On Thursday I published a post that largely focussed on why I think we are expending too much effort on written marking. Today I want to pick up on why one of the worst costs of that excessive use of time, is the lack of time left to devote to planning.
Many people responded to both my recent polls stating that they consider marking and planning to be synonymous, or intertwined, or in some way part of the same thing. I argued previously that actually I think it is the looking at work that has the greatest impact on future teaching, not the written comments that get added to it.
It seems, though, that the “informing future planning” argument has become well-used to justify the massive volume of marking. Unfortunately, like with so much else about marking, the credit it is given outweighs its actual value, in my opinion. For while undoubtedly there is power in good formative marking, I’d argue there is much more in good planning. And interestingly it seems that a majority of people instinctively agree with me. Another simplistic poll suggested that a significant majority of teachers feel that planning has a greater impact on pupils’ progress than marking:
Which rather begs the question: why did the poll for the most-time spent, show it to be the other way around? Why are 2/3 of us spending more time on marking, when most of us feel that planning would be more beneficial?
What’s more, I think that most people are basing that on the relatively narrow idea of planning that we currently use in teaching. I suspect that many of those who thought marking more valuable are in schools where the burdens of recording planning detract from its benefits. It’s still common to hear of schools where detailed daily and weekly plans must be submitted in advance, or where every lesson must be planned using a given pro forma with endless boxes.
But it’s not this that I mean by planning. Too often we still think in short term lumps when it comes to planning – even to the point of separating out learning into separate single-hour lessons. Bodil Isaksen has written well about this in the past in her blog: A Lesson is the Wrong Unit of Time.
I think the historical focus on progress is partly to blame. When Ofsted were looking to see progress within a 20-minute window, of course it was necessary to have at least one new objective every lesson. But in reality we know that learning doesn’t work like that. One lesson on subordinate clauses will not make high quality complex sentences abound in children’s writing. There is a long progression of understanding to pass through to reach that point.
The problem is, I don’t know what it is. I’ve got some thoughts, but I haven’t given enough time over to thinking it through clearly enough. I haven’t spent the time planning what the curriculum should look like if my goal is to ensure children can use complex sentences well. There was always too much else to do.
My drive for more planning time is not about more filling in of pro formas. Quite the opposite, it’s about the thinking time to develop meaningful sequences of learning. It’s about setting a small number of key learning goals to be achieved over a period, and then developing the sequence of learning experiences that will guide students towards that aim. It’s about doing less, but better.
And inevitably that means that in some one-hour lessons, children won’t evidently be any closer to achieving that outcome than when they began.
But as I’ve advocated in the past, by spending longer periods of time building up a narrower range of objectives, we can develop meaningful sequences of learning that provide opportunities for practice, for application, for making links, and for exploring in greater depth.
The current reality is very different. Particularly in primary schools, long-term planning (if it exists at all) tends to consist of the ‘sharing out’ of topics, with medium-term planning often focussing on links between subjects and contexts for work. Very rarely do I see a medium-term plan which clearly sets out the handful of things that children will be expected to really understand by the end of the unit.
Probably partly because of all the marking.
If you’re marking 30 books in school every day, and taking another 30 home, and saving the topic books for the weekend, when do you have any serious time to sit down and think about – or better still, talk about – the direction of the curriculum. Is it any wonder that we get trapped in the short-term cycle of planning lessons for the next few days? And given the detail in which we often plan in the short-term, is it any wonder that our longer-term plans are inevitably brief?
Now of course, there will be arguments that planning needs to be done immediately before teaching so that you can respond to assessment in the prior lesson. Again, I think that’s a nonsense. The only reason planning needs significant adaptation is if it is too detailed. If you plan every lesson down to the last minute (as once we might have been expected to do), then of course, any slightly twist in the lesson will mean re-writing the plan. But if, rather, we have thought about the long-term goals, and planned a likely sequence of reaching them, then the minor variations along the way are incorporated into that “responsive teaching” that I mentioned in the last post.
And just think – if we significantly reduced the volume of written marking, and detail of short-term planning, how much time would we free up to really explore the very best ways of teaching new content and skills over time; to assess children’s understanding more fully; and to respond to that feedback to adapt our teaching to ensure the best possible progress, in line with our medium- and longer-term aims.
In fact, if there’s one thing that unites the problems of planning and feedback, it seems to be that we spend too much time on recording those things, and no enough actually doing them.