The secret to a strong department

I started my career as teacher in North-West London in 1997. I began work in a science department where every topic at each year level had a lesson-by-lesson scheme of work. These were variable. At best, a scheme would give detailed guidance on what to teach, what activities to use and so on. At worst, there would be a lesson name, an associated practical activity and nothing else. As a new teacher, I found the former far more helpful than the latter. Faced with a blank page, I was overloaded. ‘What do the experienced teachers do here?’ I wondered. In these circumstances, I sought advice; a time-consuming and inefficient process of catching someone in a corridor or office and getting them to tell me something that could easily have been written down. I was quite capable of planning a lesson myself but I knew that it might not be as good or might not achieve quite the right objectives.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of different departments. The best ones have planning documents that include a high degree of lesson-by-lesson detail. The worst ones give  teachers a list of five vague themes to cover in a term and let them get on with it with very little guidance. In my experience, this is not something that divides along teacher-led versus child-centred lines. The schemes of work in my first science department were distinctly constructivist in their approach whereas other well-planned departments have used more explicit approaches.

This experience has informed my own practice. At the start of 2015, I began teaching a VCE subject for the first time. I was teaching alongside a colleague who had a long and successful track record with the course. I wanted to capture and document exactly what he did in as much detail as possible because I wanted to do the same. Why wouldn’t I want to do that?

I used to think that departments that did not plan in a systematic way were simply disorganised; a bit of a shambles. This may be the case. However, I now realise that teachers have developed all sorts of rationales (or rationalisations) to explain this. These come under two themes that are usually linked in any discussion.

Firstly, teachers claim that they need a certain amount of autonomy. This is related to flawed notions of what it means to be a professional. It is often claimed that this autonomy is required in order to respond to the particular needs of the children in any given class; needs that may be different from the students in other classes. Joint planning is characterised as marching students through a curriculum that may not be suitable for their current stages of development.

I also suspect that many teachers like to do what they like to do and herein lies the danger: Imagine I am not comfortable with a key part of the curriculum and I have enough autonomy to de-emphasise it or even miss it out. Things might not get taught.

Joint plans actually have many advantages. For instance, they help to manage workload. If there are four teachers in a teaching team, and they have nothing to start with, then each teacher needs only plan a quarter of the lessons. This is a big gain on planning all of them. The other teachers may then focus on improving these lessons or writing quality lessons of their own rather than recreating each lesson, on their own, late at night, from scratch.

Children are not as different from each other as is sometimes supposed. A really good explanation of chemical equations is a really good one for pretty much all students. We could say the same about a great passage to read on the battle of Bosworth or a way of practising the construction of complex sentences. Teachers may vary the pace or give additional guidance – this is not an argument for fully scripted lessons – but on exactly what basis does a teacher decide to ignore or change something that has been jointly planned? What evidence would he collect and how would he know that his alternative is better? If it really is better then it is likely to be better for all the students in the cohort and so this activity should replace the activity in the joint plan.

The autonomy argument is a castle built on sand. The cost is everyone spending loads of time planning their own idiosyncratic lessons from scratch. The gain is unclear.

However, it is important to note that joint planning needs to be effectively led. You cannot rely on teachers passing resources to each other on the basis of goodwill. Inevitably, someone will end up doing more than their fair share, resentment will build and this may eventually lead to people keeping their stuff to themselves. Strong, joint planning is therefore a sign of a strong department. It is the sort of thing that senior leaders should be looking for instead of bowling into lessons demanding card-sorts, group-work and ‘engagement’.

This is why I was heartened to read a young maths teacher explain the advantage of joint planning. Freed from scrabbling to create last-minute worksheets, she can focus instead on the craft of the classroom; on building productive relationships:

“After a term, I was amazed by how much maths knowledge the kids had retained. It, of course, came down to how hard the kids have worked, but it also came down to consistently good teaching. Yet this was only possible because I had not planned anything. My focus has been on developing my subject knowledge and teaching the kids, not writing three-page lesson plans, or making resources that would have been of sub-standard quality anyway because I do not have the expert knowledge of my HoD.”

I cannot think of a better way to induct a new teacher into the profession. It is hard to develop expertise when you have to focus on everything at once.

Does your department require you to constantly reinvent the wheel or does it provide robust joint planning so that you can benefit from the wisdom of your colleagues?

Planning

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19 Comments on “The secret to a strong department”

  1. Finlay says:

    Hi Greg,
    I would suggest that all the advantages of ‘joint planning’ are met by the use of a carefully selected textbook, backed by a teaching schedule prepared to match the textbook’s running order.
    What are your thoughts?

    • gregashman says:

      If the textbook is good quality then I would agree that it can be the centre of planning. I’d probably say that there’s a little more to the teaching schedule part. My lessons don’t just follow the plan of a textbook, largely because I want to avoid redundancy between the textbook presentation and the lesson.

  2. fish64 says:

    I usually agree with your posts, but have doubts about this one. Not everyone teaches in the same way. Not everyone is comfortable doing a task in exactly the same way, or using the same sort of activities. My department uses a textbook as the basis for a scheme of work and we list the core knowledge and topics to be covered over the course of a particular unit of work, in line with the text book, but going beyond it occasionally. At the end of each unit there is a common assessment. Other than that, teachers can teach how they like. Overly detailed lesson planning leads to teachers getting flappy if they miss a lesson or part of a lesson for any reason, (help – what do I do – the class were late and I didn’t have time to do Ex 20 on. P.31 and I am supposed to do it in the sixth lesson!) rather than being professional and deciding which activities could be shortened or left out. I once rejected a job offer at a school which did not have textbooks, but had detailed plans for every lesson using a complex array of “resources”. Being fairly traditional, I tend to shy away from “carousel” activities, yet I would have been forced to use them once a week in that school. The head of department got the best results as she was using her own scheme of work; everyone else seemed rather disempowered and somewhat grumpy, although they tried to hide the fact.

    • gregashman says:

      Yes. I suppose a poor plan is not a good plan, even if shared. My emphasis is on *joint* planning where members of the team have input.

      • Faisal says:

        That linked TES article isn’t about joint planning though?

        You say ‘heartened to read a young maths teacher explain the advantage of joint planning’. It reads to me as a defence of a system where one person, with the most knowledge, does all of the planning on behalf of the department?

      • gregashman says:

        Yes. This is due to the specific circumstances of Michaela where, for the first year, the department was just one person.

  3. Disaster Area says:

    My aim when planning a unit is to provide enough of a framework for non-subject specialists to benefit from my experience. If they don’t want to use my resources then they can develop their own.
    It does seem to me that sometimes teachers moan about the amount of planning and then don’t take advantage of shared resources.
    My Department has some work to do and I’m going to suggest this joint planning approach. I have a beginning teacher, a trainee, a non specialist, a primary trained teacher and someone who is semi retired. It could be intersting to pair people up.

  4. I agree that well planned units of work and accompanying resources are very helpful for newly qualified or inexperienced teachers. They do have to be well planned however and effective delivery of lessons will be dependent on that teacher being supported by their curriculum leaders beyond providing them with those planning materials. For more experienced teachers it can lead to work that us unfulfilling. In my opinion a strong curriculum department has a leader that draws together the strengths of each member of that team so that everyone contributes to the materials used in class. Those conversations and the collaboration that occurs builds a strong department that works towards common goals. A leader who does all the work and then distributes it to their team for delivery is under utilising their power as a leader to build capacity, knowledge and leadership in their team. This is as important in a strong department as successful outcomes for students.

    • gregashman says:

      I have not suggested that the leader does all the work. I also think that schools are not necessarily there to make teachers feel fulfilled. However, I feel fulfilled in contributing to my team’s plan.

  5. Mark says:

    I agree that individual planning by teachers can lead to over-excessive workload. However, I have watched countless teachers attempt to teach to a scheme, or a department-made plan, without any real idea of how learning was to be crelated there: as they hadn’t planned it themselves, they didn’t own it sufficiently. I worry that this de-skills them. Talking to them after the lesson, they struggle to explain why they do some things, not others; they dare not leave anything out, so rush through, regardless of the shakes of the head they get from some students.
    I just don’t believe there is a single ‘best way’ to teach a thing. A teacher confronts a class, or pupils within it; they work out what the barriers to learning are and they construct (or co-construct) ways around them. This is hard to do. It takes experience and expertise that can only come about as a result of practising how to put learning together. That’s great when it can happen jointly, and in the best departments that’s exactly what will happen.

    • gregashman says:

      The first point – if a teacher doesn’t understand why they are doing something then either the plan is poor or this is a professional development issue that needs to be addressed.
      On the second point – I am deeply skeptical that there are many ways to teach things that are equally effective and that teachers can choose between these to suit their students. What evidence would they use? How would they know it’s better for their students? I suspect this is just an excuse to plan lessons that suit what the teacher wants to do. That

      • Yes, I think you are correct in both your points. This is merely incidental evidence, but I was always intrigued by students, taught by different members of staff with considerable ‘freedom’, coming to joint revision sessions and agreeing that one particular way of grasping a certain chunk of knowledge was more powerful. Considering the first point, there should be no excuse for a teacher teaching a lesson from a plan without grasping it thoroughly. If it is on a scheme of work as “we think this is probably the best way of getting this knowledge or substantive concept across”, the teacher should have the working knowledge of their subject to be able to a) understand that rationale and b) have already critiqued it, if they feel it is not hitting the spot. Coming from a department that used this method of detailed joint planning, members of staff simply didn’t have this issue: the central premise to the plan had been discussed in advance, even if only briefly, and after teaching the lesson, informal debriefing sessions occurred regularly as we all got together to debate whether it had the success that we planned for and whether the lesson needed adjustment in the light of new understanding. Of course, we had teachers who chose to opt out of this and “do their own thing”, but I did not hear a powerful argument from them as to why their way was superior. I suspect (in the cases I faced) that it was a smoke screen for a lack of desire to *really* engage with the subject and what it meant to teach it effectively.

  6. fish64 says:

    All this “joint planning” sounds wonderful, but, just as when children do group work, one or two loud voices predominate and quieter, more modest teachers who may feel that their idea is not so wonderful retreat into the background. I agree with Finlay that a decent textbook is ideal if you can find one, to form the basis of a scheme of work. I also agree that resources should be shared, but I am not so arrogant as to think that my resources will always be better simply because I have more experience – I have borrowed resources from NQTs! Experience is more relevant to things like classroom management, the timing of tasks and areas where children are likely to have difficulty – that is where the advice of the department head is crucial.

  7. Chester Draws says:

    I prefer a checklist approach, to ensure that the teacher gets through all the material expected, and at the level intended. Our department has these for its courses, and the new teachers and part timers really like them.

    Pooled resources then help with individual lessons. Textbooks, for those that like them, cover the rest.

    I would shy away from scripted lesson order though. I tend to teach topics very quickly, then spend some time circling around them investigating then deeper. Other teachers don’t seem to be able to deliver the material like that. There’s no middle ground really.

  8. harrysblakey says:

    Just have to ask those arguing against group planning – you don’t ask your students to do group work for the same reasons right?

    • fish64 says:

      No, but in my experience it is often the quiet, modest teachers who are the most effective, rather than the person who is always saying “I’ve got a brilliant idea for doing X and it works really well.” Really? For whom? And with whom? Plan jointly for assessments and what will be assessed, yes. Plan jointly for precisely what will be taught and how it will be taught in each lesson, no – that just leads to loss of initiative.

  9. julietgreen says:

    There is a culture of individual schools and individual teachers finding their own way to do things. The current assessment guidance is a classic example. They set supposed, but vague, high standards but don’t give us the means to do it, falling back on schools devising their own systems. I call this (and criticise it as) the ‘pot luck approach’. It’s rife in English education and it does nobody any favours in the end.


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