Most primary teachers’ planning is poor.

I figured that since this is going to be an unpopular blog, I might as well start off with the worst of it and prepare myself for the flack.

I re-tweeted an article from today’s TES written by Kris Boulton in which he considers the possibility that teachers ought to increasingly be consumers of well-designed curricula, rather than being responsible for all aspects of teaching themselves.

Now, as with any piece, I’m sure he’d have loved to have discussed the finer details at some length – and he certainly hasn’t said it’s a done deal – but as equally often happens, there are those (particularly in the primary sector) who are quick to denounce any change to the status quo, as if we’d somehow achieved perfection in our education system.

I rather suspect that the use of the word “planning” in my tweet confused the matter. So let me try to set out more what I took from Kris’s interesting article.

As I’ve said in the title, I think that most primary teachers’ planning is poor. I don’t mean that teachers are bad at their job, but rather that the nature of the job – in which there is always too much to do – means that planning has to fight for its time against everything else, and so is too often focussed in the short-term.

Of course, it’s absolutely right that individual classroom teachers should be the final arbiter of what occurs in any given lesson. And when primary teachers use the word ‘planning’, I think this is what they think of. They might consider a scheme of work of a few weeks, but rarely anything on a larger scale. And that’s great – that’s absolutely where the focus should be.

I’m not arguing – as Nick Gibb once did – for the nonsense idea that teachers should be able to laminate their plans and never change them. Far from it. In fact, I often argue that writing individual lesson plans is probably one of the most wasteful things teachers do. I’m arguing that because of the demands on our time in the here-and-now, it is impossible for teachers to devote time to thinking of things on a longer scale.

I’ve spoken before about my preference for ‘mastery’ approaches that organise learning in larger blocks. But I’m also aware that in constructing my own school’s curriculum, I am frankly just an amateur. Now, I can’t imagine anyone who knows me suggesting that I know nothing about curriculum planning, but the reality is that I’m not an expert in the best ways to sequence content, or organise the major blocks of work. I’m a mathematician by training, but even then there is much that I don’t know about the best sequence for a curriculum.

What I am good at (I like to think) is judging how most effectively to convey ideas to the pupils in front of me; how to adapt my teaching to their responses; how to identify those who need a challenge or a hand; how to ask just the right question at the right time.

I don’t want anybody to provide me with a plan that says what to say, when. I don’t want the list of prescribed questions to ask. I don’t even want a weekly plan that tells me what objective to teach each lesson.

But I’d love a framework that clearly sets out what has been found to be the most effective time to introduce fractions work, and what key learning should be secured first to underpin it. Even better if it came with some clear examples that would help to build in the sort of intelligent practice that we now know makes sense.

Of course I want to be able to deviate from it. Of course I need to be able to plan how I organise my week, and to decide the specific contexts I use. Of course I should have the final say about the way in which the children in my class are taught. But as Bodil Isaksen once wrote in her blog: A lesson is the wrong unit of time.

“Planning” – in the sense of the act of sitting down each week with your team partner and deciding what next week’s lessons will look like, should absolutely remain in the control of the classroom teacher. But the framework that underpins it is too often a secondary thought at the moment (if it exists at all) – and I don’t think we should rule out the possibility that a thoroughly researched and designed framework might improve the quality of our planning by providing the expertise that we cannot all have.

I don’t imagine my explanation will have made my view any more popular. But if just a few read it and it calms their initial irrational disregard for the possibility, then maybe something is achieved.

If not, I’ve just garnered a few more enemies in the sector I love.

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17 thoughts on “Most primary teachers’ planning is poor.

  1. cazzypot2013 5 June 2015 at 7:03 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. dodiscimus 5 June 2015 at 7:27 pm Reply

    Direct Instruction (with capitals) does set out what to say (more-or-less) and certainly is tighter in terms of lesson planning than you would advocate. There is some evidence that these are effective programmes. Also CASE / CAME / Thinking Through Science seems to be quite effective (not such good independent evidence but has shown impact in several studies). I’m not advocating super-tight planning control but maybe the teaching profession, and researchers, need to look quite hard at trying to determine the optimum level of control (not forgetting teacher satisfaction might be an important outcome measure, as well as children’s learning).

    • Michael Tidd 5 June 2015 at 7:41 pm Reply

      Yes, finding the right balance would be key!

  3. cornonthecob 5 June 2015 at 7:29 pm Reply

    I understand… and I agree. We have various schemes of work at our school (namely Maths Makes Sense and International Primary Curriculum). We use these to help us see the ‘big picture’ and for ideas of what to teach and when. We still work with our partner teachers to plan the lessons in more detail according to our class’s needs.

    So yes, I agree!

    Oh but I don’t agree with your spelling of ‘focuSed’😉

  4. Hayley Earl 5 June 2015 at 7:31 pm Reply

    I had a similar conversation at work today. As you know, I’m using the White Horse Federation’s Band Progression Sheets for assessment, which have organised the objectives into some kind of logical hierarchy. One of the Maths Leads at school and I were using these as a basis for our planning- what is the benefit of teaching the “secure” objectives before the children have mastered the basics? I don’t know how it will work, or even if at all, but this is what I intend to try from September. We shall see…

  5. julietgreen 5 June 2015 at 8:14 pm Reply

    Yes indeed. And while we’re on it, maybe it really isn’t invoking a great evil to suggest that text books could be brought back? Planning, content, time and resources all addressed in one easy package. And, dare I say it, the mitigation of poor teacher subject knowledge?

  6. theplews 5 June 2015 at 11:59 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Big Blog of Teaching Ideas.

  7. Helen 6 June 2015 at 8:11 am Reply

    I’ve been trialling Singapore textbooks in Y1 maths and while the textbooks have sometimes felt too constrained, I like the Singapore principles of teach less, learn more. In particular the time spent on number bonds within 10 at the beginning. I’m not sure that textbooks are the answer ( for our school) but the curriculum design is something I’ll hold on to.

  8. teachwell 6 June 2015 at 9:15 am Reply

    I think that you have hit the nail on the head – however as someone who helped introduce the new national curriculum in their school I would state that one thing one needs to beware is that the curriculum coverage actually exists. I went through the previous scheme of work with a fine tooth comb and to say it was lacking coverage is an understatement – we weren’t even covering the objectives of the old curriculum nevermind the new!!!

    Don’t forget that all schemes of work come with the small print that it is the schools role to ensure coverage exists not theirs and this is true. So while I say yes to a good scheme of work – the person in charge needs to ensure that the curriculum coverage is there and is acceptable first and make adjustments if necessary to ensure that it is.

  9. claris2012 6 June 2015 at 9:53 am Reply

    Absolutely. Teachers are very busy people and most, I imagine, are not experts – nor should they be – in organising curriculum content from EYFS up to Year 6 and beyond for all subjects in order to maximise learning for all children. Teachers do need to have an overview of the whole curriculum for every subject because they need to know what their children should already know when they enter their class and what they need to know by the end of year 6. But what they need to focus on is the most appropriate and engaging way to teach the content they have to teach. That’s their job. So, yes, since the current government – in the name of ‘autonomy’ (or austerity!) – has whipped away all support, including the now archived primary strategies (weren’t the literacy and mathematics strategies long term planning, designed and organised by experts?!), I think that schools need to look at other expert materials and adopt something they like and feel is right for their school and their children. On a positive note, starting the year with a brand new curriculum and no assessment model yet in place has forced my teachers at all levels to think deeply about learning, to have greater professional dialogue, to explore, research, create and try out different things. Not sure, however, they would all agree with me on this. As we approach the end of this academic year, they are tired, worn out and somewhat dispirited.

  10. Pie Corbett 6 June 2015 at 11:59 am Reply

    I can only speak for teaching writing here. Talk4writing schools work out a whole school plan that is simple to understand and shows the blocks of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Each unit has a specific focus and text type, e.g. warning story + suspense. These are related to toolkit progressions and language progressions which show the specifics that need to be revisited and introduced. The leader also has the main model texts into which progression has been built. The units of work are created, resourced and established over several years with tweaking and refinement. There is also a further strand of poetry and literature which is identified and resourced. All of this then takes the burden away from any teacher – the programme is established and has been refined to the point where the sequence of events almost guarantees learning. In one school, these plans are stored as ‘flip charts’ (rather like power point) and photos of children’s work + shared writing etc can be added so anyone new to the school can see examples and expectations. It means that new teachers are up and running almost immediately. it means that the teacher is free to focus on what makes the difference. Adjusting what we do in the light of formative assessment. I would advise any school to STOP needlessly wasting time creating medium term plans and lesson plans as if the teachers were students. GET IT SORTED and stop wasting time. It aces a few years – but the effort is worth it as it frees teachers to focus on feedback teaching and learning…. and means you can have a weekend too!

    • Rodney 7 June 2015 at 5:28 pm Reply

      Thanks for this. I will look at your website and see what other ideas you have. I am shadow literacy next year and believe that planning long term is the best way forward.

  11. Pie Corbett 6 June 2015 at 12:20 pm Reply

    I might also add that when I had to inspect schools (as part of my job), it soon became very clear that there was no link between planning and learning. The most effective lessons involved the teacher intuitively scaffolding the learning as it happened. From my own experience, I would say that my most effective sessions have been ‘made up’ in the same way as I am teaching. The lesson is the plan. Having said that, when you have weak subject knowledge it is best to think through the structure of the session and have a plan. That at least should help get some learning done!

  12. claris2012 6 June 2015 at 7:52 pm Reply

    We do loads of Talk 4 Writing but it’s our own made up stuff. Is there an actual programme of work? Is it yours, Pie Corbett? I’ll check out your website. Thanks 😊

  13. teachingbattleground 7 June 2015 at 6:38 pm Reply

    “I’m not arguing – as Nick Gibb once did – for the nonsense idea that teachers should be able to laminate their plans and never change them.”

    I thought it was Lord Nash that said that, not Nick Gibb.

    I could be wrong as I don’t have time to check.

  14. Paul Broadbent 16 June 2015 at 9:34 am Reply

    I support teachers with their maths planning and subject knowledge and I totally agree that ‘scripted’ lesson plans are the complete opposite of what teachers need. The daily lesson flows and alters depending on the success (or not) of the learning and progress of the children in the class. Because of this, teachers don’t need lesson plans but need clear guidance in the small steps of progression and the scope and sequence of longer units of work to give them an understanding of the ‘big picture’ of the unit. If you take away the concerns of coverage and progression then teachers can worry less about the curriculum and concentrate on pedagogy. They can be creative in their daily planning, making it purposeful and based around problem-solving, with clear expected outcomes for the end of the unit to help assess and track progress. This may well involve a mastery approach and the use of textbooks, but it is really about the teacher being well-planned and confident enough to take decisions as a lesson unfolds – which goes back to having a depth of subject knowledge. Do have a look at my site for further views on this and support with primary maths planning.

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