What are “Steps to Success”?
Some years ago, we reviewed our lesson planning process. In response to concerns about staff workload and research about efficacy, we removed complicated and detailed lesson planning forms and focused on 4 key questions for teachers to plan to:
- What do you want them to learn and why?
- How do you know if they are ready to learn it?
- What are the best ways for them to learn it?
- How will you know how well it went?
At the heart of the planning process we agreed to approach planning using “Steps to Success” (S2S). These are not the learning objective, which may be an enquiry question or overarching goal for the lesson (or series of lessons). They are a simple, three part summary of what the students will learn in a lesson. They are not tasks, but statements of learning: the cognitive or skills development of the lesson. They are designed to be shared with students and referred to during the lesson at key hinge points.
So, for example, in a single history lesson, as part of the enquiry into “How stable was the Weimar Constitution?” I might have the following steps to success for a lesson on the Sparticist Uprising:
- Understand the political goals of the extreme left.
- Summarise the key events of the Sparticist Uprising.
- Assess the legality of the government’s response.
Each summarises a key development in my students’ knowledge of or thinking about the event which feeds into the wider enquiry of the unit on the Weimar Constitution.
In a skills-based lesson the S2S may focus more on what the students are learning how to do. For example:
- Identify key details of political cartoons.
- Explain details of a political cartoon using contextual knowledge.
- Draw inferences about attitudes in the past using political cartoons.
Admittedly the number 3 is somewhat arbitrary; in some lessons 2 or 4 steps to success may be more appropriate, and that is fine. However, in my experience, three is generally about right for our hour-long lessons so it remains our default.
Why are “Steps to Success” a helpful way to plan?
Embedding the Principle of Inclusion
One of the key values of the steps to success approach is that it embeds the principle of inclusion at the heart of our lesson planning. In the past a focus on differentiation has at times encouraged teachers to think about different outcomes for different students. For example, the ‘Must/should/could’ or “All/some/many” approaches to planning embedded the idea of different outcomes.
With our approach of shared steps to success for all learners, the emphasis is on scaffolding and the support learners need to achieve the same outcomes. To take my example above; some learners might need a different tool or activity to summarise the key events of the Spartacist Uprising. They may need different levels of support and different prompts. But if in my planning I am committed to making this accessible for all learners my focus becomes on how to facilitate this, rather than accepting that some will never make it.
Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of the Michaela School has argued that teachers should:
“Always judge yourself by the bottom 5 kids in the class, not the top 5. If the bottom 5 don’t get it, you need to reteach or do something differently. Make it your goal that ALL of them should get it whatever the minimum ‘it’ is.”
By designing steps to success that are shared by all students in the class we take the first step towards planning lessons that are truly inclusive, rather than differentiated by outcome.
Focusing on learning rather than tasks
Faced with the daunting task of keeping 30 teenagers under control and ‘productive’ for 60 minutes, it is quite natural to focus on activities that fill the time and keep things moving along. However this does not necessarily ensure that students are learning; their performance of tasks may keep us happy and have the appearance of meaningful activity, but this can be an illusion. It is a trap we can all fall into from time to time. Many things can lure us into thinking about tasks rather than learning: a busy week; a lesson we have taught many times; a challenging class.
But there are hundreds of activities I could fit into my lesson that do not achieve the core learning goal and focus the students on assessing the legality of the government’s response. Furthermore there are multiple tasks which could contribute to that cognitive process: debate; vote; answer a series of questions which explain our reasoning; or expressing their judgement in a series of colourful emojis. Different teachers might make different choices at this point – and why not? Most of these could conceivably help students to achieve the key mental goal of assessing the constitutionality the government’s response.
However, so long as we have a clear and shared concept of the important learning behind the activity, we can support our students, evaluate their success and plan different task with confidence that the meaningful learning is a shared experience across classes and groups.
Planning through the steps to success model ensures that my focus from the very start of the lesson planning process is where it needs to be: on the important learning.
Assessing the Learning Effectively and Efficiently
Once the steps to success are clear and embedded in the planning, the assessment of learning becomes a lot easier. Strong S2S clearly identify what our students need to know, understand or be able to do in order to have succeeded. One of the reasons for sharing the S2S with students is that they can then start to self-assess their own confidence in the learning at each turning point in the lesson, and seek help where needed.
Of course we can’t rely on students to do this, but the steps to success act as useful “hinge points” in our lesson delivery. We can judge whether students have learned what we want and whether the lesson is ready to move forwards. The nature of this assessment will vary from subject to subject but it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or formal. Using inclusive, whole-class assessment (multiple-choice questions, key concepts onto mini-whiteboards or similar) we can focus our assessment on the relevant step to success and confirm that our teaching has been successful.
If not, we can make adjustments to our teaching and address the problem before misconception piles onto misunderstanding and the gap widens for our most vulnerable learners.
Inclusive planning does not mean pitching low. Steps to success can be as ambitious as we are for our students. However they work to give us a sharp focus on the powerful learning in the lesson and key checkpoints to ensure that our students’ skills and understanding are developing in the way we planned. I would sooner be ambitious, fall short and make adjustments than have S2S that every student gets easily and which lack challenge. However if I am regularly falling down in the same way this may help me to reflect on and improve my own planning and delivery.
Of course, steps to success isn’t the only way to plan a lesson effectively. However we believe that a shared approach is helpful to our community. This level of consistency should not be unduly onerous and gives us a shared dialogue, terminology and approach to planning that makes it easier to support each other, share resources and focus on learning goals rather than activities. For the students it gives a sense of consistency across learning to help them understand the deeper learning: not what we want them to do but why they are doing it.
And with a shared understanding of the purpose of a lesson, everyone involved (students, teachers, TAs, faculty leads) can then focus on what is really important – helping every student to achieve the next step to success in their learning.
Some key questions that help me to devise my steps to success?
Am I thinking about a task/activity right now or am I focused on the actual learning?
What do I want to change in my students’ heads this lesson: what is the key knowledge or understanding or skill I want them to develop or build on?
How will I ensure that every student can achieve this development, regardless of need or starting point?