Is workload reduction killing the art of teaching?

Pre-packaged lesson plans may save time, but they risk removing creativity and spontaneity from teaching, warns Emma Kell

Emma Kell

workload and creativity

Anyone who knows me knows that I welcome any effort on the part of schools to acknowledge the huge issue of teacher workload and take action to reduce unnecessary tasks that don’t have an impact on young people. There’s a key word here, though: unnecessary.

A conversation with an NQT mentor last week really got me thinking about what it is, fundamentally, that we do as teachers. Well, we plan, we teach and we review learning in order to promote the progress of our students and get them through exams. And if we’re in an enlightened school, we also help them to become balanced and happy young adults.

Knowing your neck from your arse

I am a stubborn believer in teacher autonomy and creativity. I believe that the best learning takes place in the spontaneous moments in the classroom when the lessons are allowed to flow and the teachers are in tune with their students. The moment when a student asks, “How many tenses are there in French?” or the teacher stops to establish the difference between "cou" and "cul" (neck and arse, for non-Francophones) or has the class repeating “ta mère”, leading to an interesting discussion about the universal “your mum” insult and why “Your mum’s got three legs” led to one of the most horrific student fights of my career…

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None of this necessarily prepares them directly for paper 2, section B of the GCSE, but it certainly gets them thinking. And thinking is good, yes?

Although I have been in school leadership in various different forms for a decade and a half, I would still say most of my time is spent planning and reviewing my students’ learning. While I would never advocate starting from scratch to prepare, say, an animal presentation in French where there are literally millions of them online, I do spent a lot of time thinking about how I will sequence and deliver activities, often entering the classroom with three or four different scenarios that I will follow to achieve the objective, depending on how students respond or whether there’s an almighty storm outside and they’re soaked, smelling like wet dog and oscillating towards the ceiling.

I have never been able to teach effectively from someone else’s lesson plan, and it’s my idea of hell to be presented with a pre-packaged, pre-prepared booklet of a morning and told to deliver it that day. I like time to think – to plan, to adapt to each unique set of individuals.

Search for the silver bullet

So, when this NQT mentor spoke to me about the reality of the diverse experiences of her dozens of new teachers in one area of the country, it really got me thinking. Some are in schools where triple marking is still advocated (never, I say!); others have a “no marking except tests” policy. Some are in schools where workload reduction initiatives have meant that lessons and pre-prepared for teachers, so all they have to do is deliver them, and some are in single-person departments working straight from the exam syllabus.

All of these models exist in schools today – none is ideal, but the reality is that, while in so many schools the holy grail is consistency, consistency between schools in the most basic of procedures is woefully lacking. The search for the elusive silver bullet goes on, with schools investing heavily in “self-marking tests” and “guaranteed success” packages of lessons, which can be taken off the peg and taught. 

The craft of planning

Imagine what happens when the zero-marking NQT gets a job in a school where in-depth marking is required once a fortnight? Or goes from a school where lesson plans and presentations are neatly filed by date and time, and everyone teaches the same thing at the same time, to one where there is an expectation that the craft of planning is well-established in a qualified teacher.

I do worry that we are sacrificing some of the main skills involved in being a teacher in the name of workload reduction. Would we not be better off focusing on reducing the workload incurred by disorganised communication, “Where’s my umbrella?” emails, arduous data drops and fundamentally meaningless data analysis?

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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