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Planning the lesson structure

“When developing a lesson, think about how you are going to plan for learning rather than how you plan to teach.”

Mark Harris (2017)

Topics on this page:

The elements of lesson structure | Lesson starts | Explore ideas for geography ‘starters’ | Building on students’ prior knowledge and experiences | Instruction Learning activities | Plenary | Concluding the lesson | Presenting the lesson plan | Where is the geography? | Reading

Introduction

Look at the opening quote. Mark Harris recounts that this made him change his approach to lesson planning. He continues:

‘I used to make this mistake in my early career: my planning was centred on me, what would I say and what exciting resources would I make. There was little regard for the actual learning that would be taking place; it was focused on my teaching. I would produce some wonderful work-sheets yet fail to consider if they were really challenging for the students, or if they already knew the content, or even if they could access the work. As soon as I changed my thinking from ‘I’ to ‘them’ my teaching drastically improved. How can I challenge them, how can I support them and how will I question them?’ 

Mark Harris 2017 p 15

Take notice of this if you want to be a good geography teacher. You must emphasise planning for learning. The aims, content and objectives will provide the purpose for your lesson. Focus your planning on how to translate these into a plan for learning geography.

Your pre-planning brainstorm will have identified ideas to choose from and you will have researched what resources are available. You must decide how best to use all of this to structure the lesson and sequence the learning that you want students do so.

The elements of lesson structure

There are two main approaches used to plan geography lessons.

  • Objectives-led; the teacher shares the learning objectives with students and structures the lesson to lead them to acquire that learning.
  • Enquiry-led; the students are posed a key question that they seek to answer through the lesson activities.

Both are good approaches for geography lessons; you should choose the one that is most appropriate for the specific content being taught and the needs of the students.  Objective-led lessons are often more appropriate where explicit instruction in new content is required.

Enquiry-based approaches work best when students have some prior knowledge of the underlying concepts but need to develop deeper understanding and think geographically to connect it with other knowledge. Enquiry-led lessons are a powerful way to explore geographical issues.

On this webpage we concentrate on planning objectives-led lessons. See Planning for enquiry for details of how to plan enquiry-led lessons.

As you plan the different parts that make up a geography lesson, you will need to think carefully how these parts link together to achieve the lesson aim. It can help you plan if you consider how each part contributes towards specific lesson objectives. But, in the end, the lesson needs to be considered as a whole.

You will need to consider:

  • The start of the lesson – Where are the students starting from? How will you introduce the lesson, set the scene for the new learning and link it to what they have done before.
  • What instruction is required for new content? How you will introduce the concepts and content of the lesson? How will you present this?
  • What activities do you want the students to engage in for guided practice and independent practice? Are you sure these relate to the lesson objectives? How will you get students to think hard about the geographical concepts that are the focus of the lesson? What opportunities will they have to practise specific skills. What do you want students to achieve from the activities?
  • How will know when they are learning? Look for opportunities to check students’ understanding and identify any misconceptions?
  • Linking elements together. Consider transitions between different episodes of the lesson, timings of each section and how you will draw things together to review learning and identify next steps.
  • Balance in your teaching approachMost lessons will include a range of teaching approaches e.g. a mixture of exposition, questioning, repetition, practice and retrieval of key knowledge and skills.

We discuss each of these elements below and you will soon realise that there are many options. Geography lessons have no set pattern.

Think about these points from Dylan Wiliam before you start to plan your lesson structure:

Two important things to bear in mind as you plan are selectivity and flexibility.  Be prepared to be selective in the lesson content. You will find that there is so much geography that you could include in a lesson!  Too much information it will lead to cognitive overload and reduce effective learning.

Also, be prepared to be flexible when you teach the lesson. If the activities are just not working, or students pursue another direction you had not thought of, but realise that would be more worthwhile, then be prepared to adapt to enable the best learning. Careful planning is important, but do not ignore the unpredictable that can lead to excellent learning.

Lesson starts

The start is very important for a successful lesson. The teacher must settle the class and introduce the lesson clearly. They should make links with earlier learning, inform students of the purpose of the lesson and what they will be learning, as well as what they will be expected to do in the lesson.

Teachers tend to talk about good lesson ‘starters’. It has to ‘hook’ students’ interest, provide challenge and fully involve all of them. Consider how you will reveal the purpose of this lesson to the students. Be enthusiastic about the topic and them learning about it. Show how it will link with previous learning and set clear expectations for what will take place in the lesson.

Richard Bustin (2017) writes:

‘Beginnings of lessons can be magical moments – students may ask incredibly insightful questions, or make an assertion that needs challenging – and a good geography teacher will give time and space for these to be addressed.’

Margaret Roberts distinguishes between a starter activity and using a stimulus at the beginning of a lesson:

‘The main purpose of starter activities is to get all students involved in an activity at the start of the lesson; the main purpose of a stimulus is to create interest in what is to be studied. Starters emphasise an activity whereas a stimulus emphasises geography.’

 (Roberts, M. (2013))

The recent geography subject report (Ofsted, 2023) revealed that most geography lessons start with retrieval practice. While there the retrieval starter has its place as a powerful memory aid and in supporting long-term retention of knowledge, it does not create genuine curiosity at the start of a lesson or a ‘need to know’ as suggested by Bustin and Roberts in the quotes above.  

Initial stimulus material (ISM) is more than just a starter activity.  It is selected by the teacher with the purpose of sparking intrigue and debate and to be a springboard for enquiry.

  • Refer to examples of starter activities in Bustin (2017) p 128 Fig 4.
  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 45-6, which discusses ‘starters’ and gives examples of different types of initial stimulus material (ISM).
  • Read Baker and Sittner (2024) and note the feedback from trainee teachers on their use of ISMs in the classroom.

Whether you think of it as a ‘starter’ or ‘stimulus’ it must get students’ thinking right from the start of the lesson. There are many resources in the public domain for starting geography lessons, especially on the internet. Some are excellent, but there are also many of dubious educational value. Before you use an activity, reflect on whether it has value as a geography stimulus or is it merely an activity to keep students busy?

Explore ideas for geography ‘starters’

Look at the following suggestions to identify some imaginative ways you can start lessons on the topics you will be teaching in the next few weeks.

  • Refer to Davidson (2006) and Harris (2017) Chapter 4 for ideas for starting lessons and Rogers (2017) Ideas 2, 78.
  • Look at this example of a lesson taught in Aston Academy in Sheffield that illustrates some of these principles in practice. It was the first lesson in a sequence that explored how young people see their world and how they talk about places and part of a GA project Making my place in the world. See this PowerPoint presentation and the associated lesson plan.
  • Images make excellent resources for starters. Look at the GA manifesto activities for some inspiration.
  • Starter activities from the GA’s Making my place in the world project. These are intended to get pupils talking about their local area and their hopes for the future. The activities also helped to find out how sophisticated pupils’ vocabularies were.
  • See Fuller (1998) which has ideas that can be used for retrieval practice to recall previous learning at the start of lessons.

Building on students’ prior knowledge and experiences

A lesson should build on what students know and you should make links with prior learning and at the start of the lesson. Margaret Roberts believes that good geography teaching is about connecting with students’ minds and prior experiences (see Good geography lessons).

Find out through initial discussion, what students already know – from other geography lessons, other subjects, even their holidays? Do not overlook their ‘personal geographies’ gained through their direct and indirect experiences of the world. Is the information they have brought with them accurate, or do they show misunderstanding or hold stereotypical or biased views? (See Geography for young people).

One way of finding out what students already know is through brainstorming or using spider diagrams (see Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms). Or ask students, individually or in groups, to represent their ideas in a pictorial diagram; for example, asking them to produce their own diagram of the greenhouse effect, will reveal what is misunderstood as well as what is understood.

Concept mapping, where students are asked to show links between ideas, is another means to elicit understanding of prior learning early in a lesson. The starter tasks what are they saying? and what are they thinking? suggested by Harris (2017) can be used in this way or you could use a mind map. You will find out more by ‘listening in’ to students’ discussions as they work on tasks.

Researchers have shown that when we recall information from memory it makes it easier to access later and that new information should fit with our existing knowledge (schema). See Geographical learning and memory. Therefore, it can help to consolidate learning if the start of a lesson includes an element of recall (retrieval practice).

This could be in the form of a short quiz or questions that get students recall and apply previous learning. The questions should cover concepts and knowledge they will use in the lesson. For example, before a lesson on coastal erosion you might include questions about types of rock and weathering.

A word of warning: the starting episode of the lesson should be short, so do not get carried away and try to do too much.  Make the starter punchy, grab their interest, link it with the recall of previous learning and make it clear to students what they will learn in today’s lesson. Then move on.

Building on students’ prior knowledge and experience should be borne in mind throughout the lesson. You should always look for evidence of prior learning and provide flexible opportunities within lessons for students to consolidate what they already know as well as to practise applying new knowledge and skills.

Instruction

A key episode in a lesson is when a teacher ‘instructs’ students in the new content they are introducing in the lesson.  How you do this will depend on the specific concepts you are teaching.  How can you make your explanation interesting?  Is modelling a good option for explaining a process? Do you need props, or visual materials to support your presentation?

Think about what you have learned about how students learn as you plan your instruction episode. Start from the point of current student understanding. Break down complex material into smaller steps so that it can be more easily understood. 

Make explicit links to prior knowledge so that pupils can more easily connect it to their existing schema. As you present your instruction, reduce distractions as much as possible, such as superfluous explanations or visuals.

Think about:

  • How can I draw explicit links between this new content and core geographical concepts?
  • What will I do to explain the topic?
  • If I need to explain it a second time, what will I do to illustrate the topic in a different way?
  • How can I engage students in this?
  • What relevant real-life examples, analogies, or situations can I use to help students understand the topic?
  • What will students need to do to help them understand the topic better?

Questioning will be an important part of the instruction. How can you include a range of types of questions to extend and challenge pupils? What questions will you ask individuals to make sure the students understand what you are teaching? 

You might find it helpful when you start to prepare some open-ended questions. Decide how you will ask them and what you will do if your students don’t or can’t answer these questions. How will you probe their thinking? Try to predict the answers your questions will generate. (See Teacher-led questioning)

When planning your lesson try to anticipate what questions students may ask during your instruction part of the lesson. What kinds of questions will be productive for discussion and what questions will only divert the lesson? How are you going to cope with the latter?

Remember what you know about I-We-You and using guided practice. Presenting new materials in small steps with opportunities for students to practice after each step. For example, you could ask students to explain a concept to each other in ‘pair and share’.

As you plan this part of the lesson estimate approximately how much time you will spend on each episode. Identify strategies you can use to check for understanding. When you teach the lesson, you might find you need a little more time for extended explanation or discussion, or you might find you can move on quickly because they have understood the new concepts.

How are you going to sequence the content of the lesson so that students secure a basic understanding of the new content before they encounter more complex ideas?

Learning activities

This is the independent practice element of the lesson and you might decide to break it down into different activities, or use a longer task. Have it clear in your mind how an activity relates to one or more lesson objectives? There are many things to bear in mind here. Are there particular skills you want the students to practice? What are the most appropriate tasks to support students to learn key ideas securely?

Plan activities around the content that you want students to think hard about, so that they have to process and use the new geographical knowledge. Decide what resources are needed and how you will manage the activity. Is the task best done collaboratively or solo? Consider whether you need to provide scaffolds. What outcome are you looking for? How will you introduce the activity and make your expectations clear to students?

You will need to plan an appropriate sequence of geographical learning activities in your lesson to help students make progress and to develop geographical understanding. When you plan your early lessons, discuss these choices with your geography mentor. They can advise you on aspects such as time management, differentiation and assessment.

Use these prompts

  • How are you going to organise resources, groups, discussions?
  • Are there any elements that you need to manage carefully?
  • How will you use any teaching assistants?
  • How will you manage the transitions between episodes?
  • Is each teaching and/or learning activity building on the previous one to progress geographical learning?
  • Activities should be focused on geography you want students to think hard about.
  • Are you providing sufficient opportunity and time for students to consolidate and practise applying new knowledge and skills?
  • Ensure that there is a thinking element involved in activities such as ordering, sorting, grouping or matching.
  • Have students the required knowledge to participate fully in the activities?
  • Minimise the complexity of tasks so students don’t need to remember lots of steps.
  • For more complicated tasks, write the steps which pupils need to remember on the board and leave them there so pupils can refer back to them during the task.

Your plan needs to show how you have adapted the lesson to meet student needs and you can find out more about this in Adaptive teaching. Also, if you have a teaching assistant available to support learners in the lesson, you need to plan how you will use them effectively. See Working with teaching assistants.

During the activity you will monitor learning, intervene to correct errors or provide further explanations or examples. But give space for student thinking and discussion before you ‘jump in’. Stand back and observe and listen first. 

For example, the task might involve interpretation of a map or analysis of data and they need time to focus on this without interruption. Remember that good learning can result when students ‘struggle’ a little with new concepts and talk is powerful for clarifying understanding.

When you do intervene, make this purposeful. Use it to check understanding and be prepared to push the student thinking further. It helps if you put some suggested prompts in your plan that you might use to take students to the next level, or further examples to explain if you need to.

You will draw an activity to a close when students have learnt the intended concepts and understandings. This is more important than all ‘completing’ the task. Accept that some students might not finish it.

  • Read What’s the point? by Mark Enser where he discusses how his year 7 class had something of a revelation when they began to think beyond ‘doing the work’ and realised that they needed to learn.

Consider what the activity will lead on to. Will you expect a response orally later in the lesson, or in writing, perhaps in homework? This should be more than just ‘finishing off’, but it could involve writing up what they found out e.g., from using a concept map or table they created in the activity. 

One of the things that you will discuss with your mentor is the pace of your lessons. This is an area to focus on as an early career teacher.

Plenary

A plenary is when a teacher draws together the whole class to review the learning. Often this it thought of as something that happens at the end of the lesson. But it is often better to take stock of the learning at appropriate points, such as immediately after an activity, before you move on to the next episode. If a plenary is left to the end of the lesson, it will be too late to do anything about any misconceptions.

  • Plan opportunities to review and practice key ideas and concepts during the lesson, for example by carefully planning your use of questions or structured talk activities.

Plenaries can be used to share students’ work. A plenary should be active, engaging and challenging. In particular it should highlight what students have learned. Explicitly ask questions to find out what students can recall and what they understand.  Ask them to think about how they approached the task and what problems they met. By listening, you will know if you have met your lesson objectives and determine if any action needs to be taken.

If it is appropriate, a plenary may include debriefing. This is a reflective discussion and needs more time than a brief plenary to allow serious reflection and discussion. Debriefing involves students’ metacognition and bridging, where students transfer concepts and reasoning to other geographical topics (See Debriefing in geography).

Concluding the lesson

Leave enough time for a proper conclusion to the lesson. The purpose it to consolidate what has been achieved and extend learning ready to move students to the next lesson. Summarise the main points of the lesson. 

You can do the summary or you can ask a student to help you, or you can ask all students to jot down what they have learnt or ‘pair and share’. You might use the time for a quick quiz to recall the main points. As well as reviewing, look forward to the next lesson which will help students to connect ideas.

  • Refer to Harris (2017) Chapter 15 Strengthening bonds: how to tie the learning together.

Presenting the lesson plan

To be effective, a lesson plan does not have to be an exhaustive document that describes each and every possible classroom scenario. But it must provide you with an outline of your aims, content and learning objectives, and the means to accomplish good geographical learning. It is a reminder of what you want to do, how you want to do it and what you want students to learn.
  • Refer to the example lesson plan in Figure 3.4 p 88 of Biddulph et al (2021).

Look at how the objectives, rationale and links with prior learning have been written carefully and precisely in the introductory section of the plan. The rationale is particularly explained but, rather oddly, the plan does not have specific aims for the lesson. It should have. The definition of the overall purpose of the lesson is absent, apart from in the title, although it has been clearly broken down into the smaller steps for objectives.

Study how the lesson content has been set out to show visually that each timed episode has a specific activity.  The related actions have been planned in detail and link across to the specific geographical learning. This example includes differentiation (your plan does need to show how you have adapted the lesson to meet student needs and you can find out more about this in Adaptive teaching).

In this example, the geography section is particularly well considered. Notice how the geography detail is far more than listing the key words, concepts and processes. The teacher has recorded the emphasis to be given to the geography e.g., complexity of sea level change, interlinking of the drivers of change, its contemporary nature.

The link between learning objective, activity and geographical learning are obvious. You might find it useful to annotate the links between objectives and geographical learning when you begin to create your own plans.

Creating the plan is the important part. It helps you to link lesson episodes and objectives together, identify prompts (e.g., examples, questions, organisation), sequence activities and think about timings. Estimate the time for each of the activities, then plan some extra time for each. You are most likely to overrun because the unexpected happens in lessons, but plan an extra activity or discussion question or quick quiz just in case you have time left.

Share your plan with students by telling them explicitly what they will be learning and doing in the lesson. A clearly visible agenda (e.g., on the board) can help students, and you, stay on track.

These are three types of planning to avoid:

  • Activity-focused planning. This is when a teacher finds an activity and builds the lesson around it rather than starting with the learning objectives.
  • Coverage-focused planning. This is where a lesson is planned to ‘cover’ content without paying sufficient attention to what your students need to learn. Coverage-focused planning can result in unnecessary repetition of content or students not making any sense of the content because they did not have sufficient prior understanding.
  • Over-planning. Too many objectives, too many activities or too much content.

Where is the geography?

When you think you have finished your lesson plans, have a final check that geography is in the forefront of the lesson. Are you being explicit about the intended geographical learning? What geographical data are you planning to use?  How will the lesson develop students’ geography? 

Biddulph et al (2021) suggest you take a highlighter pen to your plan and highlight where you have outlined the geographical content. If there is not much geography detail highlighted, it needs attending to!

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021), Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge. Chapter 3.
  • Bustin, R. (2017) ‘Teaching a good geography lesson’ in Jones, M. (ed), The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical AssociationChapter 11.
  • Davidson, J. (2006) ‘Start at the beginning’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Fuller, M. (1998) ‘Energising geography lessons’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge.
  • Morrison McGill, R. (2018) ‘Lesson planning, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching) June.
  • Rogers, D. (2017) 100 ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons, Bloomsbury Education.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September