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Productive, Purposeful, Pertinent Plenaries

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Inspection evidence suggests that the plenary is often the least successful part of the lesson. This workshop aims to help history teachers appreciate the benefits of taking time to plan an effective plenary. It will consider strategies to make the conclusion of the lesson more successful and provide lots of practical examples which could be adapted to several historical topics at Key Stages 3 & 4. The focus will be on activities which involve as many pupils as possible and which help them to reflect not just on what they have learned, but also on how they have learned it.

Steve Illingworth - Teaching & Learning Consultant for the Foundation Subjects with Salford LEA. Formerly Head of History in two different schools. Co-author of three textbooks in Folens’ ‘Specials!’ series.

Edited by Steve Illingworth
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Plenary Ideas

‘Show Me’ – all pupils hold up coloured cards to answer a question, enabling teacher to assess their knowledge instantly

Reflections on how a task has been approached, especially where group work has been used

Human line/washing line to show sequence of events, order of importance, individual positions along a continuum of divergent opinion


Visual representation of the lesson – mind map, cartoon strip, sketch from a different angle

Know already/Want to Know/Have Learned – 3 columns, first two filled in at start of lesson, third at end

Interim self or peer evaluation – discuss work so far and then set a target for improvement for next lesson/homework. Comment on work put out for next class

Group discussion with coloured hats

Hot seating – pupils take it in turns to be questioned on their work so far

Picture from memory – castle, peasant’s house, street scene

Individual whiteboards to answer re-cap questions

‘Taking Sides’ – pupils debate a controversial issue in pairs, in role, then change roles

Odd One Out – perhaps with whiteboards

Tableaux – create a scene from the lesson

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Purpose of the ‘Reflections’ sheet

One of the concerns about ‘Thinking Skills’ lessons, or any lesson involving a substantial amount of group discussion, is that pupils have no written record of their learning in that lesson. This sheet is designed to address those concerns. The idea is that pupils complete the sentences on the sheet, either at the end of the lesson or for homework. Doing this task will have two benefits. First, pupils will be able to reflect on the effectiveness of their group work strategies, helping them to understand their own learning better (metacognition). Secondly, they will have a written record of the main subject learning outcomes from the lesson. This will reinforce the oral learning they have done, will help the teacher to check on that learning and will provide a lasting record for revision purposes.

‘One thing we found difficult at first was….’

Here pupils should choose the part of the task which they found the most difficult, or at least the one they had to think about the most. In writing about how they overcame this difficulty, this should build up pupils’ self esteem and also give the teacher an insight into which activities may need extra support in future.

‘The main things we learned from this lesson were….’

The points listed here could either be subject-specific learning outcomes (e.g. ‘Blackpool declined in the 1970s because foreign holidays became cheaper.’) or they could relate to the learning strategies used in the lesson (e.g. ‘You should read all the cards first before you try to sort them out’). Pupils will need guidance on the different answers they can put into this final section.

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Which rules will your group use?

1. Ask everyone in turn for their opinion

2. Discuss all the alternatives before deciding

3. If you hear a good reason, you should be willing to change your mind

4. Stick your fingers in your ears and make up your own mind

5. Members of the group should try to agree before making a decision

6. There should be a leader and the group should do what the leader says

7. All relevant information should be shared among the group

8. Look at and listen to the person who is talking

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Put a tick in the column on the right which describes best the way your group has worked when discussing ideas together.

1. All the time

2. Most of the time

3. Some of time

4. Not at all

We encouraged everyone to speak

We backed up our ideas with reasons

We shared all the information we had

We all felt free to disagree if we had a good reason

We were wiling to change our minds if a good argument persuaded us

We treated each other’s ideas with respect

We tried to come to an agreement

Edited by Steve Illingworth
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A suggested plenary activity

In the main part of the lesson, pupils may have produced some writing in which they weigh up two alternatives; e.g.-

Was Cromwell a hero or a villain?

Should this product be made from metal or plastic?

Should hunting be banned?

Ask pupils for suggested answers to the question – Why do we need to have a conclusion?

Some useful answers could be –

To make it clear what your answer is

To show that you are aware of alternative answers

To leave the reader with a memorable idea/phrase/image

List some answers on board, for pupils to bear in mind when they attempt their own conclusions.

Modelling a conclusion

It would be useful to show pupils an example of an effective conclusion and to examine its main features. It is better to show an example from a different piece of work from that which the pupils are going to attempt, to avoid giving too much ‘scaffolding’.

One model is to concede that the weaker argument has some strengths but then to make it clear that the other argument is stronger. So, in answer to the question – Is David Beckham a role model or a bad influence?, this could be a conclusion:-

In some ways Beckham is seen as a bad influence, especially when he has lost his temper on the field.. However, he should be seen mainly as a role model because of his hard work and efforts for charity. Overall, parents should have nothing to fear if their children try to copy him.

The structure for this conclusion is therefore:-

weaker argument – example – stronger argument – example – memorable final sentence

Using this model, pupils can attempt to construct a conclusion for their piece of work. This could look something like this for the ‘Cromwell’ example.

In some ways Cromwell was a hero, especially in the way he led Parliament’s army to victory in the Civil War. However, he should mainly be seen as a villain because of his cruelty in Ireland. Overall, he was not somebody this country should be proud of.

If they want to argue that Cromwell was a hero overall, they should concede that he did some things wrong, then finish by extolling his virtues

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Self Assessment in History

Features of a good piece of work

Well-structured, in clear paragraphs

Detailed information is used to back up the points being made

Explains clearly how some events cause others

Explains how some causes are linked

Other questions include:

What I have done to achieve this

What I could do to achieve this

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  • 4 weeks later...

There are some fantastic ideas here - thanks Steve.

Of course teachers lucky enough to have a digital projector in their teaching rooms can make the plenary become interesting and purposeful more easily. Quizzes and games run competitively using technology can be real winners.

I use a piece of software from Robert Powell Publications which lets you run the old Blockbusters just like it was on Telly. It links into the Key Words used in each unit of study and my students love it. You can also play dominoes key word games on the screen and run quizzes through which the students vote their answers in using handsets using the same software - all great fun and great for consolidating what has gone on in the lesson.

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I agree that the plenary is often the least successful part of the lesson. You have provided some useful ideas on how the plenary can be improved. Could you provide a few more details about some of your suggestions: bingo, ketch from a different angle, group discussion with coloured hats and tableaux?

It is fairly straightforward to use a plenary to test out what students have remembered from the lesson. However, the important thing is to discover if they have understood the information. This involves creating situations where they have to make use of this information to solve particular problems.

Take an example of a lesson on the Black Death. After being provided with details of the pestilence in Britain between 1348-49 (symptoms, progress of the disease, number of deaths, order in which areas were affected, economic consequences, etc.). It is important to only provide information at this stage that was known at the time. In fact, it is better not to use the word Black Death (the Black Death is a 19th century term). If it is called the Black Death some of the pupils will know about the connections between fleas, rats and the disease.

Just before the end of the lesson the students can be told to imagine themselves living in a village in 1348. They have to come up with ideas on different measures that could be taken to stop the pestilence entering the village. To do this they would have to obtained a good understanding of the information presented during the lesson. It would also raise practical issues about how you could impose these measures. At the very end of the lesson the students could be given a sheet with a list of measures that were taken in 1348. These could be discussed in the next lesson. For more details of this approach see lessons 14, 15 and 16:


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Thanks for posting these ideas Steve I will share them other teachers at school next week.

I agree that plenaries can be problematic. Quite often it is hard to stop students who are engrossed in their work in order to complete the plenary. And also they can be problematic when students are working on different tasks - independant learning etc.

A plenary that I use to get round this is to put one or two key questions (that I know the students cant answer) on the board and ask them to answer it at the beginning of the lesson. They are encouraged to write things like I dont have the information to answer the question now but think it may be to do with........

At the end of the lesson they return to the question and are always pleased that they can now answer the question.

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I have tried to adapt the starters activities that I use for the plenaries, for example I use alot of visual stimuli (?) and these work really well to reinforce the knowledge learned. I also try to use activities like 'think, pair, share' - the first minute you have to reflect on your own, then you share with your neighbour, then you share with the group, then you can ask for one person from each group to feedback to the whole class. I am looking forward to really using my interactive whiteboard to help with my starters and plenaries as I do tend to use q&a alot and it bores me let alone the boys!

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I thought that the suggestions were really interesting and will explore their use with my trainees this year. One important point that Christine Counsell made at a workshop a few months ago; plenaries do not have to come at the end of the lesson, there are often occasions when it makes sense to have a plenary at other points in the lesson.

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