Green light for creating off-the-peg teachers
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
The DfE's latest report Addressing teacher workload in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is termed by TES to give a "green light" to remove "pointless" lesson planning. This has unsurprisingly led to uproar from many in the teaching community who argue that:
Lesson planning is the bit of teaching that is actually fun
Learning to plan is an essential aspect of becoming a good or even outstanding teacher
And I agree.
But the expectations on teacher workload are also unquestionably too high. So what's the answer?
The report argues that the burden of planning all lessons from scratch for ITTs is too high, and that using pre-existing schemes of work and/or textbooks is the answer. Instead, the focus should be on thinking between lessons on what to cover in this one (which resources to 'use') and what to cover in the next one (which activity to 'do'). Then, as they get more advanced, they can make adaptations to the resources, and eventually they might be able to plan their own lesson.
I am of the view that lesson planning is one of the most fundamental 'threshold concepts' in teaching. Once you can plan a lesson effectively, a lot of other aspects of teaching fall into place, and start to make sense in new ways.
And the Tweeters are right: thinking about how to best teach a difficult concept is the most cognitively interesting aspect of teaching.
Rusznyak and Walton (2011) argue that when learning to teach, ITTs need to go through the following steps:
Situating the theme of the lesson, within the overall topic, the theme of the previous lesson, and the theme of the subsequent lesson.
Identifying learning objectives/outcomes, skills the students should develop, and attitudes and values they should develop.
Clarifying conceptual knowledge for the lesson.
Identifying students’ needs in relation to the content of the lesson, such as links to prior knowledge, new terminology, examples which will help them to learn better, evidence of understanding students should produce, and common misunderstandings or mistakes students might make during the lesson.
Determining teaching and learning strategies appropriate for the lesson.
Sequencing the lesson steps to build learning throughout the lesson.
Now, there's no argument that planning in this way will not take a lot of time. If you have to do it from scratch. For every lesson. But these are all essential aspects of planning. I particularly like that actually planning and ordering the activities comes last: after you have a coherent idea of what you are going to teach, how it sits, how the students might respond, and possible strategies (potentially linking with learning theory).
Of course, experienced teachers don't plan in such a systematic way. Calderhead (1989) has suggested that experienced teacher have "lesson images" where they visualise how the learning will unfold. And John (2006) cites evidence that experienced teachers do not plan in a linear manner. In fact the more expert the teacher, the more they struggle to distinguish the various stages on Ruzsnyak and Walton's list, viewing them as mutually responsive.
But how do teachers reach the state where they can just 'see' how the lesson might unfold? In which they think of strategies and sequencing, and students' needs, and connections all at the same time?
I don't buy that it is from picking up off-the-peg resources and delivering them.
Do we have the resources?
For one thing I find that a lot of off-the-peg resources are seriously deficient, not well pitched, not intellectually rigorous, and boring and repetitive in terms of teaching strategies. How is the ITT supposed to experiment and evaluate what works and what doesn't if it's all the same?
Of course, the Finnish model reminds us that this is not necessarily the case. But it seems a sufficient reason for now.
Narrowing the theory practice divide
In Ruzsnyak and Walton's set of principles, reflecting on the best teaching and learning strategies is identified before selecting activities. This is a key area in which theory and practice intermingle, ensuring that ITTs have a change to assess how learning theory works in practice, and compare their own experiences against the evidence in the literature. Bringing theory and practice together is essential if we want education to be an academic profession.
If ITTs are not thinking about the teaching and learning strategies that are using (they are being chosen for them), the divide between theory and practice becomes more of a chasm than ever. And if ITTs do not develop a coherent conception of theory, then their ability to evaluate the effectiveness of various strategies for teaching and learning is also a priori impoverished.
Becoming creative and intelligent teachers
Another issues is that ITTs are supposed to build up to reflecting on resources, and even editing them (oh dear God, teachers making decisions about learning!). But I don't see how they are supposed to develop the expertise to do that.
Their creativity will be stunted by their limited experience. Particularly given the blandness of much of-the-peg resourcing. Simply adapting what is already there is an extremely diminished form of creativity development.
And, furthermore, without a solid grounding in a range of teaching and learning strategies and the reasons for them, a teacher's toolkit of ideas for making adaptations is even further limited. Teachers will be churning out lessons robotically, and without any theoretical underpinnings. And the drop-out rate for intellectually inclined teachers from the profession will sky-rocket.
Undoubtedly, workload remains a serious concern. But I rank quality teaching and learning above that in my order of priorities for education.
Under the current system, NQTs do identify that learning how to adapt existing resources is key to their success in their first year of teaching (Mutton, Haggar and Burn, 2011). So this should be incorporated more explicitly into ITE programmes so that they can develop this skill ready for their NQT year.
Also, much could be invested in really high quality, well thought out, embedded in learning theory, resources for classrooms. No objections. But you still won't see me doing much more than dipping in and out of it. Because I'm creative. I get a buzz from designing something fabulous.
The answer is not to eliminate planning. We may well be able to reduce the amount of planning from scratch that ITTs need to do. Planning the Ruzsnyak and Walton way shouldn't be a lesson-by-lesson requirement, more of a monthly exercise for showcasing what you have learned. And some experiments into planning in different orders, or non-linearly and evaluating this could be helpful in developing resourceful teachers.
But a green light for limiting trainee teachers' experience of teaching and learning strategies to what is found in off-the-peg schemes of work, is just a green light for off-the-peg teachers.