Sunday, 26 January 2014

Rip It Up & Start Again?


Somehow I’ve gained a significant number of Twitter followers despite adding little of value to the debate. I’ve written three blogs which have had upwards of 1500 hits, but all of these were ranting, vitriolic outbursts against educational behemoths and/or Divid Didau (only joking, DD). Here’s something constructive for a change.

I’ve been teaching for months, rather than years. I’m still in the formative stages of my career, occasionally running up against brick walls, often running to stand still. Sometimes my ambition outweighs my talent and occasionally I drop a clanger. Most often, I think I’m pretty good. Occasionally I am excellent. One thing I am not is consistent.

There are myriad reasons for this. Obviously I am new to the job. I’m still learning how to do it. The tricks of the trade are revealing themselves to me. My armoury of techniques and tools is growing by the day. But the one thing that has prevented me from achieving my aim of being an outstanding teacher is this: I try too hard.

Joe Kirby’s recent blog about designing a ‘knowledge unit’ turned a light on for me. I realised that I needn’t plan lessons on an ad hoc basis. I could plan a unit which would last weeks or months and then, and this is the amazing part, I could rely on my skill as a teacher to adapt, mould and differentiate that scheme as I went along. If I knew the outcome I desired, I could plan backwards from that.

I know the majority of experienced practitioners will be shaking their heads at my naivety, but I simply did not do this before. I taught a topic or a novel, thinking that knowledge would just seep into my pupils, embed itself in their little brainboxes and remain there, just waiting for the moment it would be called upon, be that an essay, a controlled assessment or an exam question.
What a fool I’ve been.

Joe and Katie Ashford kindly sent me all the necessary resources to teach their SoW on Oliver Twist. I’ve never taught such wonderfully structured lessons before. Admittedly, I’ve tinkered slightly, but the framework they provided me is clear, coherent and uncomplicated. What’s more, my Y8 pupils absolutely love it. The quality of the text helps, but the obvious progression towards an end goal is a hugely motivating factor for them. They are doing reams and reams of high quality writing – last week I set homework asking them to summarise the plot and received several four page essays instead. 

Marking recent mock exam scripts has had a similar effect on my planning. I’m so much more aware of the limitations of my students now. What’s more, I understand the exam papers properly and have a far more developed awareness of what I need to teach them – I know the end point and will plan backwards from there.

This latest shift is just the latest in my limited time as a teacher. Initially, I was happy to teach lessons ‘off the peg’. Pulled from the school’s hard drive, these may well have been tried and tested, but I soon realised that I couldn’t teach them. Like an actor turning up on set and performing a script he’s never seen before, I stumbled over my lines. Adapting these plans to my own needs (and teaching style) took longer than devising new lessons, so I abandoned them.

Instead, I planned everything on my own whizzbang version of the “Five Minute Lesson Plan”. I believed my template to be vastly superior to Teacher Toolkit’s (I maintain this belief but lack the confidence to promote it as such), and it worked very well until I realised its limitations – the ease with which it could be used meant I could plan on an ad hoc, improvised basis. As a result, lessons became one-offs, with little thought as to how one followed another or why. Some were smashing lessons, but very definitely not part of a bigger picture.

Now, my eyes are open and my confidence has grown. My medium term plans are everything. I am content to turn up to classes with little more than the skeletal outline of a lesson. Because I know what my pupils need to achieve I can shape the lesson accordingly. It’s not something I could have done in September – I needed the crutch of a detailed plan or a series of activities to ensure I didn’t dry up part way through the lesson. 

I now feel I’m entering a more advanced and sophisticated way of planning and teaching. It means I’ve binned and deleted lots of plans and lessons I’d designed before. I have no qualms about doing that; they were not good enough. This new stage in my career might mean more graft in the early stages of producing units of study, but once done it will free me up to make a difference where it matters – in feedback, coaching and improving my students. 

Don’t be afraid to rip it up and start again. It’s too easy to fall into habits which don’t do you or your pupils any favours. It’s hard admitting you got it wrong, but the evolution of my teaching is actually making my life easier. My pupils are more focused, planning is purposeful and more easily tailored to my classes and, most importantly of all, pupils are making better progress.

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