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Ditch The Lesson Plans; Try Learning Sequences

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

This article was first published in edited form in Issue 8 of HWRK Magazine. It's worth a look at that version too as it is presented really nicely: (pages 57-61)

What’s more annoying than the bell going for break when the children haven’t yet completed all the work you intended them to get through? I’ll tell you: very little!

You spent ages meticulously planning five 1-hour-lessons last week in PPA and it’s looking like you’re not going to get through them all. What’s worse is, whilst some children had their light bulb moment, others didn’t, and then you have to move on, leaving some children in the dark forever.

Imagine you could eradicate these problems and lighten your workload! Sound good? Well, I think there is a way.

Learning as a Process

You have to stop imagining that learning takes place in 1 hour chunks of time, and begin to see learning as a process, or a sequence.

Think about it: does it really take just one hour to master the art of long division? Or can an artistic masterpiece be created in the time between lunchtime and assembly? Will a great story take shape in the time it takes the hour hand to move one digit on the clock?

Not much fits exactly into one lesson-sized amount of time but much more can be done with a less definite period of time.

I say less definite because, as experienced as we might be at judging how long something takes to be learned well, we often get it wrong. And that’s OK, as long as we assess as we go along and adapt our teaching to meet the learners where they are. Being a responsive teacher and having five neat little lessons planned out don’t really go hand in hand.

Instead, you can plan a learning sequence, and it’s not too difficult to do:

Image courtesy of HWRK Magazine

Sign up to Aidan's course Plan It! Teach It! Assess It! to learn more about how to backwards plan (next course date: January 20th 3:00 - 4:30pm £5 per person). Click 'Book Now' below to secure your place:

Differentiation as a Journey

This approach takes care of differentiation too. Rather than preparing separate activities based on needs you can plan a learning journey for all children to take. It’ll be a journey that is completed at different speeds by different children. At the journey’s end will be a destination that some children get to spend more time looking around – those who get there quicker will spend time deepening the understanding of the concept working on tasks that allow them to use and apply their learning in a wider variety of ways.

Having a learning sequence in place from the beginning means that children are not limited by what you have planned. Those kids in that ‘bottom group’ might just begin to surprise you if they know that not only are the simpler activities available to them, but that the more difficult ones are too. Think about it, just because they find multiplication difficult, it doesn’t mean that they can’t tell the time, for example. Give them the opportunity to work through an entire sequence and you’ll set them free from always only completing the easy stuff and never catching up with the others.

Miss, What Shall I Do Next?

Having every step of the journey mapped out as well as possible will also mean that those ‘rapid graspers’ aren’t waiting around for the next activity – you’ll have had it planned and prepared already. And whilst they move on without needing to ask what the next task is, you’ll be able to dedicate more time to those who are moving more slowly through the sequence, helping them along. Of course, those moving onto another task might need it modelling to them, so you will have to be flexible enough to work with them too.

Freedom to Respond

In fact, what you will find is that if you are not always following the old three-part lesson plan which begins with standing up and talking for 20 minutes every lesson, you will be freed up to teach more responsively, albeit to smaller groups of children, and sometimes to individuals. Natural points might arise, midway through the hour’s session for example, where you do need to stop the class and deliver something to the whole class – that’s just another example of how flexible you can be when teaching a learning sequence instead of a string of lessons.

With this way of working it will no longer be about what an adult is doing at home with a stack of books and a laptop; the importance will be placed upon what the adult is doing when they are in the classroom. You see, learning sequences favour ongoing assessment during learning time – lessons favour books being marked at the end, once the children are gone and feedback can’t be given face-to-face. When you can tackle issues that arise immediately there will be less need for children staying in at break (more time for teachers to grab a moment of calm and a cuppa), or going to interventions with support staff during other lessons. If most of the teacher’s work is being done in this way inside the classroom (where it’s supposed to happen) and less in their own time, that’s a work/life balance winner.

Lesson? What Lesson?

Each time slot allotted to any given subject could start in a number of different ways: a recap of previous learning in the form of a quiz or a game; an assessment activity to identify which children need more concentrated support; a simple ‘get your work out and carry on from yesterday’. The point is that there isn’t a particular way to start a lesson because the concept of a lesson as a detached unit of time doesn’t exist in the same way when teaching a learning sequence.

By planning sequences instead of lessons you will allow the curriculum to breath more – no longer will you be trying to cram too much into too little time. As Mary Myatt says ‘When something complicated is expected to be covered in one or two lessons, it is very unlikely that expertise can be developed.’ (p52, The Curriculum Gallimaufry to coherence, Mary Myatt) You will begin to give children more time to get better at the things you are teaching them rather than always rushing them on to the next thing “because it’s on the lesson plan”.

You can download a suggested learning sequence backwards planning sheet for free below:

Providing Time for Quality

Higher quality work will also be another product of adjusting the way you plan for learning and allowing for learning to take place over a longer period of time. Ron Berger’s ideas about producing excellent work are founded upon the notion that by taking time over something, the end piece of work will be of a high standard. The Education Endowment Foundation’s researched-based guidance about writing outlines a seven-step process involving planning, drafting, sharing, evaluating, revising, editing and publishing. How often do we rush through and skip parts of that process “because there’s no time left in the lesson”? And do we ever consider that a similar process could be applied to pretty much any other subject that we teach? Is DT work planned, drafter, shared, evaluated, revised, edited and published? Highly unlikely when you’ve got one lesson per week and everything from last lesson is broken and needs fixing and year 2 have taken all the glue guns again.

If you begin to work in this way, not only will children’s needs be served better, you’ll also save yourself a lot of time. You’ll no longer be planning 5 different lessons per subject per week (or per half term). You won’t have to plan three differentiated activities per lesson per subject per week. You can say goodbye to those daily rushes to get all the resources printed and trimmed – most of the preparation will be done at the beginning of a learning sequence (not necessarily the beginning of the week). You won’t have to constantly rejig lessons for the next day, redoing the hard work you’ve already put in. You’ll just start off the sequence knowing that, by the end of it, whenever that might be, you will have taught what needs teaching, and the children will have learned it.

The DfE Agree

If even the Department for Education have realised that ‘planning should… identify what needs to be taught across a sequence of lessons, and avoid trying to fit teaching neatly into 60-minute chunks’ ( – this in their recommendations for eliminating unnecessary workload - then perhaps we should all sit up and take note. By beginning to plan learning sequences, rather than individual lessons, both your children and you will benefit – more learning, less work. That sounds alright to me.

Sign up to Aidan's course Plan It! Teach It! Assess It! to learn more about how to backwards plan (next course date: January 20th 3:00 - 4:30pm £5 per person). Click 'Book Now' below to secure your place:

For more about making this approach work, please read the following articles:

My blog post here on my website 'Flexible Lesson Design: A Model for Responsiveness and the Release of Responsibility':

My TES article 'Ditch the three-part lesson and remodel with these 8 things in mind':

My Teach Primary article 'Lesson planning – Use sequence learning to save yourself time':

My HWRK Magazine article 'What should I do if a child has finished their work?':

If you would like Aidan to work with and your staff on planning, teaching and pedagogy, use the contact details on this page or book him in using the links below:

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