In which I reflect on day four of the Improving Teacher Programme

Day four of the ITP course had three main focuses – namely starters, differentiation and plenaries, which is broadly how I plan to structure the rest of this post. Once again, and despite being the longest gap between sessions, time seems to have got away from me somewhat in the past two weeks (to the extent that this post was finally published after day five of the course had taken place), so I’m going to limit this post to summarising the ‘golden nuggets’ of best practice that we discussed.

Our gap task for day four was to present to the group either s tarter or a plenary activity. One starter that was suggested was the ‘Mystery Envelope’, where a set of pieces of information (pictures, bits of text, physical artefacts) are presented to each group in the class, along with the question of ‘Who might these belong to?’ For variety, each group could receive a different set of information.

As regards organising the groups to begin with, one strategy is to ask students who explain a particular concept to stand up, and those who don’t to sit down; the students can then be organised into pairs or small groups with at least one student who understands the concept being allocated to each group and given the job of explaining it to the rest of the students. Another strategy is to hand out playing cards to students as they enter the classroom, then arranging the class so that all the 10s form one group, all the Jacks form a second group, and so on. Obviously this would result in randomised groups, so within the class there could be a significantly more able group and/or a significantly less able group – the best way to achieve balance in groupings is through a seating plan; it all depends, I suppose, on what you are trying to achieve.

This neatly leads this post on to the topic of differentiation, which we defined as the process of personalising or individualising learning (by task, resource and / or outcome) to account for the fact that different students have different starting points and targets. The reasons for differentiation then become obvious – partly it’s about trying to raising levels of engagement by making sure that work is appropriate for all students. Ways of achieving this – and I’m still trying to clarify my thinking around differentiation, which I’ll make the topic of a future post – might include:

  • Peer support through seating more able students next to middle ability students, and middle ability students next to lower ability students [1]
  • Using outcomes to ensure that the lesson is pitched at the right level to cover the full ability range of the class, and to allow all students to demonstrate progress;
  • Giving students a choice of tasks at different levels, or creating a single but more open-ended learning activity that students can complete to range of different levels;
  • Using targeted questioning, with successive questions in a sequence being directed to progressively higher ability students as appropriate;
  • Taking time to reflect on prior attainment and to set students’ next steps
  • The support of a Teaching Assistant [2]

One literacy-based differentiation strategy that we discussed was a key word pyramid, on which words was arranged into colour-coded levels to denote subject-specific vocabulary or connectives of progressively higher levels. This could also be achieved by allocating a certain number of points to a range of key words [3], with students trying to achieve a differentiated target score by the end of the lesson; or by writing key words on to Jenga blocks, colour-coding them to denote higher- or lower-level thinking, then sorting them on tables with arrows connecting them to show links between terms.[4]

Plenaries are also an area of my practice around which I’m trying to clarify my thinking, which I’ll also make the topic of a future post. We defined plenaries as being an opportunity to draw the whole class together to review and assess their learning (both what has been learned and how it has been learned), to highlight and praise achievement, and to allow the planning of future lessons. The phrase that was used to summarise the aim of an effective plenary was: “Delivering a lesson without a plenary is like writing a document without pressing save.” More broadly, effective plenaries should clarify learning, allow for the revision of individuals or group targets, and stimulate interest, curiosity and anticipation about the next phase of learning. This could be through extended questioning (differentiated, of course), perhaps using the idea of ‘hinge questions’ [5], but should avoid mere low-level reiteration.

A simple plenary strategy, especially for a lesson where the focus has been on key words, could be to play Jeopardy. You give the class a key word, and they have to write a question for which the key word is the answer. This could be scored several ways – teams could nominate a contestant to play head-to-head, with the fastest answer winning; or each team could write down their question, with (say) 10 points for a unique question but only 5 points for a question that another team came up with too.

For my gap task, I decided to research plenaries and came across the idea of plenary dice – there are two dice in the set, the >first< being focused more on what students have learned and the >second< being focused more on how students have learned it. I made three of each and had a trial run with a year 10 class but I think, to be most effective, each group would have a set of both dice in order to encourage them to think about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of that lesson’s learning. It also occurred to me that the basic die template could be adapted to make a set of questioning dice, with each side of the die representing a higher level of question (whether that’s linked to Bloom’s or SOLO) or an entire die for each level and students being given the choice (= differentiation!) of which one to roll.

Another strategy for reviewing learning during and at the end of a lesson, and one that would require some embedding into normal class routines, is through the use of a questioning wall. Students can stick Post-It notes on to this wall at the start of the lesson in response to a starter activity, or during the lesson if they have any questions (with it being the job of one person in each of the other groups to try and answer and questions that are added to the wall). At the end of the lesson, you can review any remaining questions and use extended questioning to try and help the class to answer them – or, if the class can’t answer them, then they become the focus for the next lesson.

One final topic of discussion was centred on a particular resource: a sheet with a blank jigsaw pattern printed on it.


It was suggested that this could be used to build up lists of key words, with words having to connect to all of those in adjacent segments, much like the ’10 pin bowling’ idea from my previous post. Another suggestion involved cutting out the jigsaw pieces and using them in a heads and tails type activity – or to create longer chains, in a sequencing activity (perhaps with a second row of pieces attached underneath to explain each stage in the chain). This could be expanded to create a ‘learning wall’ display, to which students add after each lesson in a particular unit of work. Any other ideas?


[1] E. Baines (2012) ‘Grouping Pupils by Ability in Schools’, in P. Adey and J. Dillon, eds., Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education (Maidenhead, OUP) 37-55

[2] R. Webster and P. Blatchford (2012) ‘Supporting Learning?: How Effective are Teaching Assistants?’, in P. Adey and J. Dillon, eds., Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education (Maidenhead, OUP) 77-92

[3] R. Morrison McGill (2013) ‘Rapid Progress in my Classroom: How is it made and how do I know it’, (post dated 30 April 2013; site accessed 7 July 2013)

[4] J. Sayers (2013) ‘Stack Em – A Solo Activity for Keywords’, (post dated 6 February 2013; site accessed 7 July 2013)

[5] D. Didau (2012) ‘How Effective Learning Hinges On Good Questioning’, (post dated 4 February 2012; site accessed 7 July 2013);


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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