You can go your own way

6th July 2012 at 01:00
Not content with being a classroom puppet? Then find ways to innovate and make the curriculum your own, says Hywel Roberts

I used to think that being innovative and engaging in the classroom meant being at the cutting edge of everything, totally up to speed with technology and basically existing as an all-round living and breathing educational guru.

I've since realised it's none of these things. It's good to be up to date, to have some knowledge of current educational debates and to understand the true meanings of the educational buzzwords that drift in and out of fashion. You can do all of these things by following a few decent contributors on Twitter or by reading TES on a Friday. Being innovative and engaging in a classroom actually comes down to you and what it is you want to teach.

Consider this: you may have a head of department who hands you the schemes of work in August and says, "I've written these for this year. Enjoy." You are left holding a load of paper that is essentially your instruction manual for the year. Part of you may feel that this is a fantastic turn of events, as you were expecting to have to write them yourself and really were leaving it to the last minute.

Step back a minute, though, and think about it. Someone - your superior - is basically treating you like a monkey. And because you're instantly gratified at the revelation that you have little planning to do, you're smiling like a monkey, too. It's all a bit fast-food kebab: initially it feels great and then, a little later, it makes you a bit sick.

Secondary teachers need to spare a thought for primary colleagues at times like this. I couldn't believe it when my friend in the primary sector told me he had to hand his planning in weekly to his headteacher. This essentially wrecked his Sundays as he frantically prepared everything to deliver to his head each Monday morning. What a total nightmare. In secondary schools we have a freak-out and think about getting the union reps in when asked to supply individual lesson plans as part of an observation process. We really need to get a grip.

So your head of department has done all the work for you. This essentially means that:

- You have been robbed of stamping your mark on anything fresh in the schemes of work for a whole year.

- Boundaries have been erected around the work you can do with your pupils in the form of someone else's learning outcomes.

- You will be delivering someone else's learning formula - a little like opening a franchise, but unlike Subway, you won't make any profit.

- You are a monkey. A puppet. A monkey puppet.

If you are an NQT or someone hungry for new ideas, the thought of being given the schemes of work for a full academic year is great. However, you still need the opportunity to make the teaching and learning yours in your classroom.

The trouble with prescriptive plans is that they assume outcomes along predicted routes. What they don't always account for is the unknown, the "what if" and the unpredictable. Only you can do that. So when your head of department says, "I've written these for this year. Enjoy", you need to reply with, "Fantastic, I'm really grateful. I'm going to add some stuff of my own as well, if that's OK. I really want to contribute. Can I meet with you and tell you some of my ideas?"

Your head of department will appreciate this because they have not been sleeping well. If you are clear that you will be trying some of your own ideas in the classroom, this will be well received as long as you have worked on your credibility - are you a recognisable face or just a shadow?

When I became a head of department, I thought it was my responsibility to write all the schemes of work and basically direct my entire team with what I wanted them to teach. This meant that I had to transplant my teaching persona into a Word document and ensure we hit all the things that we should be doing, while also remaining a department of innovation. I essentially created a dictatorship, and it was a big mistake. The same year, I had appointed two very good NQTs. By handing them my document, I stifled their ideas and innovation - part of the reason I wanted NQTs in the first place. Fortunately, halfway through the year one of the NQTs came to me and asked if she could contribute some new projects to the established scheme of work.

This is how I reacted in my head:

- "Who the hell do you think you are?"

- "I think you're getting a bit too big for your boots, young lady."

- "Are you saying mine are crap?"

- "Do you think you're better than me?"

- "You think I'm rubbish, don't you?"

- "You don't realise that I lie awake at night worrying about all sorts of things."

What I actually said was: "Of course you can. Absolutely. What are you thinking?"

And so a really good conversation ensued. This NQT had done it right. Before long I had pretty much binned many of my (tried and tested) schemes of work and our team was actually having useful meetings establishing the focus of our new projects. Each member of the team (there were four of us) then took responsibility for the creation and resourcing of a project. This might not sound like rocket science to you, but this was team innovation in action in my school.

The new projects had a fresh slant. This was my stipulation in giving my colleagues free rein. The new "slant" was that I wanted the children to take more ownership of the direction of their learning. I wanted our team to set up projects (inspired by what happens in primary schools) that enabled our pupils to negotiate their way through a topic guided by the teacher, rather than just be set tasks that would be performed and assessed at the end of the half-term.

I wanted my staff to take these risks:

- Walk into the room without really knowing where the session was going to go, and not panic. (I mean this figuratively: of course they knew where the session was going to go, it's just that other things might emerge during the session that would be far more interesting than what the teacher had planned.)

- Ask very open questions that challenged the children.

- Give children decisions to make.

- Be "the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage".

- Step back and allow the children to resolve dilemmas.

- Throw real-life scenarios at the class and see how they dealt with them. (For example, "How should we deal with looters?" or "How can we help child soldiers in Somalia?")

- Broaden their subject experience by taking on more specialist areas. (For example, in the case of drama, mask work and the Mantle of the Expert approach.)

- Use technology to capture and play back work. (We used Flip cameras then and today image capture technology is commonplace in schools.)

Why stand up for your subject?

If you can stand up for your subject (don't forget, we all have to stand up for our subjects at one point or another), you are demonstrating a real commitment to it, to your practice and to the children in your classes.

If you're a primary teacher reading this and you're thinking, "I teach loads of subjects, what's this got to do with me?", please consider some of the subject areas at risk in the primary curriculum. For example, in your school, who is responsible for the delivery of physical education, drama or music?

More and more primary schools are bringing in outside providers to deliver these (and other) subject areas while the regular class teacher has their planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. Don't get me wrong, you need your PPA time. However, how do the children you teach regard the subjects you're not teaching? Do they see them as a treat? Or do they see them as not as important as the stuff you teach because you don't teach these subjects to them?

No matter how old the children you teach, one thing is certain: the curriculum you deliver needs to make sense. Children and young people don't have (and don't want) access to your schemes of work. What you say is what they get.

I did a whole-school training day recently and the headteacher asked if we could start a little later than planned because the teachers needed more time to get their worksheets prepared for the following day. I'm not going to get trapped into banging on about worksheets, but the point is that, as a consequence of the head saying that, I got this impression of the school (which I had been standing in for only seven minutes):

- The children were passive.

- The teachers lacked imagination.

- The teachers lacked creativity.

- The curriculum belonged to no one.

- Learning was task-driven.

I also learned that I sometimes jump to conclusions, as the staff were all very nice. They weren't buzzing, though, and that's a prerequisite for any engaging teacher. A diet consisting of endless streams of worksheets isn't good for anyone. It slows the hunger for knowledge and encourages children to disengage and to do the minimum: as long as the sheet is completed, job done.

Bringing Rave to your curriculum

Over-reliance on worksheets and textbooks can interrupt the coherent nature of a really good sequence of learning. Rather than deepen understanding, they can confuse, distract and vandalise understanding. "Rave" is a way of looking at your coherent schemes of work and your curriculum in your classroom. It stands for:

- Relevant: a curriculum that enables pupils to see the real world outside the classroom while supporting their ethical and moral development.

- Academic: the facts and the knowledge around specific subjects and themes.

- Vocational: adapting practical skills and procedures to real tasks while developing expertise.

- Evaluation: for example, Assessment for Learning and Assessment of Learning.

In the interest of creativity, I'll discuss these four elements in reverse order.


We often think that evaluation should happen at the end of something. It's like the full point at the end of a piece of writing. To me, evaluation is something that is ongoing. Inspectors agree, except they call it the mini-plenary. Evaluation can be formal, such as a test or exam, but it doesn't have to be. It can be two children discussing each other's work in progress. It could be the experience of listening to someone else talk about your work, or a teacher's encouraging remark. Evaluation can also be a reflective comment to the teacher written by a child on a sticky note stuck on the wall at the end of a lesson. Worksheets don't provide this dialogue. Evaluation is so much more than: "This is what I did today and this is how I think I did."


When do we teach compromise? When do we teach active listening? Or creativity? For me, the word "vocational" conjures up images of visiting speakers, unused university prospectuses and work experience (where I would usually get to visit a large number of beauty salons). Yet vocational learning, although connected to all of this, is also a million miles from it.

We start vocational training in the early years when, hopefully building on what has been learned in the home, we teach sharing, caring, boundaries and listening, among other things, through the vehicle of play. In primary classrooms we see tables arranged in ways that are conducive to group work (cabaret or cafe style): children can work individually, in pairs or in groups of three or four with such arrangements. In secondary schools we have, in recent years, had the personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS), which attempted (successfully in my opinion) to rationalise learner attributes that would be useful for progress, for success and for the future.

A few leaders of industry are always knocking around on the television complaining that schools don't provide an able workforce with the ability to do a good job. I think they're wrong. However, I do believe that we sometimes prepare children for the life of work a little too late. By weaving the PLTS, or our own version of them, into our teaching, we may be able to do something about this and stem the criticism that is thrown at us.


Or, as taxi drivers would say, the Knowledge. Interestingly, the word "academic" can also be defined as meaning "having no practical purpose or use". I like that. Academic, the noun, also conjures up images of ancient people in dusty rooms surrounded by decaying leather-bound libraries. For us, of course, it's the content: the stuff we want to deliver. The pedagogy is how we are going to do that. This is hopefully why you're reading this.


This is the important one for me (and it should be for you). I suppose this is the bit that makes school matter to children. To paraphrase Morrissey, school has to say something to me about my life. Your classroom and the teaching and learning that happen within it need to make sense to the children; they need to be relevant and humanising. This isn't just a pseudo personal and social education add-on; this is ensuring that your content makes learning sense and is actually resonating with the children you are teaching.

Don't forget, this applies from the youngest of our children upwards. If they are gripped by the academic, it's because they see it as relevant to them. This is the eternal struggle for teachers, getting the content to be attractive to the learner. This is what engagement is, the successful "selling" of the academic, and my advice to you is to make it as relevant as you can.

The author

Hywel Roberts is a creative educator with 16 years' classroom experience teaching secondary drama and English in schools, both rough and smooth. Roberts is now a freelance consultant and an Independent Thinking associate specialising in Drama for Learning, Mantle of the Expert, Lures into Learning and engagement across all phases of learning.


Twitter: @hywel_roberts

Read on ...

This is an extract from Oops! Helping children learn accidentally by Hywel Roberts, published by Independent Thinking Press, #163;16.99

How to be relevant

The top 10 things you can do to make your lessons relevant:

1. Know your children.

2. Know the community where you teach and they live.

3. Know what is going on in the world and see the learning potential in it.

4. Stop rehashing old projects.

5. Give way to your crazier ideas.

6. Stop blaming lack of experimentation, risk and innovation on your lack of time.

7. See your children as future adults; prepare them for the world.

8. Keep your lesson content flexible.

9. Make your learning and teaching pro-social.

10. Burn your worksheets.

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