Get up to speed by giving up planning

A racing-car driver wouldn't do an engineer's job. So why do teachers insist on building lessons as well as delivering them?
5th June 2015, 1:00am
Kris Boulton


Get up to speed by giving up planning

"Teachers should be the consumers of curricula, not their designers." So writes Professor Siegfried Engelmann, creator of the direct instruction method for teaching reading and maths, in War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse. The 1992 book is a savage polemic, lambasting the educational establishment in the US for its tolerance of a traditional belief that "not every child can" and perpetuation of pedagogies that seem to leave so many behind.

But should teachers become mere consumers of curricula and lessons planned and designed by others?

Engelmann uses the analogy of a car engine when talking about the curriculum, which I will extend here. If the engine of a racing car is old and battered, no one's getting very far, very fast. Put in one that's brand-new and expertly engineered, however, and even the average person will get further, faster. Place a professional racing car driver behind the wheel - one who knows how the engine was put together and how to get the most out of it - and they'll get further still. But a driver is not an engineer and vice versa. They have different jobs, performing different, equally important roles in getting the car across the finish line in the fastest possible time.

Direct instruction was part of an educational research programme called Project Follow Through. Running over 27 years from the late 1960s, this vast project's intention was to find a curriculum that the government could endorse and roll out across the US. Nine competing maths curricula were assessed for student success in procedural application and problem-solving, as well as how students felt about maths and themselves as mathematicians. Direct instruction dramatically outperformed other curricula in all three categories, despite others having a more overt focus on building problem-solving skills, or on improving children's self-esteem and academic identity.

Daisy Christodoulou, research and development manager at the Ark academy chain, has experience working with Engelmann's expressive writing programme. She describes it as "deceptively simple - it is easy to use and sometimes that can fool you into thinking it must have been easy to create. But when you stop to think about it, you realise the immense amount of effort that must have gone in to selecting the right examples, putting them in the right order and scheduling the review lessons at the right time and for the right length."

The direct instruction programme was created iteratively. The idea was that developing a one-year curriculum from scratch would take two years; it would then be improved year-on-year. The full-time academics who developed the curriculum worked closely with teachers but did not have the day-to-day demands and stresses of teaching.

If this is what it takes to create a curriculum that "just works", is any teacher in a position to succeed on their own?

But what's the alternative? Today, teachers identify their professionalism with the planning they do for each lesson. Without that, does teaching lose all claim to being a profession?

A friend of mine uses the analogy of a pianist being expected not only to learn how to play the piano but also to write their own music and perform it on an instrument they have built with their own hands. If they don't do all this, does that mean they're not a professional musician? Others draw the parallel with medicine, where surgeons learn how to perform a surgery but only a few get involved in developing new surgical techniques.

In Elizabeth Green's book Building a Better Teacher, she notes the work of psychologist Lee Shulman, who took what he had learned about the decision-making processes of doctors and applied the same analysis to teachers. He discovered that even more complex decision-making was required in their day-to-day practice.

Behind the wheel

So have we got teacher professionalism all wrong? What if our expertise lies not in planning and resource design but in knowing about the best resources, making informed, intelligent choices about what to use and when, and making face-to-face decisions that will guarantee that students learn? A car needs a driver to get it round the track and medical researchers need people who can make use of their work in hospitals. What if we need our own curriculum and resource engineers, who in turn need us to deliver the content? How could we move in this direction if we collectively chose to do so?

I'm wary of warnings issued by veteran educationalists who speak of maths programmes and the national strategies as deskilling and de-professionalising teachers in England in the 1990s. They conjure a mental image of a teacher who rocks up to a lesson with no forethought, puts their feet up on the desk and instructs students to "Turn to page 42 of the textbook, read to page 43 and then answer the even numbered questions."

It's an interesting question of structure and professional identity: how can we move to a world where teachers are equipped and expected to examine the meticulously crafted resources of others and then make expert decisions about how to deploy that wisdom at the chalkface?

I have been intrigued by this idea since I first read Engelmann's words. Instead of disempowering me, I felt he gave voice to my concerns. Many of my own novel creations have been made instantly redundant by the work of a more experienced teacher, and when I've had promising ideas there has been no chance of implementing them owing to the impossible time demands of creating the resource.

I'm prepared to consider the alternative. I'll teach using a textbook if I can find one I judge to be sufficiently well designed. I'll invest time in understanding the hard work and deep thinking of others. I'll still add my own thoughts, judgements and tweaks, but if anything I hope this will give me more time to think carefully about the delivery of a lesson, making it "just work" for the students, rather than having all my time taken up by playing the roles of an entire team all by myself.

I'm prepared to consider the alternative, and I'm wondering who else might come along with me.

Kris Boulton is a teacher at an inner-London school

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