Heads of department will need to be well-prepared, flexible and open to new ways of working to ensure no one falls behind during the continued coronavirus disruption. Joseph Brennan shares some practical strategies to keep your team and students on track
There was nothing more our department could do. We had spent the summer term preparing and planning. We had discussed all the new procedures and regulations we would need to work around. The year ahead would bring challenges but I was quietly confident about one thing: we had nailed our recovery curriculum.
When schools first returned in September, I imagine that many heads of department were in a similar state of mind. I started this academic year full of optimism about the plans my team had put in place. No matter what happened, one thing hadn’t changed: our intent. In my geography department, this was for students to know more about our planet and be able to apply this in different contexts, and to be increasingly competent in geographical skills and fieldwork.
In this respect, I felt sure that our recovery curriculum could deliver. It had been designed to support our students in making progress in geography even as everyone was getting used to the new normal. But as the weeks passed and students – then bubbles, then full year groups – had to isolate, it became painfully clear that the curriculum I’d put such faith in wasn’t going to cut it.
Our department was going to have to become increasingly reflective, creative and strategic, and our recovery curriculum would need regular review and refinement.
How would we do this? Having completed our first half term back in school, I’ve come to understand that there is one question that subject leaders need to keep at the front of their minds above all else: what is it that you want students to know, understand and do? Being clear about the answer to this question – within your own context and setting – will help to make sure your recovery curriculum stays fit for purpose into the next term, even as the rules continue to change.
So, what can you do right now to future-proof it? Here are some practical steps that you can take to help yourself and your team to effectively support your students.
1. Reflect and refine
It has never been more important to find the time to interrogate what you are doing as a department. You need to build this into your own schedule, and into your department time, so that you can work through any problems as a team.
And you need to be really honest. What is working and what isn’t? What would make your systems even better?
Don’t be afraid to make changes if something is not working or is not having the desired effect. Consider what is going to have the greatest impact on your students in the short, medium and long term and adapt your curriculum towards this. Create milestones to work towards and monitor your progress here; you can use department development plans and self-evaluation forms to support this process.
2. Focus on the essentials
Now is the time to concentrate on the types of activities that we know will maximise students’ learning.
Retrieval practice is a good example. At the beginning of lessons, use time to get students retrieving information and making links with what has come before and what will come next. This will be crucial in terms of closing gaps and getting students to make connections so that comprehension occurs and learning is generated.
3. Prepare students to go it alone
Another area of focus should be helping students to become more independent – this will serve them well if they unexpectedly find themselves working from home again.
Give them reference resources, such as knowledge organisers and glossaries, and upskill them in how to use these to learn and revise independently.
You might also want to share schemes of work and learning journeys, and explain how these are used; students who are aware of the gaps in their knowledge will be better equipped to close them.
4. Share the load
Use new technologies such as Loom, Zoom or Microsoft Teams to develop your teaching and learning. If you invest the time now in recording podcasts or lessons, you can build up a library of revision resources that students can access further down the line.
However, be mindful of people’s workloads. Delegate tasks across the team to share the load, and use any trainee teachers or teaching assistants in your department. This might mean upskilling them so that they can help to develop remote learning resources, or create resources for particular sub-groups.
Make sure that you are communicating openly with your line manager. Make them aware of any challenges you’re facing, so that they can support you. Transparency will be key here. Consider what would benefit your students and bid for any catch-up premium or other funding that you think might help.
5. Make connections
These are unprecedented times and everyone is in the same boat, so make contact with other department leaders around your school. Something that has worked for them might also work for you and your team.
Try looking beyond your own school, too. Connecting with city-wide networks and creating links with other schools will not only offer inspiration from beyond your setting, but may help you to avoid reinventing the wheel. There are bound to be ideas out there that can be directly used or adapted to have an impact in your context.
At the same time, don’t forget to think about student voice and parental engagement. Ask students how they are finding any new approaches and act on their feedback. Engage with parents through newsletters, emails or letters home to give them a better chance of supporting their children through the new strategies.
One thing about this academic year is certain: there are many more challenges ahead. Fostering a student-centred approach and being crystal clear about what you want students to understand and do will be crucial for the future of your recovery curriculum.
The strategies above have been useful to me and my team in taking ownership of our curriculum and making decisions for the benefits of students.
It means that we make the most of the time we have now and, more importantly, make sure that no more time is lost.
Joseph Brennan is a subject leader of geography in a school in Liverpool
This article originally appeared in the 20 November 2020 issue under the headline “Future-proof your plans to stay ahead of the Covid curve”