What’s The Plan?

We would tell our students it is a bad idea to get on a train if you don’t know where it is going. Or maybe we wouldn’t. It’s been a long half-term.

Similarly, we would advocate that students only embark on a piece of work having considered the destination of the task. However, most of us will at some point have found difficulties in getting students to properly plan their work. Often the only time the lack of a plan is revealed is when we view the finished product.

The answer to this problem may lie, at least in part, in the teaching of metacognition and self-regulation.

As the diagram above shows, planning is one element of metacognitive regulation and as such is one of the most important ways students can purposefully direct their own learning. The model above is essential a nine part model of thinking, as each part of metacognitive knowledge relates to each part of metacognitive regulation individually. So, when it comes to planning, there is planning linked to the task, planning linked to strategies and planning linked to self.

To exemplify this further if a highly metacognitive student was about to write a history essay, the sort of thought processes they would go through might look like this:

Planning & task:

  • What type of essay is this? Does it need a particular approach?
  • Is this an essay I need a conclusion for?
  • What was the feedback I was given last time I wrote one of these essays? How can I improve on that?

Planning & strategies:

  • What is the strategy for decoding these questions? Do I know all the steps?
  • How do I start my paragraphs?
  • What is my strategy for writing a clinching argument?

Planning & self:

  • Where do I get stuck when I’m writing essays? How can I unstick myself?
  • What are the parts I always forget when I’m writing. How can I remind myself?
  • I tend to run out of time because I lose focus. How can keep on track?

Some of this might be written down but much of it would be thinking and therefore hidden from us. I’ve used a history example as that’s my subject but the same process would apply to any subject and would equally apply to primary, secondary or further education. Planning doesn’t necessarily mean a written plan, it refers to how we think about the goal of our learning and consider how we will approach the task. That might be a written plan but doesn’t have to be.

The challenge is how we get more of our students going through the same mental checklists that the model student above has gone through in as many lessons as possible. The answer is the explicitly teach them how to do it. Some of our students will have picked up the ability to plan along the way in certain subjects as their teacher has modelled the processes they go through. However, the evidence on metacognition tells us that if we can explicitly teach the thinking we go through as experts, we have a greater chance of students following these processes. This means not just modelling the planning strategies you use, but also explaining why you use them and what you are thinking about as you’re using them.

One simple way to develop students’ ability to self-regulate their planning is to ask questions or give simple tasks that prompt them to reflect on planning and why it is worth doing. Some examples of these would be:

Planning & task:

  • How many parts could you split this task into?
  • What are the different skills that you have to demonstrate in this task?
  • Rank these skills from the ones you find easiest to the ones you find most difficult.
  • What feedback were you given the last time you completed a task like this?

Planning & strategies:

  • What strategies do you know that would help you plan for this task?
  • When we did this last time, which strategies worked and which didn’t?
  • Make a list of all the different things you are going to do to complete this task.
  • Pick apart this finished version (worked example), what makes it good?

Planning & self:

  • Where do you tend to get stuck?
  • How good are you are you at finishing in the given time?
  • Is this a task you find easy or difficult? Why?
  • How often do you make a plan on paper or in your head for these tasks?

These questions are obviously generic and the teaching of metacognition and self-regulation works best when it is done in a very domain or subject specific way. Therefore, my suggestion would be to adapt these questions to suit your context. Clearly, not all of them could be used all of the time as it would inhibit the practice you want to students to engage with, so a selective approach would be best.

Do not expect overnight results with this, as teaching students to be metacognitive planners is a long-term endeavour. However, with persistence we may just get them to think about the destination before boarding the train.

‘Chris Runeckles is an assistant headteacher at Durrington High School.  He is also an assistant director of Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on Metacognition and Memory

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