Educational Fad: The Three-Part Lesson

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do your lessons follow a recipe?

Three-part lessons were a joke. Starters, middles and plenaries dominated every lesson going at one point and turned them into performance pieces we felt obliged to follow. Yet, these three-part acts were highly contrived and often got in the way of learning.

Three-course meals don’t suit everyone. Sometimes a starter can fill me up and be a meal in itself. Sometimes I don’t fancy a pudding. Then there are days when I’m so stuffed I don’t fancy much at all.

Three-part lessons attempted to make a meal out of learning and they certainly did that – they made a dog’s dinner of it. Teachers were groomed and trained into thinking that this was the way to go. In reality this was less Michelin-star more greasy spoon.

These three-parters were educational dogma sans poo bags.

Is Everything Okay With Your Meal?

Of course, a three-part lesson isn’t a total no-go. On occasions, a three-parter can work really well but not every lesson.

I found the three-course meal model led to all sorts of burps, hiccups and in some cases choking. Children felt rushed, I felt rushed and it got in the way of learning maths skills because we had stuff so much into a lesson it was like force-feeding. Plenaries became a joke and a pressure to do something. I hated these foie-gras lessons but there was a pressure to perform.

If you were really unlucky then you’d get an Ofsted visit and a report that said something along the lines of:

“The introductory part of too many lessons is too long, resulting in less time to develop main activities and conclusions. Too often, teachers do not leave enough time for a thorough plenary session to confirm pupils’ achievements.”

Teachers fussed over what dressings to put on their starters, what meat to serve in the main and whether to serve their dessert five ways.

Learn To My Recipe

Lessons need structure and planning but why three parts? It wasn’t long before teachers started to rebel and said “Here – you’ll have what you’re given, now eat!”

Teaching in three parts all the time was all a bit pointless because that wasn’t how children got to grips with things.

Tait Coles (2014) has a whole bunch of procedures, systems and routines that punk teachers can’t stomach and three-part lessons are one of them. He says they are “Probably the most damaging idea to creating great learning experiences – that and thinking that you can plan a lesson in five minutes.”

To do the three-parter properly required military training and precision that was uncalled for.

The fact of the matter is, there is little or no evidence to suggest any suitable model works other than quality first teaching from the outset. Changing the light bulbs three times in one lesson – what a waste of time. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

What other Fads have you wasted your time on? Read 20 Years of Educational Fads to find out.

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