The secret to a strong departmentPosted: January 29, 2016
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?