Why we must let teachers plan their own lessons

Monday, November 18, 2019

Embarking on my first teaching post, as an English teacher who qualified in the late 1990s, was a very different experience from that of those who qualify today. 

At key stage 3, schemes of work were a list of “themes” to focus on for each half-term ( I still recall that “Animals and Nature” was Year 7’s topic for the first half-term). There was a small collection of poems, fiction and non-fiction texts to work through. Or not, as it happens: if I judged it to be appropriate, I could replace any of the provided texts with those of my own choice. 

When it came to a “class reader”, I was invited to take a rummage through the book cupboard and choose a book I liked the look of. 

At key stage 4, I was pointed in the direction of the spec, and basically let loose. It was a baptism of fire – although it didn’t really feel like one, as my training year had been almost exactly the same.

Ofsted focused on curriculum

Fast-forward to the present, and things look very different. Curriculum planning is, rightly, Ofsted’s new raison d’être, and “consistency” is the new buzzword. 

Schools are interpreting this in a number of different ways, but one answer to the consistency question is for departments to prepare every PowerPoint for every lesson centrally, and for teachers to then simply upload each PowerPoint to their computer, and click through the slides.

Except, perhaps as a result of my formative years in the profession, I simply loathe teaching using PowerPoints that I have not created myself.

Even if I steal ideas from my colleagues, I am compelled to put my own spin on how that idea is transformed into a lesson. I take a huge amount of pleasure from generating ideas and planning effective lessons that are precisely attuned to the students I have in front of me. For me, this is being a teacher.

The skill of lesson-planning

So why, then, is it becoming increasingly more common for departments to dispense with this individualised method of planning, and to replace it with more of a one-size-fits-all approach? 

Well, time is a key factor – there is no doubt that one person creating a set of PowerPoints for time-poor colleagues is more efficient. And quality assurance is clearly much more streamlined when everyone is delivering the same lesson, in exactly the same way, at the same time.

But I can’t help feeling like this is something of a downward spiral. If trainees and NQTs never plan their own lessons, how on earth are they ever going to develop this skill?

Almost 21 years’ experience of planning lessons has meant that I am actually quite good at it. If I had simply not been compelled to plan my own lessons, I would not have been able to hone my skills in the way that I have. 

And there are other downsides. How can the same lesson on say, Lady Macbeth, be appropriate both for those students aiming to achieve a level 9 and those who are struggling to reach level 1?

In my opinion, it’s not just a case of differentiating activities for those two sets of students – it’s about delivering a different lesson entirely. 

Treating teachers like edubots

Let’s not forget that teachers are highly skilled professionals. Treating them like edubots is not going to enrich the profession. Once all the lesson-planners have retired, who is going to develop the new lessons when specifications and curricula change?

There must be a middle ground, and I believe it is effective medium-term planning. A schedule through a topic or text, with week-by-week indications of content and skills to cover, is ideal for less-experienced teachers who might struggle to grasp how to develop a cohesive set of lessons. 

And suggestions for activities to facilitate progress can assist those teachers of a less creative bent who need that spark to build the fire, or who are scrabbling for an idea that is going to stretch and challenge top-set Year 9.

But please, let teachers deliver their own ideas in their own way. And if that is not good enough, don’t simply tell them to “Do it my way”. As I regularly say to my Year 11, there is more than one way to skin a cat. 

Instead, let’s help our younger colleagues to develop those lesson-planning skills that we had to acquire in those sink-or-swim days. In the long run, the profession will thank us for it.

Source: TES Resources