I used to think that being innovative and engaging in the classroom meant being at the cutting edge of everything, up to speed with technology and existing as an all-round living and breathing educational guru.
But it's none of these things. It's good to be up to date, to have some knowledge of current debates and be abreast of educational buzz words. You can do all of these things by following a few decent contributors on Twitter or reading TES. Being innovative and engaging 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." Part of you may feel that this is fantastic, as you were expecting to have to write them yourself. But think about it. Someone is basically treating you like a monkey. It's all a bit fast-food kebab - it feels great initially then, a little later, it makes you a bit sick.
Secondary teachers need to spare a thought for primary colleagues here. I couldn't believe it when my friend in the primary sector told me he had to hand his planning in weekly to his head. This wrecked his Sundays. What a nightmare. In secondaries, we think about getting the union reps in when asked to supply individual lesson plans as part of an observation process. We 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 your work with pupils in the form of someone else's learning outcomes.
- You will be delivering someone else's learning formula.
- You are a monkey puppet.
If you are an NQT or hungry for new ideas, the thought of being given the schemes of work for a year is great. But you still need a chance to make the teaching and learning yours in your classroom.
Prescriptive plans assume outcomes along predicted routes and don't always account for the unknown, the unpredictable. Only you can do that. So when you're told, "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 tell you some of my ideas?"
Your head of department will appreciate this. If you are clear that you will be trying some of your own ideas, 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 schemes of work and direct my team. This meant that I had to transplant my teaching persona into a Word document and ensure we did all the things we should be doing, while also remaining a department of innovation. I essentially created a dictatorship - a big mistake. The same year, I had appointed two very good NQTs. By handing them my document, I stifled their innovation - part of the reason I wanted NQTs. Fortunately, halfway through the year one of them came to me and asked if she could contribute some new projects to the scheme of work.
This is how I reacted in my head:
- "Who the hell do you think you are?"
- "Are you saying mine are crap?"
- "You think I'm rubbish, don't you?"
What I said was: "Of course you can. Absolutely. What are you thinking?"
And so a good conversation ensued. This NQT had done it right. Before long I had binned many of my (tried and tested) schemes of work and our team was having useful meetings establishing the focus of our new projects. Each member of the team (four in all) then took responsibility for the creation and resourcing of a project. This might not sound like rocket science, but it was team innovation in action.
The new projects had a fresh slant. This was my stipulation in giving my colleagues free rein. The new "slant" was that I wanted pupils to take more ownership of their learning. I wanted our team to set up projects (inspired by what happens in primaries) 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 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, you are showing a real commitment to it, to your practice and to your pupils.
If you're a primary teacher thinking, "I teach loads of subjects, what's this got to do with me?", consider some of the subject areas at risk in the primary curriculum. For example, in your school, who is responsible for the delivery of PE, drama or music?
More and more primaries are bringing in outside providers to deliver these and other subjects, while the class teacher has their planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. Of course, you need your PPA time. But how do your pupils regard the subjects you're not teaching? Do they see them as a treat or not as important as the stuff you teach because you don't teach these subjects to them?
No matter the age of your pupils, 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 head asked if we could start a little later than planned as teachers needed more time to get their worksheets ready for the next day. 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.
The staff were very nice, but they weren't buzzing - a prerequisite for any engaging teacher. A diet of worksheets isn't good for anyone. It slows the hunger for knowledge and encourages children to disengage and do the minimum: sheet completed, job done.
Bringing Rave to your curriculum
Over-reliance on worksheets and textbooks can interrupt the coherence 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 evaluation should happen at the end. To me, it 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, or the experience of listening to someone else talk about your work, or a teacher's encouraging remark. It can be a reflective comment to the teacher written by a child on a sticky note put on the wall at the end of a lesson. Worksheets don't provide this dialogue. Evaluation is more than: "This is what I did today and this is how I think I did."
When do we teach compromise? Or active listening? Or creativity? For me, "vocational" conjures up images of visiting speakers, unused university prospectuses and work experience. Yet vocational learning, while connected to all of this, is also a million miles from it.
We start vocational training in the early years when we teach sharing, caring, boundaries and listening, through play. In primaries, we see tables arranged in ways that are conducive to group work: pupils can work individually, in pairs or in groups of three or four. Recently, in secondaries we have had the personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS), which tried to rationalise learner attributes that would be useful for progress, success and the future.
Leaders of industry often complain that schools don't provide an able workforce. I think they're wrong, but I believe we sometimes prepare children for work a little too late. By weaving the PLTS into our teaching, we may be able to do something about this and stem that criticism.
The word "academic" can also mean "having no practical use". Academic, the noun, conjures up images of ancient people in dusty rooms surrounded by decaying leather-bound tomes. For us, of course, it's the content: what we want to deliver. The pedagogy is how we will do that.
This is the vital one - the bit that makes school matter to pupils. Your classroom and the teaching and learning that happen in it need to make sense to the children, and to be relevant and humanising. This isn't just a social education add-on; this is ensuring that your content makes learning sense and is resonating with pupils.
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.
More about the author
Hywel Roberts is a creative educator with 16 years' classroom experience of teaching secondary drama and English in schools, both rough and smooth. He 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.
How to stay relevant
Top 10 tips
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.