Have we overcomplicated teaching?

This week in Reading Group, we considered the talk at ResearchED 2016 by Jo Facer (and her associated blog post): We Have Overcomplicated Teaching.

If you don’t have time to read to the end of this post, our conclusion was yes- we probably have overcomplicated teaching in some ways. And, although we didn’t always agree with the changes in approach that Jo describes, we have all reflected on our practice this week and asked ourselves what we do , why we do it, and who we do it for. And this was valuable.

Teaching needs to be sustainable in the long-term

Ali introduced the session by summarising what Jo had said in her conference talk. Jo had argued that teaching is becoming unsustainable. Teachers talk of routinely working 14-hour days, and this is impossible to maintain in the long term.

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Jo began her talk by asking a number of questions, including:

  • How many activities do you need in a lesson?
  • How often do the activities change in a lesson?
  • How many different ‘starters’ do you create?
  • How many different ‘plenaries’ do you have?
  • How many variations on tasks do you have?
  • How many slides do you have on a powerpoint?
  • How many resources do you print for each lesson?
  • How many ways are you expected to differentiate for children?
  • How many pages does your scheme of work fill?
  • How often have you changed schemes of work?
  • How often have you taught the same curriculum two or more years in a row?
  • How many intervention sessions have you run after school? Weekends?
  • How much feedback do you give children?
  • How much data do you gather? Input? Use?
  • How many CPD sessions have explored new ways of teaching children?

Effort vs impact

Jo suggested we should compare the amount of effort we put in to planning/marking/preparing lessons with the actual impact it has on pupils. How often do we teach things in a particular way because it’s how we like doing it? Is this necessarily the best approach for the pupils?

At Jo’s school, no one uses powerpoint, all classes are issued with work packs (and every teacher/pupil works from these). Planning is carried out collaboratively every few weeks, and differentiation is carried out by focussing on different aspects of the pack with individual pupils, rather than by setting them different tasks. This cuts down on  time needed for planning and preparation, and it also saves lesson time (no sheets have to be distributed, searched for, or stuck into books).

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Jo described an ethos of “urgency” within lessons, and within the school, so lessons focus on efficiency of learning, and knowledge is taught explicitly. There is no group work, nobody shows video clips, science lessons tend to centre around demos, rather than class practicals. Learning is reviewed regularly, so that pupils retain the knowledge they have gained.

Jo explained that teachers don’t mark work at her school. Pupils don’t do teacher-marked homework. They complete (auto-marked) online tests, or learn material that they are tested on during lessons. So they’re assessed via these tests, or via classwork during lessons, and this assessment informs planning, without the need for hours of marking at home by teachers. Feedback is therefore timely and, most importantly, sustainable in the long term.

Context

We talked within our Reading Group about the context of the school. Jo’s school is relatively new and comparatively small. It has now entered its third year, and has pupils in years 7, 8 and (this year for the first time) in year 9.

We questioned whether the school’s approach to homework, marking and assessment would be sufficient in later years. What about the analysis and evaluation required by KS4 History and KS5 Psychology curricula, for example? While we recognised the importance of knowledge acquisition, and of review/retrieval of prior learning, we felt that this alone was not sufficient, especially at KS4-5.

Death by Powerpoint?

Everyone agreed that, above all, Jo’s blog post had really made them think about what they do, why they do it, and whether it is worth doing.

We talked about how and why we use powerpoint and how, in our earlier years of teaching, we might have used it almost as a crutch. However, nowadays, we tend to use it differently. For example, some teachers use it to “order their thoughts” as they plan a lesson, and to help them sequence their ideas. Often, even if we start the lesson with a powerpoint, we then tend to ignore it once we get going!

We could also see the advantage of powerpoints to save on photocopying, if they were used for displaying questions or mark schemes. In this sense, our powerpoints are actually doing a similar job to the resource packs that Jo describes.

Having said that, I have (coincidentally) made a conscious decision over the last year or so to move away from powerpoints, unless I happen to have one already made. If I don’t have one already, I spend my planning time thinking about what I want to say, constructing questions, and making notes of important aspects (such as equations) that I mustn’t forget, rather than putting a powerpoint together.

planning-book

My book Y13 planning (book of notes).

What’s it all for?

Someone made the point that, in trying to release teachers from the tyranny of over-planning, over-marking and over-working, the school could be accused of imposing its  prescriptive methods on their own teachers. I must admit that my initial reaction to the idea of being issued with a “resource pack” (from which I mustn’t deviate) left me feeling almost panicky! I like to be able to reflect, respond, change direction, improvise a little. I have an overall plan, and I have core ideas, but I do also create resources and deviate from plans as I go through the year. Personally, I wouldn’t want to give this up. It is part of the reason I love teaching.

And this was another important point that someone made: it is actually very difficult to tell teachers to stop doing things. Even if you managed to take away any expectations that may or may not actually exist (from SLT/Ofsted/parents/students), teachers often set very high expectations for themselves, and they want to “do the best” for their pupils. So they often do more than they “have to”.

Furthermore, while acknowledging that we have to help pupils to “acquire” knowledge, and to retain it, especially in this era of linear exams, we all agreed that we don’t want to think only in terms of these exams. We want our students (for example) to experience the joy and wonder of carrying out chemistry practicals, even if this isn’t the most “efficient” method of learning. And we want them to be able to develop ways of learning and working with their peers. Group work can be a “waste of time” if done badly, but it can also be effective.

Work out what you can stop doing

I think our take-home message from this session was that we should all think about what we can stop doing, as well as what we can start doing.

Yes- we possibly have overcomplicated teaching, and it is right that we question what we do (and why). We should all (from the top down) be looking at what we still do just because we have always done it, even when it’s no longer needed. And we all need to work out what we can afford to lose.

The other articles that we looked at for this session can be found here.

(Post written by NKA)

 

 

 

 

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