Where are we starting?

We are evangelists for planning lessons backwards as we discuss in chapter six of our recent book.  Planning starts with assessing what would be outstanding progress for the range of students in the class.  The teacher can then plan backwards.  Identifying the series of learning experiences that will secure these outcomes.

Absolutely crucial to this planning approach is understanding the students’ own starting points – NB the emphasis on the plural.  Every class will have a range of different starting points.  Knowing this enables the teacher to pitch the level of challenge correctly for different groups of students.  Recently, a teacher we were working with had a moment of ‘eureka’. They reflected on having no idea what the class knew already about the new topic being studied.  As a consequence, the class ended up being taught content they already knew.

It is risky to plan on assuming a certain level of understanding given that students learn outside school as well as in it.  Similarly they have the capacity to forget learning from previous years.  Furthermore, for secondary school teachers, one KS3 class may include students who attended as many as ten different primary schools.

Much better to develop the habit of pre-assessing students.  Pre-assessment means finding out what students know already.  It can take as little as ten minutes at the end of a topic and provide vital information to plan for the next topic.  Information that will enable the level of challenge to be pitched appropriately. If the challenge level is too low for different groups of learners, then so will engagement. If the challenge level is too high, the class may disappear into ‘the pit’ never to be seen again!

Given that it is crucial to pre-assess students, here are three ways to capture this vital information:-



Consensus is an excellent activity  to use before starting a new topic to gain feedback from students about what they already know about it. For example, ‘What is Fairtrade all about?’ This helps the teacher to plan subsequent lessons, ensuring the class are not revisiting aspects of the topic they already understand – a situation which is guaranteed to extinguish flow.  It also alerts the teacher to any misconceptions the students may have that will need to be addressed.

How to use: The class are split into groups of four. Each group is given a piece of flipchart paper with a large circle in the middle.



Step 1: Each student, working in silence, writes down their own thoughts about possible answers anywhere on the sheet of paper except for the circle in the middle. Depending on the complexity of the new topic, students may be given up to 5 minutes to do this.

Step 2: At this point the circle in the middle of the paper comes into play. The students are given as long as 10 minutes to discuss their ideas in their group. Whenever agreement is reached, the idea is written in the circle which represents the area of consensus. Only ideas that have unanimous agreement within the group can be written in the circle. This forces students to refine and clarify ideas so that they can all find agreement. It may be helpful for the group to then rank or prioritise the points they have agreed on and/or provide evidence to back them up.

Step 3: Get the students to put their names on the paper and collect it in.


Student Surveys

Create a table of the content in the new topic with four options to tick for each one.  Ask each student to fill in the survey.

No idea I’ve heard of this before I know a lot about this I am a black belt on this



Identifying what the students know already can provide gaps in schemes of work.  Gaps that can be filled with lessons where students find answers to the questions they have about a topic.

What do you KNOW about global warming?

What do you WANT to know about global warming? (what specific questions do you have?)

What are you INTERESTED in learning about global warming? (what are we curious about?)

We observed a primary teacher recently who rolled a die at the end of each lesson to determine which question about the solar system they would investigate next.  The class were hugely motivated as a result.



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