This year, our faculty underwent an enormous endeavour: rebuilding and implementing a new KS3 curriculum and scheme of work from scratch. It’s the first major project I’ve led on in a school and have learnt a huge amount from the process. A colleague suggested I write up the kind of things we do to ensure smooth operation. A lot of our processes have been organic and tacit, so writing this down has helped me clarify and make explicit the implicit. It isn’t a systematic treaty, more of a sketch of the ideas and processes that have helped us. The first five points are general principles, and after that it becomes more specifically about our project.
There is a huge amount of trust within our team. We get on incredibly well and are fully aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This trust underpins literally everything we do and without it we would not be able to function. We would not be able to give or receive criticism, we would not be able to delegate and the managerial hold over the whole project would become constricting. A lot of this culture is natural, and a lot is down to the work of our Head of Faculty. To be honest I don’t know if we would have been able to do what we’ve done if that culture didn’t exist. I like to think that even if it didn’t right then and there we would have been able to build it through carefully nurtured relationships, constructive target setting, clear success criteria and unflagging support. And if despite doing all of those things we couldn’t get the culture we wanted, maybe I would be the wrong leader for this team.
- The Wall
As a middle leader, I know that at various points there will be things that I simply can’t deal with. That might be because it would be inappropriate for me to do so or because I lack the knowledge and expertise. At this point I need to know that my Head of Faculty will help me over that wall. Otherwise I feel anxious, insecure and unsupported, which leads to lowered creativity and productivity.
- Before the Wall
But before that wall, I want freedom. I want to be trusted to just get on with my job. In this respect it is my boss’s job to dictate what kind of work I should be doing but not to micromanage how I am carrying out that work. She will take reasonable, unobtrusive measurements to check that I am doing so, but fundamentally I am trusted to just get on with it. I try to do the same with the rest of the team, so I:
a) let them know that when they have a problem they can bat it up to me and we can look at it together
b) set clear goals and directions
c) step well back and let them get on with carrying out b
We talk to each other a lot. We have briefing once a week, we share a staff room and make productive use of emails. Problems are identified and communicated quickly and concisely.
This communication allows us to respond to problems quickly. Typo in one of the exams? Change it. Problem with one of the slides? Change it. We don’t need a committee, we don’t need a meeting. Make the change, communicate the change.
- Identifying the problem
Moving into more specific things we have done, the first was identifying the problem and having people on board. We knew that our students were not being adequately prepared for GCSE and we knew that we were not getting the most out of KS3. We weren’t always all agreed on this, but following much discussion we came closer in terms of our opinions.
- General principles for fixing the problem
We used findings from cognitive science and our own pedagogical subject knowledge to extensively discuss and then formalise our general principles for fixing the problem. We decided to build the course around a set of Core Questions and use them to develop our students’ long term memories and conceptual and procedural fluency.
- What do people actually want?
Before we started actually planning resources, I emailed the department to ask them what kind of things they wanted most for day-to-day teaching, with the results below. This meant that we skirted the problem of doing loads of work preparing resources that would not end up being used. Our design principle was most useful to most teachers most of the time. Obviously there would be freedom for individual teachers to go their own way when teaching their classes but when planning for others they would have to prepare that which was most useful to most teachers most of the time.
- Clear, candid feedback
I’ve recently been watching The Bake Off: Professionals. In short, it’s like the regular bake off, but with the country’s best professional bakers who work in hotels and boutique outlets. Obviously their work is amazing to look at but the thing that most struck me was the bluntness of the feedback they received. The judges didn’t sugar coat and didn’t bat an eyelid or flinch when saying “the flavour profile does not work” or “there is no texture here which makes eating it boring.” No two stars and a wish, no WWW/EBI, just straight to the point judgement and feedback. I think there is a difference in the way you feed back to an expert compared to how you feed back to a novice. Generally, our experts are self-motivated and driven to produce the best work that they can, and just want to be told what to do so that they can get on with it. We’ve tried really hard to give candid feedback that is both helpful and detailed so that we can all be proud of our product.
I’ve attached a copy of the feedback I gave on one of the team’s Core Questions for a physics unit. This is actually already the second draft and you can see that my feedback falls into a few broad categories:
a) Cosmetic changes: grammar and consistency etc. there were very few in this one as it was a second draft
b) Parsing changes: I have cut some words out of some questions for the sake of brevity. We are expecting our students to know and reproduce the answers to these questions so do not want to clutter their memorisation efforts with unnecessary words
c) Sequencing changes: where questions need to be re-ordered to make more sense. Sometimes this will just be where we have a new word which hasn’t been defined yet:
Other times we might have a bunch of questions that need re-ordering. In response to this sometimes I will just say “this needs to be reordered” but normally I’ll try and give a blueprint for what I have in mind:
d) Substantive changes: these relate to an issue with the actual scientific content. This might be straightforward, like here where the answer doesn’t quite suit the question or the one before:
Other times it might be trickier, and we have had many debates in the faculty about how to simplify the science enough that it makes sense but is also accurate. This question for example:
just doesn’t quite read right. It could be it needs to be broken up into two separate questions, but it is a substantive change that can’t be sorted just by rearranging the words or phrasing or whatever.
Once I have done my comments I send them back, and each change is subject to agreement. Often the teacher involved will disagree and I would normally defer to them or to the relevant head of department (physics/biology/chemistry). Once we are both happy it goes to the head of department anyway to check the content. After all that we are ready to start preparing resources.
- Support in areas of weakness
Not everyone is good at doing everything. One example that springs to mind is writing drill questions. At the best of times not all subjects lend themselves to this and often teachers are unused to doing this kind of work. One of the biology teachers was struggling with writing drill for a lesson on ventilation so we sat together for a little while and looked at different strategies and came up with:
Ventilation worksheet: Worksheet Questions
- Short, medium and long term planning
The traditional unit for short term planning is the lesson. We decided not to plan lessons but to plan learning sequences. A lesson is an arbitrary 55 minutes and not only should we not be trying to tailor our instruction to that arbitrariness but it is also impossible to actually predict how long things will take. In my lessons I will often just have students working up to question 6 or whatever and then start from question 7 next lesson. We have to adapt to the bell of course, but we shouldn’t feel restricted by the 55 minutes.
Regarding medium and long term planning, you will often see a very colourful calendar for the year which shows which units are to be taught when and for how long. These tend to be highly optimistic. Some teachers are slower and others are faster as they respond to the needs of their classes. Some teachers lose lessons through the myriad events going on in a school. We decided instead to do a long term plan which simply consisted of the order the units were due to be taught in. Every month or so I send an email round asking everyone to just tell me exactly where they are up to. I’m normally reluctant to tell teachers to speed up so I will normally then have to tell some classes to slow down. They can do this either by longer/more frequent mini-quizzes or teaching material that is not formally part of our curriculum (we have resources prepared for this too).
The two potential downsides to this in the long term are that we don’t finish or that we finish way too early in year 9. Having done some back-of-the-envelope calculations I’m reasonably certain that the latter is more likely than the former, and if that does happens we can just plan more units for them to learn. No big deal.
- Regular drop-ins
I try to see as many lessons as I can. This is great for me as a leader as it means I can see exactly what is being taught and how. Because we are content-led, the first thing I am interested in is if teachers are following the curriculum. If they are adding to the curriculum that’s fine (provided they aren’t falling too far behind) but if they are taking away that isn’t. There might be rare occasions where following discussions we say class x will not cover topic y but generally the course must be taught.
Unfortunately I also have to check that everyone is following the “assessment” policy. In practice this means checking that they are marking as per our policy. We’ve tried to make our policy as sensible as possible; we do whole-class feedback from mini-quizzes, individually marked hinge questions and individually marked tests, which means that actually following policy in this case is likely to result in student learning, so it isn’t all bad.