Powerful Plenaries: An Interview with Oli Bailey-Davies

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Episode 70 of The Teaching Space Podcast is an interview with Oli Bailey-Davies discussing the use and impact of plenaries.

Introduction

Hello and welcome to the Teaching Space podcast. It's Martine here. Thank you so much for joining me. In today's episode I am excited to bring you an interview. I'm going to hand straight over to Oli and ask him to introduce himself to you, explain who he is, what he does and where he is in the world.

Martine: Hello Oli.

Oli: Hi, Martine. How are you?

Martine: I'm well, thank you for joining me.

Oli: Thank you for having me. Yeah, so I'm Oli. I'm a lecturer at the College of FE in Guernsey and I'm also the Artistic Director of a professional theatre company that's based at the college that I teach at as well.

Martine: And what are we going to be talking about today and why?

Oli: Today we have the exciting task of talking about plenaries and the impact of them on your students and on your classroom, I guess. And part of the reason I guess why you asked me to get involved in this is our college has just started a new observation kind of model, where we were asked to specifically think of one thing that we could impact our teaching or our students. We focused on that as part of our observation cycle. Mine was plenaries because I've always, since doing my teacher training sort of struggled with the concept of plenaries, especially in the performing arts context. I tend to stick them into my lesson plan and then never get to them.

Yeah. So I decided to focus on effective plenaries rather than tokenistic plenaries.

Martine: I'm excited to hear more about that. Bearing in mind the listeners to The Teaching Space Podcast will come from a variety of backgrounds, some will know what plenaries are and use them all the time. Whereas for some it might be kind of a newish concept, particularly people who are just embarking on teacher education for example. So could you just explain what a plenary is exactly, and why it's a good idea?

Oli: Sure. Plenaries are the sort of final task I guess of your session and they are a way of reviewing the learning to gauge, I guess students' understanding of the session. So it’s that kind of final task that you put in to summarise or review the whole session.

Martine: So in some respects it's a bit of formative assessment. It's a bit of recapping, it's a bit of summing up, all kind of amalgamated into one final activity.

Oli: Sure. It's almost like the umbrella of the sessions going, what did I want them to know? Have they understood it? What have I missed, or what haven't they got? I think it's a really good way, especially for teachers to ... I think it's almost more effective as a practitioner to be able to go, did I do my job today? Was I good at what I did? Or did they completely miss the point? I think sometimes you can do a whole session and you can really be like, "Oh my god, this is brilliant, this is amazing." And then you get to the final bit and they like they really didn't understand what I was trying to get to.

I guess in performing arts especially, sometimes we work perhaps in metaphors more, or concepts. We're sort of trying to ... We try and encourage people down a path, or down a journey, rather than saying here are a series of information that you must be able to remember by the end of this session. So sometimes what you think they've understood isn't actually what they've taken from your session.

Martine: I quite like the idea of using a plenary for both assessment, as in checking for learning, but also using it as a bit of an evaluation as well, in terms of working out the quality of what occurred in that lesson, in terms of your performance, and how you made that learning happen and things. So I think the idea of it kind of traversing those two aspects of teaching and learning is a really important point.

Oli: Yeah. And I think to me really, I think I'd almost personally put it that it's a reflection for me almost more than for the learners. I find looking at the sort of the effective of plenaries it's about saying, well have they got it? And if they haven't, then maybe you have to be a bit flexible and you go, okay, right next session I'm going to have to change my style to task. I'm going to do a review of my previous learning. Or maybe I'm going to have to do that whole session again in a completely different way, because they have fundamentally not got the key thing that I thought I was delivering perfectly.

Again, like within performing arts as a context, our lesson plans and our schemes of work have to be really flexible. Because you never know what's going to come up. Or you may plan to say block 10 pages, but you might get stuck on the first page. That's a whole session just on one page of text. So you have to be able to flex and wiggle your schemes to fit. I think the plenary is a really good way of checking in and going, "Have I done what I needed to do today?" Yes or no, and then and then from that, that will affect the next day or the next session or whenever you see them again.

I think self-reflection for staff is one of the most important parts of our development and also the biggest impact for students because you have to sort of not be the master of everything all the time and be prepared to be wrong.

Martine: Your point about self-reflection being so important for teachers is absolutely bang on and actually it's really valuable for students too. So if we can model that to them through our practice, I mean that sends a really powerful message. I get what you're saying about the need for fluidity within your sessions and kind of being able to adapt your scheme of work, that makes a lot of sense. But I guess if you're using say a starter activity and a plenary, it really marks the beginning and the end of the session as well. So where there could be a complete lack of structure, it creates a little bit of structure as well. Is that a benefit you've noticed as well or is that just me making things up?

Oli: Yeah, so I always choose a starter activity like when we play warm up drama warmup games, but I choose the games really specifically to show the skill that I need them to use that session. So it may look like an irrelevant game, but actually it's a really clear, well thought out plan. Although maybe not everybody would see it. So perhaps a game where they're learning a sequence or a pattern, but they have to use words and movement. Then we're going into blockings. It's like, okay, well you have to remember words and blocking and we warmed up your brain to remember muscle memory and spoken memory. So therefore it is a really underpinned theory to the silly game that we play at the start.

But what I've always struggled with is how to then mirror that at the end. The plenaries then have always become ... It's a ticket to leave, or it's one of the kind of the standard education games or activities that would kind of suggest. But it's never felt necessarily vocationally appropriate.

That's where I struggled, felt that I struggled with plenaries. But I also always, always, always run out of time. I get really overexcited and kind of like, we're like really focused on what's happening. And then suddenly, we sort of teach in two-hour blocks, that time has just disappeared. I barely look up at the clock.

Yeah, so I've always run out of time on my sessions and then would upload to Google Drive, or Google Classroom, the plenary task. It would tend to then blur into maybe a bit of sort of homework in a way. Or like a development tasks, going, "Maybe look at this." Or, "Can you comment on this?" Or often it was a sort of a review and comment on the work. So watch this video clip and then tell me two things that you may improve for next session. Or set yourself a target. Or whatever it is that I need them to do.

But again, it always sort of felt tokenistic and like I was trying to fulfil some kind of educational model that I must put in, otherwise I'm not an effective teacher. Whereas it didn't feel like it was necessarily doing the job that a plenary should, of kind of really being in that moment of assessing, or reviewing the learning of the session. Also to give me an understanding. I didn't feel like I was grabbing all of the best bits of the plenary.

Martine: With that in mind, you researched this as part of your college's or our college's professional development scheme, and there was an observation and things like that. What did you find out? What did you learn? Where are you now with plenaries?

Oli: So I think the main thing I learned, or the main thing I took from it was that I was doing really good plenaries, but I just wasn't calling it a plenary. That plenaries aren't necessarily some dark arts of education. That they are something that we naturally do, and we probably instinctively know how to do it. We don't necessarily have to carve out this additional task. Because if you are teaching, especially in a scaffolding approach, you're naturally taking away that support. Then by the end the students tend to have something that is a bit freer where they get to demonstrate their learning. That actually is your plenary. So we always, if I'm say directing a show, and I'm working on a scene, I'll go through the blocking, we'll talk about character choices. We'll look at moments that could be developed or ideas or thoughts. They try things out in three or four different ways. And I'd give them feedback and it's a very reciprocal process.

Then at the end of that moment, we would then put it all together and run it. Then I'd put a plenary task on the end to do something else. And it's like, well actually that run, that is the plenary task, because they they're showing me what they've learned, what they've remembered, and they're also demonstrating what I need to do next to help them improve.

Martine: That's such a great takeaway. So what you're saying is you actually were doing plenaries already. They were serving their purpose. They were part of your teaching and learning plan from the beginning. It was almost a case of putting a label on it. That's so interesting and a great reflection on your part, definitely.

Oli: It's definitely the thing of like, you know, we have, or I tend to favor the sort of the five minute lesson plan sort of structure. It visually works for me a bit better to have a bit more of a kind of a creative page in front of me when I'm thinking about planning my lesson. But you tend to have like certain amount of boxes for your tasks. Say there are five boxes and you're like, "Right, I must split my class into five. I'm going to do my starter task, and then I'm going to do my kind of introduction, and then I'm going to do an activity. Then I'm going to do activity two. Then I'm going to do my plenary." I don't know, I kind of sometimes go, sometimes my lesson is one task, but it's just a really big task that naturally flows from something that gets you into it, doing the activity and reviewing it.

For me, it's learning how to break that down into boxes, I guess, to be able to compartmentalise each section. I could theorise my practice loads and have so many tasks and reflection points and feedback points and peer reviews, and all these things that happen naturally. Or I could get on with my job. So that's, I think, the biggest takeaway I've had is going, if I need to now articulate in a really detailed way, my lesson structure, it's all there. But ultimately I also feel much more confident in going, I've done a plenary because we have reviewed the learning of this session, and I've seen what the students have taken away from it. What they've been able to apply straight away, and sort of looking at the development metacognition, and their ownership of the learning.

Most of my plenary tasks are much more meaningful because the students own it, rather than sort of arbitrarily filling in a form or a, I don't know, you know, sticking a post it on a wall. They've actually just gone, "No, I've done it. I've got it." Or, "I haven't got that bit, I need to work on that."

Martine: There's so much good stuff in there. I mean, when is it ever a good thing that we do something in order to tick a box? That really sounds like what we were doing, you know, I don't know, 24 months ago in terms of the old approach to lesson observations. Where it was performance management and you had to ... You know how lesson observations used to be, there was a formula to get an outstanding lesson observation. You have a starter activity, you have a plenary, you make sure there's plenty of assessment for learning, you don't do a lot of teacher talk, etc, etc. When is that ever good?

Oli Yeah, no, I think that's the thing. It definitely feels like, and I guess this ... Maybe it's an old school approach to kind of the fear of Ofsted, where you have to go through all these things, and there's a certain formula to do a perfect lesson. But I think also there's that thing of going, the perfect lesson is the lesson that needs to be taught. This is what they need right now, and this is how I need to do it. Of course you can be developed, and somebody can give you pointers and guidance on ideas, of how you could improve. But really I think especially in sort of creative subjects, where you just go, this is just what needs to happen right now.

I remember I was being observed, I had my formal lesson observation, and we were lighting the show. It just had to happen, it was the only day I could get into the theatre. The only day I could have the technicians. And that was the time that I was given for my observation.

My lesson plan was like literally one thing of going, I will sit with a technician and we will light the whole show from beginning to end, and the students will stand on stage and move when I tell them to. It was very old school chalk and talk, because they had to be pretty much silent. Do not say anything, until I ask you something, and do exactly what I tell you, when I tell you. Because that's the nature of vocation, what plotting the lighting run is. The observer was ... I just sat there sort of apologising in advance, going, "I'm really sorry, be as honest as you want to be honest, but this is ..." I kind of explained the situation.

I got really brilliant feedback and he really highlighted how independent the learners were. How they had ownership of all of their work. They knew exactly what was doing. We were working completely vocationally. We were working in symmetry. The students knew what I wanted them to do. They were able to adapt, they were resilient, they were resourceful. It was like, "Oh yeah, all that stuff is there and it does demonstrate teaching and it definitely demonstrates learning." But because working in the vocation environment, sometimes you feel like maybe you're not doing the perfect teacher job. And you feel that you should, you know, put more bells and whistles on it. Like there was no maths, I didn't ask them to count to eight whilst walking in time to the music.

Martine: And you didn't use an iPad. There was no iPad use.

Oli: There was no iPad use, there was just a lot of me shouting. That was pretty much it. But that again, that I professionally know and there's a point where, as a performer, you become a self-moving piece of furniture. It's “I don't need your opinion. I don't need you to tell me what the problem is. I need you to stand there so I can make sure the lights are on you, and that the technician can do their job. Right now your ego is not needed, thank you very much.”

Martine: If your learners don't learn that, then they are not going to be good actors who get hired, ultimately.

Oli: That's a really important thing. I mean we very much teach the importance of respecting your technicians. That's a big part of the industry, is, you know, sound and light are people who get given very little time to do their job. But ultimately they can mess you up on stage because if you annoy your lighting technician, they will turn your lights off before you finish speaking. Or they will not turn it on quick enough. There's lots of many ways that other people can mess you up whilst you're the one in front of the audience. So you have to really, I teach a lot of like, as an actor you are only one part of this production. It just happens to be that you're the one that gets all the glory. But really understanding the whole process is a valuable thing for our learning. But also just being able to be ... For somebody, an observer to come in and reflect back to you, that actually I've worked for 12 weeks on this production. I teach company as my core thing. That we're teamwork, I guess, and kind of more educational speak. But that they are there as a company of actors. They are there to work together and they are there as a collective, and that their individual ego isn't being serviced.

We get a lot of stars, or wannabe stars, and it's very difficult sometimes to put them in a box and go, "You're part of a bigger thing now, this isn't about you, this is about everybody." But that learning was then reflected back as a sort of almost towards the end of the process. It's like a summative way of showing that their professionalism is demonstrated more in that moment than it necessarily is when they're performing, because the professional attitude is just to be able to go, okay, this is what needs to happen and I need to do that now.

Martine: Going back to the observation process where you were doing this tech rehearsal and actually your observer was able to kind of highlight so many aspects of good practice there. I also think we need to give a nod to the experience of that observer, because clearly they weren't coming into your lesson with that kind of tick box approach. Where they wanted to see this, this, this, this, this and this. They obviously had a lot of experience and recognised good teaching and learning when they saw it.

Oli: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I feel at our college we are very lucky to have a very ... I guess because we're a vocational college, we have a really diverse teaching staff, who come from many different walks of life. Not many of them are educationalists, first and foremost, they come from industry and they come with lots of different perspectives. It's really nice, I think, at college when you get to go to areas that are completely different to what you would teach in. So you have zero opinion on kind of the content of the teaching. I have no idea whether or not that's how you effectively weld something together. But all I'm looking at is the delivery, the structure, the support, the information and the kind of environment. So I'm not going to go, "Well if it was me, I would ..." I was going to try and talk about welding then, you know, "I would do it slightly differently. I would hold it at this angle."

I don't know that, I haven't got that specialist information. But I can stay that instruction was really clear, that was a really supported ... I can see there was development, you know, those are the things. And so my observer was somebody who does have, I think quite often observed the performing arts area, and always really says ... Has said that they always enjoy sort of coming in and seeing a world that is completely far away from what they exist in normally. Actually that kind of that distance helps you to remove your own opinion or preconceived idea, and you just observe what's going on.

Martine: Absolutely, and I have to say, that is probably the best part of my job, because as a teacher trainer and assessor trainer, I get to see the most incredible teaching and learning happen. Not so long ago I was working with the local police force, and I was watching a firearms trainer assess other police officers shooting. It was such a privilege to be able to be in someone else's environment, and be allowed in. I think as teachers we can learn so much from watching other teachers in different environments. Ultimately, it is just teaching and learning. To make the connection with plenaries, it's much more of a concept than a specific set of games or tools or activities. It's about embracing the concept and making it work for your environment really, isn't it?

Oli: I think so, and I think, you know, you can go online and you can find a hundred effective plenary tasks, or the best plenary activities there are, or buy this and we'll give you loads of plenaries. But really it's working out what is the most effective for you as an individual, but also for the session that you're teaching. A ticket to leave, I keep using that one because it the one I remember the most from teacher training was like okay that's a good one to use, because it's sort of tangible. But that's not always going to be the most effective thing to use. I always worry about students feeling a sense of, "Oh okay, why am I doing this?" If it feels irrelevant then, they're not going to get anything from it, and they're just going to write down anything. I also think plenaries have always felt to me like they're the last five minutes of a session.

The last five minutes of the sessions are, you know, that as are people leaving, you know, really to me the other thing I took away is I tend to do my plenary, the activity really is, is probably three quarters of the way through the session. It's almost like you need a plenary and then an end task, like a fun thing to finish, or a don't forget. Or you know, parish notices, by the way, next week can you bring this in? Whereas it all tended to get very muddled on top of each other. Fill this in, do this, don't forget to do that. Somebody uploaded this, go for that. Can you make sure you stack the chairs away. Okay, bye. And it's like, what just happened? Nothing happened. Nothing was effective, nothing was learned, or no space was given to the reflective nature, I guess, of the plenary.

For the students to be able to go, okay, what have I taken away? What do I need? What did I get? Have I got a question? Like now is the time to ask the question. It's like going, I don't want you to sort of next week come back in and go, "Oh yeah, I forgot to ask at the end of last session, what was this?" It's like, no, ask me at that time. Ask me at that moment, so that we can nail it, or we can make a plan.

Martine: That's such a good point. That's such a good point about not having to have your plenary right at the very end. You know, why are you doing a plenary right at the very end? Because the books say you should. That's a really important takeaway that you've got to make it work for your learners and your topic.

Oli: I think also when I started teaching, or started my teacher training, I realized that I try and fit in a lot into my sessions. Or I want them to really kind of grasp loads of things from every single session, and it's like 20 different takeaways. Actually kind of go, okay, well, no I need to dilute that down. I need to be ... This session I'm really just going to focus on these two or three things. Then your plenary is going, did they get those two or three things? Are they ready for more? That sense of being able to sort of take a litmus test. Go, "Okay, cool. Where were we up to? Okay, we're up to here. Yeah, I can give these people more." Or that person's flying, I'm going to ask them to really work on these two or three things. That person has got no idea what day of the week it is, I need to pull this right back. Being able to gauge where each individual learner is up to means that your plenaries have to be purposeful, and not just like say, "Oh, the books tell me I must, in the last five minutes, do something. Quick, here's a post it note and a felt tip, draw your emotion. Slap it on."

Martine: Could you offer some advice or maybe any kind of resources to the listeners who are wanting to maybe investigate plenaries further, do a little bit of research, see how they could focus on that element of their practice?

Oli: So the best sort of resource that I found that really sort of helped me develop is the How to Teach range by Phil Beadle, I think his name is. There is a book called The Book of Plenary. That's a really good resource for understanding sort of the purpose of plenaries, I guess. Then there are loads of like ... The Teacher Toolkit is a really good place to sort of start. They've got links to the resource plenary resources. My advice really is take the structure of any of the activities, and work out how to adapt it to your session. Even if it's like for giving it a theme or kind of redesigning it slightly. I also think sometimes when as teachers you kind of go, I want to find the resource that I can just download, and just do, and then that's just done. It's the path of least resistance.

I think sometimes just taking five minutes to go, okay, well how could I just slightly re-imagine that, or make it work for what I'm teaching, would be really effective. So if you're on a topic, again, I'll go back to ticket to leave, which is just saying to somebody, "Write down two things that you've learned from this session, or two things that you're going to do. Or a task, something you must remember for next week." Or whatever. Can you fit that into your theme or your topic? How do you adapt things? Really, to me, I think, you know, primary school teachers to me are the absolute pinnacle of teaching pedagogy, really. Because they do this all the time. Constantly just adapt and mix up what they normally do to fit their topic, to fit their theme. Whether it's dinosaurs or Egypt, or whatever other topics there are.

They adapt their resources, and they just spend that time ... A friend of mine, we used to meet up in the evenings, and she used to arrive with pages and pages of laminated stuff that you'd be sitting chatting, and she's still cutting out her laminated things for the next day, because she's like, "I just need these resources, and I've got no time to make them." And primary school teachers to me seem to have, they just have that gift of going, "Here's an idea, and here's how I'm going to change it to fit what I'm doing." They probably use the same resource every term, or every topic, but they just twist it, and then they adapt it. That's something I think teaching older students, you get a bit lazy about. We go, well that's just that, you have it, and there's nothing you can do with it.

So my advice is definitely looking at making it meaningful. If your students needed to have learnt a series of 10 things, then the plenary needs to be, do you know these 10 things. Not don't deal in metaphors, and if a metaphor is not right, tell me, do you know this? If they need to be tested, test them, but maybe try and find a, I don't know, a fun way of testing them. You know, a physical Bingo, where everyone stands up, sits down, when you say a word, what's the definition? Loads of game shows have structures that work for education. Jeopardy is a great one where they give you the definition, you have to say what is the dah, dah, dah.

But yeah, if you need to test them, test them, but be explicit about it. If it's a gauging of where they're up to, then that can be a really diverse and fun way of doing it.

Martine: Oli that's great advice. Thank you so much. Any resources you've mentioned I will make sure I pop a link in the show notes to them, so people can access them easily. Before we wrap things up, I have one final question for you, and that is where can people find you online?

Oli: So I'm on Twitter as myself as OliGsy. That's where I tend to sort of interact the most with education stuff, information. But I'm also, I am the artistic director of a theatre company called TinWhistleProductions.com, where we run corporate training using improvisation and drama techniques.

Martine: Amazing. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. It's been a real pleasure and I hope you'll come back again soon.