Let creativity fly in the classroom

19th April 2013 at 01:00
Through careful planning, make the most of the greater freedom promised under the new curriculum

Teachers have the opportunity to renew themselves every year. This can come about through teaching a new primary class or dealing with a new syllabus; even a new subject. There is the opportunity to revisit practice, too.

Yet the freedoms enjoyed by teachers vary: the existence of the national curriculum is -evidence of this. In recent years, central government has given a strong steer not only to content but also to practice.

But now is a particularly good time to think about renewal because of broad educational changes and because increasing numbers of teachers find themselves working in academies and free schools. This has resulted in greater latitude than we have seen in recent years in state schools. Furthermore, the scaled-down version of the national curriculum for 2014 and changes to A levels expected in 2015 will -increase flexibility for all schoolteachers.

These developments may prove challenging in terms of creating new materials and lessons. But they also make this a more exciting time to be teaching. Here I outline ways in which you can review and renew practice and trial it over the next year or two.

Overall planning in changing times

So, how do we begin to plan for any year?

Aims are the most important theme. Yet when -viewing any syllabus initially, content is most likely to draw our attention. And content -appears to be the most obvious focus for planning a scheme of work. After all, there are pages and pages on what needs to be covered.

Content is obviously important. Clearly, as the planned revisions to the national curriculum show, it can be a basis for change, too. The intention behind such external curricula or syllabuses is to provide expert general guidance. For all that, syllabuses are not without controversy.

We see this in debates about the content of the -primary school curriculum and especially arguments over what should be covered in literature and history. Should history be, at one extreme, about empathy? Or, at the other extreme, should we be hammering home the key dates of the kings and queens? Should literature present only the great works from an established canon or be a more inclusive offering?

Regardless of where we start, overall planning will never be easy. But the increased latitude that will follow from changes to the national -curriculum and A-level syllabuses make it more crucial than ever. What impact will the greater freedom in his planning process have on teachers?

You might expect that there would be detailed guidance on how to teach, or at least how to plan to teach. But this is largely absent from both current and classic texts on teaching. There is work on lesson planning and some material

on what should be in a school curriculum - and you will be swamped with advice about how to -approach teaching in the classroom. But advice on translating a syllabus into a series of lessons, or a scheme of work, is almost always absent.

Fluidity in practice and planning

Content is, of course, only one feature of -curriculum planning. It is when we begin to make links that the opportunities provided by the new -latitude may become clearer.

1. Keeping engaged learning moving

We can see the impact of the increased scope if we compare what generally happens in -classrooms now with what may happen in the near future.

Currently, especially with older students, many schools expect teachers to highlight the learning outcomes that will be met within the lesson. But all teachers know there are times when learning simply takes off - perhaps the interaction -between students is working with this group in a way it has not done before.

Such learning may, of course, be curtailed -because the lesson is coming to an end. But teachers often stop it, too, when students stray from the intended learning objective. They choose to follow the expected outcome rather than take a risk that could hold more promise for learning in the future.

With greater latitude, when a discussion is -progressing well - perhaps with some students making new links to previous sessions or -content - it can be allowed to continue. Any -content not covered, even a precious objective, can be revisited in a later session.

Greater flexibility allows teachers to follow these advantageous paths without feeling guilty and without a sense that they should get the -lesson finished. You can allow students to go -beyond the syllabus, at least in the margins.

Why not find out what interests your class and how you can usefully incorporate it into your teaching? Many students are interested in the environment, for instance. You could -harness this, whether the lesson is on environmental -science (where you could allow greater discussion of social issues) or in a range of subjects where the environment is often marginally -related to -topics within the syllabus (such as economics or leisure studies).

Free from such a tight rein, the lesson can flow naturally, albeit down a path of the students' choosing. The result will be a positive learning climate and potentially greater willingness to -respond to other topics.

2. Making aims more central

But increased latitude does not influence only a single lesson. We can focus on aims in the -planning process, too. Is this justified? Well, aims are the major themes. If we are able to meet the aims through different means and -activities that satisfy students more fully, why not do so? The result will be a more creative classroom.

It might be argued, of course, that such an -approach is dangerous, that it risks students failing to meet a particular element of assessment. Yet, if the assessment is increasingly based on the understanding of the whole course - and this seems especially true of A levels - then a -broader approach may actually produce better results. And remember the poor marker, who is reading practically the same account for the umpteenth time. A fresh piece of work that is still relevant but just a little new and showing more rounded understanding of the subject is likely to be welcome.

3. Flexible teaching and learning

What we see, then, is that scope affects not only approaches to teaching but to learning, too. Both can be related to content and aims in more flexible ways. At the very least changes planned over the next year or two seem destined to -promote more holistic learning and, -incidentally, to revive the idea that the teacher knows best in any classroom - a notion that has been out of fashion for too long.

4. Less regulation, more engagement

Fluidity will allow both teachers and students to move away from what is sometimes -described as "defensive teaching" - where -teachers shy away from controversial -issues because they fear spin-off discussions may mean they cannot cover as much core -material in the lesson. -Fluidity can foster breadth of engagement and understanding.

Such interpretations are directly related to the removal of units from A levels, expected to be implemented in 2015, as this will foster more fluid approaches to both teaching and learning. Even if A-level students may feel more pressure when it comes to final examinations, they will not have the recurrent pressure of regular -assessment. More importantly, they will also not have endured the sort of pressured teaching and learning that comes from the tightly controlled educational environments needed to meet the demands of regular testing.

There is a rare and detailed exploration of how to interpret a syllabus, and make it relevant to your primary or secondary classroom, in a book published 50 years ago - Curriculum Development: theory and practice by Hilda Taba.

She argues that a syllabus is only an outline, and that teachers need to consider that it might not be an outline that suits everybody: different students will need different forms of encouragement. She goes on to say that a functioning unit of a curriculum needs to recognise the interests and abilities of students as well as the resources within the school and the -conditions beyond it.

Yet this notion of translating a curriculum to meet the needs of students is almost entirely -absent from initial teacher training. Without -additional study, at best you are likely to have been introduced to looking at a scheme of work as part of fostering understanding of lesson planning. But just as there is a world of difference between lesson planning and a teaching session, so there is a gulf between an external syllabus and functioning plans.

This understanding is vital because, as Taba states, "Selecting the content, with accompanying learning experiences, is one of the two central decisions in curriculum making". This comment also reminds us that curriculum development is made up of the interrelationships between purpose, process, content and assessment.

Some of these ideas may seem a little distant from the hubbub of a crowded classroom. But even if teachers have not recently been expected to devote time to thinking widely about the curricu-lum, it is important that they do so now.

Forthcoming changes contrast with recent years. David Jardine, professor of education at the University of Calgary in Canada, captures the pressures teachers have felt when he relates a conversation he had as a teacher educator. He advised a trainee teacher to talk to students and explain a problem, only to be told "there is too much to cover to have time to talk".

Such attitudes are expressed without irony. And they are not limited to trainees. Jardine's staff development sessions with experienced teachers showed that space to undertake -additional experiments was hard to find.

"The stakes are too high," Jardine says. "They [teachers] and their students are already overburdened and don't need something added to the mix of expectations."

Yet it is precisely such space that the proposed curriculum changes should offer, with the -promise of a more motivating and -dynamic -environment for both teachers and -students.

There is opportunity to move beyond the kinds of constraints that American academic Linda McNeil wrote about in her research in the US in the 1980s.

"Many of the smartest, best-educated of these teachers felt that `really to teach' would be going against the interest of their schools, not fulfilling them," she wrote. "They chose to simplify -content and reduce demands on students in -return for classroom order and minimal student -compliance on assignments."

McNeil branded this "defensive teaching". But now we see expectations are changing. -Increased flexibility should offer different ways of addressing the needs of students in all classrooms. This makes it possible for us to "really teach" once again. And there is benefit for all in this more dynamic environment.

Graham Fowler is an educational consultant and writer


Dawn, T. (2007) "Work smarter not harder", pp. 181-189 in R. Clow and T. Dawn, eds, Ultimate FE Lecturer's Handbook (Continuum).

Jardine, D.W. (2012) Pedagogy Left in Peace: cultivating free spaces in teaching and learning (Continuum).

McNeil, L. (1986) Contradictions of Control: school structure and school knowledge (Routledge).

Taba, H. (1962) Curriculum Development: theory and practice (Harcourt, Brace and World).

Webb, R. (2009) "Control and response in primary school teachers' work",

pp. 42-55 in C. Chapman, and H.?M. Gunter, eds, Radical Reforms: perspectives on an era of educational change (Routledge).

Be prepared

Planning options for the coming year:

1. Select a main topic from a syllabus and think about how you could divide it in ways that would suit your students, yourself and your style of teaching. Consider the following questions:

  • What is important?
  • What is crucial for your students to know?
  • What would it be nice for them to know?
  • How would you go about securing this knowledge?
    • 2. Compare these plans with those for the curriculum you have used this year.

      3. For the coming year, prepare some of the material along lines that you feel will be most beneficial to your classroom.

      4. Try out your new way of working next year, as a modest base from which to do things differently when greater fluidity will give you more control over activities.

      Putting planning into practice

      Teachers are often encouraged to think about where their students are and teach from what students know. Yet an external syllabus will not account for this.

      Consequently, syllabus content needs to be linked in relevant ways to the specifics of your classroom. Greater latitude will more readily allow teachers to diverge from preordained paths.

      Typically we are encouraged to think of relatively small-scale topics and build up knowledge. This may not be a bad thing. Does focusing on the small points ever result in the bigger goals not being reached? No, but if all lessons are structured in this way it is not very good for the environment within or beyond the classroom.

      There is value in doing things differently, and not merely to avoid duplication. There is research suggesting

      that beginning in counter-intuitive areas - such as how to apply knowledge rather than more theoretical work - may actually make learning more complete, with students having a fuller understanding of concepts.

      We also tend to think of building from ideas, expressed in less threatening small groups, as beneficial to the whole class. But occasionally try the opposite. Create a class debatediscussion based either on modest understanding or on research students have completed themselves. Such an approach may allow students to apply related knowledge to new ideas or may work well in the discussion of controversial issues. Remember not to allow prejudiced views an excessive airing.

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