Tag Archives: planning

Why we’ve got planning and marking all wrong (part 2)

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 mantra

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 not enough actually doing them.

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.

Teaching today: not enough evidence; too much evidencing.

The Department for Education are consulting at the moment on the causes of teacher workload, presumably with a view to implementing some sort of effort to reduce it. While I want to laud the department for its efforts, I also feel that they’ll be largely fruitless. Not least because very rarely is the department itself responsible for matters of workload.

Of course people will point out that changes to the curriculum and examination boards come with the own workload, and I don’t disagree. But I also can’t see any value in arguing that these things should never change. And true, perhaps the pace and frequency of change is at fault, and so well worth reporting to the DfE.

However, as far as I can see, the real drivers of workload are not policy decisions from the department, but rather the practices of the inspectorate, and particularly its determination to see evidence.

There has been plenty of talk over the last couple of years on evidence in education, from Ben Goldacre to Tom Bennett’s ResearchEd. New approaches to evidence should be welcomed in our profession. But what I’d really like to see is a new approach to evidencing. That is, I’d like to see a change to the current situation where the action of providing evidence for actions is valued more highly than the impact of such actions. The act of evidencing work has become more highly rated than the evidence itself.

Across the country, schools implement policies to protect themselves from the wrath of Ofsted by demonstrating actions. Differentiation is not just based on the needs of the class, but on the need for it to be seen by observers. It is no longer enough for a teacher to adapt their teaching to the needs of pupils; rather it must be evidenced using 3 or 5 differentiated tasks, or sections on a lesson plan.

Feedback has ceased to be about “information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance”[1], but instead has become about evidencing feedback through marking dialogue and endless volumes of red pen. Verbal feedback might be most effective, but is only permitted if evidenced by a stamp or annotation (or increasingly, both!)

It’s not enough to manage behaviour effectively and deal with misbehaviour appropriately when it arises; the process must now be evidenced for inspectors to examine should they wish.

Progress is no longer a matter of ensuring that children achieve the most from their learning, but rather of evidencing that they have completed more of the long march through the sub-levels. The new consultation on performance descriptors serves only to show that all the talk of school-led assessment is soon replaced by the need for evidenced outcomes.

Of course, whether or not any of these things are intended by the department is beside the point. All the time Ofsted are criticizing schools for failing to evidence things, or praising those schools who excel at producing evidence, other school leaders will feel compelled to continue to demand that work be evidenced.

Regardless of what the educational evidence says.

[1] This is the explanation of ‘feedback’ at the very useful EEF Toolkit page, which also states that feedback should be given “sparingly so that it is meaningful”. Not sure how that fits with Ofsted’s current approach!

Pedagoo London 2014 Presentation

London is a long way from the Sussex coast*. Especially by train. And believe me, the peace and quiet of Sussex countryside has nothing on the silence of a London tube station lift!

But these facts aside, I ventured up to @hgaldinoshea‘s excellent Pedagoo London event to offer my two’penneth on the new National Curriculum. I was also hugely relieved to find that others had made similar journeys in an effort to come and listen! I won’t blog about the whole thing in detail, as much of what I said can be better illustrated by other posts, but I thought I’d throw up a few words.

I spoke about three main areas:

  • Key changes for the new curriculum
  • Planning for Progress
  • Assessment without levels

The PowerPoint from the presentation is at the end of the blog if you’re particularly interested.

Key Changes for the New Curriculum

I have written about this previously, and recommend a few blogs if you’ve not already seen them:

panicThe broad message is: don’t panic! Many of the foundation subjects are now so brief in the new National Curriculum that anything schools are doing at the moment can probably continue. The main changes I suggest schools need to tackle are the higher expectations and the matter of progression in English grammar, and fractions in mathematics.

I also mentioned the use of the Singapore Bar Model for teaching of fractions. If you’re not familiar with the model then I strongly recommend looking it up – there are some great YouTube videos – or checking out the materials at www.thinkingblocks.com which show the use of bars model modelling.

Planning for Progress

I have written recently about the importance of curriculum design, and my presentation today built on that. Traditionally, primary school planning has often been based around the topic web design, with a common theme at the centre, and links of various quality drawing in other subjects.

What I propose is a change in emphasis from thematic links to skill-based links. The specific example shown in the presentation is that of a Victorians topic, where the writing activities throughout the unit are all linked by the theme of influencing the reader. The intention is that rather than children relating all their work to the key idea of “Victorians”, they are able to build up a cohesive understanding of a clear aspect of reading and writing. It makes it much easier to focus both teaching and assessment, and also secures a clear hook for children. Often when we want children to think back to previous learning we find ourselves referring to an incidental aspect: for example, we might say that we want children to think about the persuasive writing they did in the Tudors topic. The problem is that the Tudors is what the children remember, not the persuasion. Or worse, they see persuasive techniques taught in the Tudors topic as unique to the Tudor-themed pieces.

By creating topic-led planning, we often think we are creating cohesive links and enabling children to develop learning through a spiral curriculum. We perceive a coherent whole, with each brick slotting into place to build the wall. But what is more likely to happen is that children focus on the commonality (i.e. the over-arching theme) rather than the progression in the learning.


Assessment without levels

One of the challenges facing schools is how to tackle the removal of assessment levels. What I tried to convey in my presentation is the important revelation that actually teachers already know how to assess, levels or not!

I highlighted the fact that the new National Curriculum is pretty explicit in its expected outcomes in some subjects, such as Maths and Geography. Where it is perhaps less clear is in English, where the programme of study is generally quite broad.

I’ve never been a fan of APP, and certainly not of sub-levels, but I can see that people are familiar with them. However, I think that most experienced teachers can assess – even to the point of levelling – without the national criteria. Any half-decent Year 6 teacher can quickly identify the work of a Level 4 writer, with or without an APP grid. One task I set the attendees of my presentation was to quickly discuss what aspects they considered to be key in identifying writing at Level 4.

The APP criteria for Level 4 run to over 300 words. I reckon I could summarise it in barely 20:

• Accurately-demarcated sentences
• Some variety in sentence structure
• Starting to use paragraphs appropriately
• Consistent and accurate tense
• Writing broadly suits its purpose

Evidently it lacks some of the nuance of the APP grid, but it also removes some of the waffle, and demonstrates the key strands of what makes a secure writer in Year 6. If schools draw on the experience of their highly-trained and highly-qualified staff, then they can probably devise their own assessment tools that are far more teacher-friendly, pupil-friendly, and significantly parent-friendly too.

y1koI happily draw anyone’s attention to the excellent materials from the 1999 Numeracy Framework for various reasons, including the exemplification pages, but on this occasion particularly to note the old Key Objectives.

If we can devise something akin to these in our schools and localities, then I think we can manage assessment at the broad level far more usefully than by codes of numbers and letters, without over-burdening teachers with assessment of meaningless minutiae.
Although, I appreciate, that’s a big IF!
The Presentation
*This may not be literally or geographically true, but psychology counts for a lot! That’s a lot of Downs to get through.