'As experienced teachers, we should not have to plan lessons. Most of the best classes are improvised'
In a recent interview with the Sunday Telegraph, education secretary Nicky Morgan suggested that “teachers were spending too much time marking or writing up lesson plans instead of focusing on teaching”.
Though her remarks have been much derided by teaching unions, the sentiment is undeniably true. Retiring to bed before midnight is a rare opportunity during the week. A former colleague of mine could not help but fall about laughing when the success of her work/life balance was brought up at an annual review. Most teachers are besieged with marking, planning and parental enquiries: any action that can be taken to lessen the burden would surely be welcome.
Nevertheless, Morgan’s suggestions as regards planning overlooks the crux of the problem: the true question is not how to minimise formal lesson planning, but why it is necessary at all.
Consider the training of a jazz pianist. Initially, solos are learnt off by heart and faithfully played back. Soon, sets of scales are mastered and mined for solo playing, giving the illusion of extemporaneity. Eventually the pianist is able to improvise fully and be wholly in sync with an ensemble. The musician has the greatest possible flexibility and the group becomes a true gestalt – an organised whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The same is indubitably true of teaching. In the early days, detailed planning may be required as a support. Later on, after a teacher has taught the same topics a number of times, portions of lessons make their way into memory and can be repeated for different classes. In due course, lessons can be wholly improvised and tailored to the specific needs of students as the lesson unfolds.
Naturally, some element of planning is always required. Teachers often have to create resources – a protracted process – and, of course, must have an idea of a point they would like to reach within a certain period. But the bureaucratic process by which planning must be carried out – all the while with Ofsted’s trusty Sword of Damocles hanging overhead – is not only a huge waste of time, but also serves to detract from the quality of teaching.
Valuable time for marking books and fashioning handouts is lost. The compulsion to teach every lesson along the same lines – aim, starter, main and plenary – quashes spontaneity and the freedom to adapt to pupils’ ever-changing requirements.
Most frustratingly of all, the plans invariably do not work. As a teacher of Latin and Greek, I cannot confidently predict how long a class will take to complete, say, an unseen translation. They may finish it in record time, and I can move swiftly on. It might fill out the bulk of the lesson, or – quite often – a difficulty arises that requires lengthy explanation and the task expands into prep or another day.
This variable renders the bulk of detailed lesson planning useless, particularly as the plans are expected to be precise, down to the minute. Yet a teacher on 32 lessons a week will fill in around 1,200 lesson-plan forms over the course of the academic year.
One of the key philosophies found in modern schools is that of "child-centred learning". This involves teachers refraining from didactic instruction, an approach now considered old-fashioned and contemptuously referred to as "chalk and talk". (One YouTube video from Pear Tree Education recounts with horror how in a teacher-led class the teacher might "perhaps even correct [the student's] point of view and actually point out where that student's wrong".) Instead, pupils engage in group work, online research or extended projects, and are said to direct their own learning.
This method has been widely discredited in recent years, most damningly by Australian educationalist John Hattie's 2009 study – the most extensive research of its kind – which found direct instruction was 15 times more effective than "student control over learning". (Where 0.6 on his scale for the former scores "highly effective" and 0.4 is "effective", the latter achieves a mere 0.04). See also Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse and Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, both of which are brilliant excoriations of the progressive approach.
Still, I should like to focus on the phrase "child-centred learning'. Taken literally, it expresses a sentiment with which no one could disagree – that teaching be derived squarely from pupils' needs. Yet such an ethos is in stark contrast with the long-term teaching plans also required by Ofsted, known as "schemes of work". At their most extreme, these mandate teachers to write out a year's worth of detailed plans for a class whom they will acquire in September, but may not even have met.
The teacher is prevented from taking any mitigating circumstances into consideration: how able is the group? What is its size? Do a large number of students present with learning difficulties? What speed would be suitable for them? I can think of no greater anathema to true child-centred learning than endeavouring to set out in July what a class will be doing up to 11 months later.
Such schemes of work leave teachers with a Sophie’s choice. It is inevitable that within a short space of time the class will have been derailed from the intended scheme, through eagerly covering more ground or struggling with certain topics and slowing the pace. At this juncture, the teacher has two options – stick rigidly to the scheme, in spite of their students’ needs, or ditch it and teach at an appropriate rate. If they choose the former, they are guilty of a dereliction of duty. If they opt for the latter, however, they prove that the whole planning exercise was pointless from the start.
Nicky Morgan’s intentions are admirable, but akin to encountering Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, only to suggest that she give him a helping hand. If teachers are to have any kind of work/life balance – and cease leaving the profession in droves – considerably more drastic measures must be taken. The abolition of this futile practice would probably constitute the greatest advance for teachers an education secretary has ever made.