Saturday, 1 October 2016

Why mini-plenaries are a waste of time

Plenary is an interesting word. It originally meant absolute, without reservation or qualification. The pope used to offer plenary indulgences to crusaders absolving them in advance of any sin they committed in the defence of the Holy Land.

Later it came mean full, complete or pertaining to all. A meeting or assembly to which all were obliged or expected to attend would be called a plenary. Nowadays, conferences often have plenary sessions which sum up themes and draw disparate threads together. From here the word has leapt into education parlance as a mechanism for ending lessons in a way intended to ensure that all students are clear on what they were meant to have learned.

A plenary isn’t a bad way to end a lesson. That’s not to say it ought to be a requirement – there’s certainly insufficient evidence to compel all teachers to end every lesson with a plenary – but it’s probably a good idea to round off and summarise and lesson to remind students what the point was supposed to be. What’s unnecessary are plenary activities, but these became, until relatively recently, educational dogma.

Look, for instance, at the state of this DfE guidance from 2002. Teachers are offered the following suggestions for involving students in plenary activities:


Now, while you could do any of these things, the consequence will be that you have less time to  spend on actually teaching students content. It’s not that these sorts of plenary activities are bad, just that they come at a cost.

This cost is compounded when teachers are advised, or coerced, to included ‘mini-plenaries’ at various points through out their lessons. In the DfE guidance linked to above, teachers are told, “Plenaries are also useful part way through a lesson: staging posts when the teacher draws the class together, crystallises understanding and directs the class to the next phase of work.” Possibly, but the more time you spend drawing things together, crystalising understanding and directing classes to the next phase of work, the less there will be to draw together, understand and direct towards.

If the point of the plenary is help students remember what’s important then they serve a useful purpose. the problem is, remembering something you’ve just been taught is a low bar over which to step. As I’ve explained before, learning is distinct from performance. If we invest lesson time on improving students’ performance at best we will be valuing mimicry, but at worst we might end up inadvertently undermining long-term learning. Aside from the opportunity cost, mini-plenaries are far more likely to undermine efforts to get students to retain or transfer important knowledge and skills. And if you believe mini plenaries prove progress, gods help you!

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to do away we plenaries and instead begin lessons with a recap of what you hope students will have remembered from previous lessons. Research into the testing effect tells us that the best way to go about this would be to give students low stakes quizzes to undermine the illusion of knowledge and provide a more accurate awareness of ignorance. Multiple-choice questions are an efficient way to go about this.

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