this down and teach it in the simplest way possible?

If you produce a sequence of activities that build to an end point, you most probably have something relevant for each child in the class to attempt, therefore negating the need for differentiation and removing that potentially damaging way of providing for children that perpetuates the learning gap.

As you plan each step, take into account the answers to the following questions:

How can pupils practise this in the simplest way possible? Is this aspect of the lesson really necessary for children to achieve the intended outcome?

Try to make each step and task as simple as possible, ensuring that the sole focus of the sequence is on exactly what the children need to learn. Your learning steps don’t need to be full of flashy activity ideas.

Enjoyment and engagement of learning can, and should be, intrinsic: the act of learning is enjoyable and engaging, providing that you are actually learning.

A simple sequence almost guarantees that learning will take place and the children will feel good about it. They won’t miss the flashy teaching techniques you’ve used in the past as they will just be enjoying the feel-good factor that comes with mastering something new.

Flexible lessons

That’s the planning phase sorted, then. But trying to use the activities produced when planning a learning sequence can prove difficult. One group of children could end up working on step one, another on step two while yet another moves on to step three. How do you keep a handle on this in the classroom?

Flexible lesson design is the answer here. For example, if on day two of teaching your planned learning sequence you have several groups of children all working at different steps in the sequence you will need to work out how to use that hour in the classroom to the best effect for all.

Start working with one group while others begin the next task – clearly written or visual instructions will help with this. Once this is done, set a task for the group you were working with then check the work done by other groups.

Then, based on your assessment, give an input to another group while others continue with the initial task. The ‘lesson’ (although no longer a lesson in the traditional, three-part sense) can continue this way until all children are working, at which point you can begin to give one-to-one feedback.

Reduce the burden

At any point a child might be ready to move on to the next step in the sequence. And they can, because the tasks have all already been prepared at the beginning of the week.

If you’ve also taken the time to provide answer sheets children can even self- or peer-mark to reduce the burden on you and ensure that pupils aren’t waiting around for their work to be seen.

Planning a sequence of activities for all children to work through at their own pace means that you won’t be planning and preparing five days’ worth of three or more lots of differentiated tasks – it’ll just be around five tasks that you will support everyone to access, perhaps with an extra one on top to stretch children who need a challenge.

That’s a lot less work to plan and prepare.

By asking yourself the above questions as you plan, the activities you prepare within a sequence should be simple. This means that you can spend far less time decorating and laminating your resources. Simple can be beautiful, and it can give you your life back.

Teaching lessons flexibly should mean that you begin to use lesson time more effectively, particularly for giving feedback. In doing this, you remove the need for so much time to be spent on marking outside of lessons.

Any assessment information you do gather will simply inform you which task in the pre-planned sequence each child needs to work on next, rather than causing you to plan another new activity in response.

Learning sequences in practice

Scenario your Y3 class needs to learn how to add common prefixes to words and use them in their work. Note that the national curriculum mentions four: ‘in’, ‘un’, ‘dis’ and ‘mis’.

Activity 1 Pupils will have covered ‘un’ in their spellings already so this makes a good starting point.

  • Add the prefix to selected words (this will remind children that it changes the meaning of a word to its opposite and that the spelling of the root word remains intact)
  • Add root words to the prefix
  • Give a definition for a selection of words beginning with the prefix

These three tasks will give you an opportunity to assess what children remember of previous learning. Some will need more teaching on the prefix ‘un’ at this point, whereas others will be ready to move on.

Activities 2 + 3 Rather than mixing things up to make them more interesting, repeat the above sequence with the prefixes ‘dis’ and ‘mis’. One meaning of the ‘in’ prefix departs from the ‘not’ definition the pupils have found in the other prefixes, so leave this one for another learning sequence.

Activity 4 Contextualise the words pupils have learnt by:

  • Choosing the correct prefix to complete a sentence
  • Writing a sentence including one of the new words
  • The idea is to make each task as simple as possible so that the sole focus of the sequence is on exactly what the children need to learn.

Aidan Severs is primary deputy head at an all-through academy in Bradford. Find him at and follow him on Twitter at @thatboycanteach.

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