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NFER - Tests for Years 1-6
NFER - Tests for Years 1-6

Use These 5 ‘Cogs’ to Plan Lessons Like a Pro

These five interlinking ideas from Ben Cooper will help you to structure your lessons and make them purposeful...

  • Use These 5 ‘Cogs’ to Plan Lessons Like a Pro

Do you often find yourself scratching your head when planning a lesson? Do your lessons sometimes run over or feel like they lose direction? Teachers often have these struggles when planning and delivering lessons.

In my NQT year, this was my main brain ache too – how do I fit all my activities into 60 minutes of lesson time?

I would spend hours thinking of great activities only to realise – and be told in observations – that I spent far too long with my guided group and my plenary was rather rushed.

And – to add to the frustration – there was never a lesson structure that suited every subject, every lesson – no ‘one size fits all’.

Only after years of trial and error, did I get to a point where I truly felt happy with my lesson structures and timings.

What I came to learn was, rather than thinking of activities and forcing them into a lesson, I should focus on the type of learning I wanted to happen and create activities to fit the purpose.

I came to realise that there are only really five types of purposeful lesson activity groups; five cogs that bind together to create a great lesson, full of learning and, most importantly, purpose.

By understanding the cogs that make up a successful lesson, you can easily use them to sequence activities and tasks to make great learning happen. Each cog links to a type of child or teacher-led activity that plays a part in learning.

Having children who aren’t engaged makes teaching tougher. Kids need to be onboard with your lesson in order to learn well. These type of lesson activities excite and motivate children and give them a reason to learn. They make learning purposeful and enjoyable.

Children should be asked to do something fun, practical or exciting that wakes up the brain and gives a context to what they are learning. These should be short and snappy – around five minutes.

This is the beginning of new learning – the eureka moment, if you like. These activities involve children learning something new or building on an old idea.

It’s difficult to put a time scale on this cog as it all depends on the content and challenge of the new learning, but I usually find five to 15 minutes is a good length of time.

This lesson phase may be teacher-led, research-based or focused on identifying a misconception. Whatever your preferred teaching style, there’s a common goal – discovery.

No one ever learnt to drive by just being shown where the pedals are. Likewise, the next step in a child’s learning is practising what they have just learnt – 15 to 20 minutes should do the trick.

This gives children time to make mistakes. Paired, group and practical tasks work well here. Kids are great at helping each other, especially when they are all ‘in it together’. Practise makes perfect, as they say.

Apply, apply, apply! In this modern educational world of mastery and reasoning, children should have an opportunity to use their new learning, to give it purpose.

Pupils will now be ready to solve problems and apply their new skills to real-life situations. Give children plenty of time to do this – I’d say 20 to 25 minutes.

Sometimes called a plenary or even (shudder) a mini plenary, these activities are simply about reflection. They give children a chance to review what they have achieved so far, what they are finding difficult and what they need to do next.

This helps children to develop an understanding of the progress they are making. Although reviewing is important, don’t spend more than five to ten minutes on these moments. No one wants to spend more time reviewing than actually learning.

Lesson cogs ensure that you understand the purpose and focus of every activity so that no time is wasted and your whole lesson drives towards a common learning goal. They are intended to be flexible – no single lesson structure works all the time, personalisation is key.

Look at what you want to achieve with the children and structure accordingly. The more you think about it, the more confident you will become. Indeed, as you gain familiarity with the cogs, so will the children.

In a recent lesson, a child put his hand up and said to me, “Sir, I think it’s time I stopped practising now and start applying. It’s only 30 minutes until lunch!”

3 lesson structures to try

There is no ‘one size fits all’ lesson structure. The three-part lesson is long gone and we are now all expected to be flexible. However, by connecting activity cogs in different ways, you can create lesson structures for different purposes.

Just like Blue Peter, here are three I made earlier.

In an ‘everyday’ lesson (if there is such a thing), follow this simple sequence of activities. Engage pupils with a warm-up, then discover a new skill or build on a pre-existing one.

Follow this by rehearsing this new knowledge and applying it to a real-life situation. Finally, conduct a review where children evaluate their learning. Voilà – a standard lesson.

New skill lessons differ, as the emphasis is on the development of learning knowledge or skills for the very first time.

This lesson needs to focus on rehearsal and practising skills in different ways, with less application. Start with discovery, immediately followed by engagement and practice.

However, let’s face it, rarely do all children get it the first time, so add a splash of extra discovery and practice time for those who need it and a small dash of application for high flyers.

Insert regular, short review activities to allow children to check in on how far they’ve come.

In contrast, mastery lessons build on skills that children have already acquired and help them deepen their knowledge of these. Practice activities are a little more redundant here – the focus is much more on application.

Plan two or three different opportunities to deepen pupils’ knowledge via multiple application activities. Combine this with short engagement activities to give context and add excitement to the problem-solving process.

Free resources

Want to use this idea in staff training? Download this poster for your staffroom.

You can also watch Ben talking about lesson cogs in this video:

Ben Cooper is assistant principal at GEMS Wellington Al Khail, a UK curriculum school in Dubai. He is also the creator of LiteracyWAGOLL, a resource website and teaching YouTube channel. Find out more at literacywagoll.com and on Twitter at @literacywagoll.

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