Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Review: How to Teach: The Book of Plenary

As part of my Performance Management (PM) this year I've decided to look at making better use of plenaries in lesson; particularly the use of 'mini-plenaries' within lessons. As such, I've purchased a few preliminary reads to give me some basic insight into the nature of plenaries; over the next few posts, I aim to review some of the literature that I've found. I'm not going to promise a series of in-depth analysis' for each book that I read, but I will do my best to provide some feedback on what I have found interesting, and perhaps less interesting, in the readings I do.

The first book that I will be reviewing is Phil Beadle's 'How to Teach: The Book of Plenary'.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was the conversational tone that Beadle adopts while writing. He also makes reference to scholarly articles, while at the same time recognising that a lot of good discussion goes on in blogs and online articles (which means that he recognises that teachers, real teachers, can have important things to say too). He also tries to make metacognition sound like something that anyone can understand. He devotes a whole section of the book to trying to explain metacognition in a way that the average person can understand, which, for anyone not recently involved in the university scene, is extremely useful.

Another thing that I find particularly interesting is how he tries to link plenaries to 'what Mr Lesson Inspector' says. He writes that inspectors have stated that teachers are 'good standing at the front of classrooms reading lesson objectives to [their] students from a PowerPoint' and that they're also good 'at giving the student's a pointless activity that takes ten minutes at the beginning of a lesson' but that they're less successful when it comes to using plenaries (Beadle, 2013). Considering my own practice, I'd say that's about right.

Something else I found extremely interesting was that Beadle essentially shoots my PM target in the face by stating that 'progress within lessons is continually promoted by SMT [school management teams] despite Ofsted making almost no mention of it' (Beadle, 2013). He goes on to give his opinion that, in doing mini-plenaries we are 'reaching the empirical point of absolute absurdity...of a profession running everything so that they can please the inspectorate' (Beadle, 2013). He goes on to say that 'Ofsted do not actually insist on progress within lessons' (Beadle, 2013). He quotes Keven Bartle (2013), who writes that, to the inspectorate, ''progress' is simply a numerical measurement of the distance between a start point and an end point and therefore cannot in itself by observed in lessons'. After I read these lines, I felt a bit foolish about making one of my PM targets about the use of mini-plenaries. If we're not doing them for the inspectorate, then why exactly have we been pushed into thinking they're what make an Outstanding lesson? I've been led to believe that in order to be an Outstanding teacher I need to show that students make progress within every lesson, and that I can measure this (usually via mini-plenaries and plenaries). It really makes me question exactly who sets the 'guidelines' for Outstanding lessons, especially if, when we're observed by Ofsted, we don't technically have to show progress within a given lesson. Who exactly am I trying to impress with my 'outstanding' ability to teach and show progress within lesson if it's not Ofsted? I guess it's my line manager... or maybe myself. Arg, it boggles my mind. I could talk myself into a depressed state, pondering over why exactly I can't quite reach Outstanding, but I think I'll leave that for another time...

Beadle splits his plenary 'how to' into two sections, which he labels Analogue Plenaries, which, from what I gather, are the 'tried and tested' methods that have been passed down through the ages, and Digital Plenaries, which are ones that are based on John Hattie's work on visible learning (2012).

I must admit that I had high hopes for what the book would offer me, in terms of practical ideas that I could trial and adapt in my own lessons. Sadly, I wasn't overly impressed with the ideas on offer, particular those within the newer 'Digital' section. If anything, I found the 'Digital' suggestions were a bit vague and under-explained. I think perhaps that I may need to expand my research by looking directly at the source, which means finding Hattie's book. I think that's a fairly easy ask, so I will try to sort that out in a future post. The Analogue section did have some valuable tidbits, but for any teacher who's been experimenting with plenaries in the past, they won't (or shouldn't) offer you much that you didn't already know.

That being said, I wouldn't say that the book was a complete waste. I did enjoy reading it, especially since it clarified some things for me in terms of why a good plenary is so important, as well as working to explain what metacognition really is, in a way that even my thick brain can comprehend. I'd recommend giving the book a look, especially if you're new to teaching, or if you've been in the profession for a long time and are looking for a way to reinvigorate the end of your lessons.

Until next time.


Bartle, Keven. 'The Myth of Progress within Lessons' Available at http://dailygenius.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/the-myth-of-progress-within-lessons/ (accessed 22 May 2013)

Beadle, Phil. How to Teach: The Book of Plenary. Independent Thinking Press. Wales. 2013.

Hattie, John. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising on Learning. Routledge. Abington. 2012.