What pupil group work can teach us about collaborative planning

Collaborative planning allows teachers to share ideas, use their skills and reduce workload. And the best way to run these sessions? Mirror how you run group work in your classroom, writes one teacher

Drew Thomson

Group work_editorial

You wander into a quiet classroom and find yourself impressed with the academic fervour; everyone appears to be studious, working collaboratively, clearly motivated and interested. A task has been set; it's outlined on a printout and each group member appears to have been assigned specific responsibilities. There are timings for when different aspects of the task should be completed.

In this lesson, pupils are using a resource created through collaborative planning. 

There's no doubt that when teachers share their ideas and use their expertise, it can improve the quality of resources produced.

Planning together, rather than separately, also reduces workload because the resources can provide a basis for individual lessons or sequence of lessons for entire teams of teachers.

According to polls, most teachers would fight to preserve their planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, and curriculum planning is the most sought-after Inset theme. But an overwhelming majority of teachers still plan lessons individually.

If joint planning was more widespread throughout schools, we would not only make better use of our PPA time, but also improve our curriculum planning and design.

Structured approaches

What's interesting is how joint planning as teachers compares with the group work we ask our students to do.

If set up well, it mirrors the best approach to student group work: a well-designed task with adequate preparation and clear objectives, in which group members are given roles and explicit timings.

It's worrying when teachers give students complete ownership of their work, provide minimal guidance or structures, and allow pupils to float towards some sort of self-styled conclusion or goal. They aren't the experts – neither in the subject, nor group work – and shouldn't be given complete freedom to move their task in whichever way they want. As the EEF study on collaborative learning points out, group work doesn't automatically result in progress – it's through structured approaches and truly collaborative efforts that the greatest learning happens. 

In much the same way, group work among teachers ought to reflect this best practice. We need to make sure that we consider how we set tasks and recognise that there are ineffective ways of doing so.

With joint planning, as with other adult group tasks, it's essential that it's prepared in a way that enables all to work effectively. It is especially important that those most well-versed in curriculum design are able to provide advice to support those aiding in its future design, in the same way that we – as experts in our subject – would not set our students off on a task without necessary preliminary understanding.

Teachers can improve their understanding of curriculum design while improving the curriculum, much like students in groups can develop an understanding of a subject while honing the vital skills that group work brings.

And with that, I'll leave you with a few questions: is joint planning really any good? To what extent can we learn from effective adult teams when it comes to planning group work for our students? And when and where is it that we develop the skills that make us effective group members?

Drew Thomson is a head of science and physics 

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Drew Thomson

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