A lot has changed recently. The new emphasis on curriculum and knowledge have led many to think about their teaching in completely different ways. For me, one of the big shifts has been the move from my teaching being resource- or activity-led to being content led. I used to do group activities, discovery learning and other techniques simply because I thought they were good techniques: not because I thought they suited the content I was due to be teaching. Now, I try to think about the what of my lessons first, and the pedagogy second.

One of the ways in which this change has manifested has been in planning and how to think about progression. My planning used to be in three main layers: the short, medium and long term. Obviously, those terms don’t mean anything beyond the relative time period associated with them: what actually gets done in each of them, as well as the actual amount of time involved, is open to interpretation. Below, I’ve tried to describe what these terms used to mean to me, the problems with how I thought about them, and what I do now, both myself and with our new KS3 course.

Short term

Here, the lesson plan was king. During my PGCE I was trained to write minute-by-minute guides to what I was going to do in the classroom, with carefully written descriptions of what I would do and what the students would be doing. Even then, I realised that this was silly. Teaching is about responding and adapting to the class that’s in front of you. Putting a time limit on yourself doesn’t make sense, what if you need more than 4 minutes? What if you need less? You need to be able to adapt.

A further problem is the very arbitrariness of using a lesson as a period of time for useful planning. Some schools have 50 minute lessons, others have 65. Those decisions are made for whatever strategic reason, but they certainly aren’t made because Adam’s lesson on polymers needs 50 minutes but not 65. Learning isn’t so neatly divisible. Some topics take more time, others take less time. Trying to stretch or squeeze the time it takes to learn something into an arbitrary time period makes little sense and does violence to your subject matter.

I appreciate that the way that novice teachers plan is different to the way that expert teachers plan. But that doesn’t mean that the Lesson Plan is the answer. It’s a relic of a bygone age and without a doubt we need to think a lot harder about how we support novice teachers to plan lessons.

Medium term

This is what medium term planning used to look like to me:

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In truth, this isn’t so different to how a file would look to me now, but I think the problem here is that it is just kind of an extension of the short term lesson plan. A medium term plan has to be coherent and well-sequenced. It needs to really anticipate how the ideas build on each other sequentially to form a better picture. I don’t know if I used to do that, to think in those terms, or if I just lurched from one lesson to the next without much thought. Take a look at this unit for example:

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The “messy folder” will probably be familiar to many. Messy folders aren’t just something quirky that only obsessives worry about: they result in teachers not knowing precisely what to teach, and instead just going through the folder to find a resource that is teachable (I wrote about that here). That’s a big problem, but even if we removed the problem and the folder were neat and tidy there’s an issue with the topics here. Endothermic and exothermic reactions have nothing to do with ceramics, polymers and composites. They are completely different topics from completely different areas of chemistry. There is no coherence to putting them in a unit together, they’ve just been shoved together for whatever reason. Sometimes this is done for reasons of time, that it doesn’t make sense to have a short unit so you have to put things together. But it’s so obviously wrong that it betrays a weakness of curricular thinking. Units need to be logical and coherent: doing otherwise sends completely the wrong message about how your subject is structured.

Long term

This is what the long term used to look like to me:

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I have big problems with this. Sure, it’s both pretty and colourful, so passes the “would my assistant head be happy with this?” test. But I don’t understand how it can actually work. Any time I’ve worked on a timetable like this I’ve fluffed it up. I’ve either been ahead of the plan, or behind. When ahead you end up doing momentum-killing revision or research lessons, when behind you end up rushing material just to catch up. I just don’t get how it works, or how you can predict with that level of accuracy how the year is going to progress. Things happen in school the whole time which can throw off these lovely timetables: visits, trips, drop-down days…they all conspire to completely ruin your plans. The veteran teachers just ignored the plan and got on with it, which was fine for their students there and then, but meant we got to the end of the year and different students were in different places: hardly a ringing endorsement of your department’s long-term planning.

So…now what?

I’m really lucky to work for a great team. We’ve tried to do a lot of things differently, and one semi-conscious choice has been around planning. Below, I will try to describe what we do and I’ll start with the biggest picture and then zoom in

Long-term

This is our overall plan of what we want students to know by the end of Key Stage 3. So not the end of the year, but the end of three years. There are a lot of considerations as to what makes it in and what doesn’t, but once set, it’s in stone. All students will know this material by the time they turn up for GCSE in year 10. That’s the goal: that’s the super-long-term.

In theory. In truth, we can’t really know how long things will take. So instead of saying “ah you must have finished B3 by December the 7th at 12.05pm, we have a plan that looks like this:

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The content takes the lead – not how long it will take. These are the topics, this is the order at which we are going to work through them and they will take however long they take.

Of course, we do still need to keep people roughly in the same place. We can’t have classes finishing the year an entire unit ahead or behind others. To address this, every six weeks or so, we do a checkpoint where everyone writes on a spreadsheet where they are up to with their class. In almost all cases, if a class is “behind” we slow everyone else down to that point. Likelihood is that teacher is just being more thorough. So the other groups slow down by doing more mini-quizzes or spending more time giving feedback after them or doing more practice work. Things which are good both in a learning sense, and in a strategic sense.

Part of the long term plan is also the sequencing of topics. I wrote more about this here, but for example we do C1 first so that we can introduce symbols and equations, then we do P1 so we can apply that to a combustion reaction and then do B1 so students can learn about chloroplasts and mitochondria in terms of energy stores, transfers and chemical equations.

Medium term

This is the unit. How are we going to build knowledge in a way that is coherent and conducive to student understanding? How are we going to relate it to other topics taught? We might do this in chunks like 1. The Solar System, 2. The Earth, 3. The Moon or whatever, but those don’t represent one lesson. You might spend one and a half lessons on The Solar System, a quarter of a lesson on The Earth and then five lessons on The Moon. It doesn’t matter: what matters is that the material is learnt well, however long it takes. And if you are halfway through teaching The Moon and you realise there is something from The Solar System (or a different unit entirely) that your students don’t understand? Go back, do it again. No other way.

Short term

This is the simple explain–>practice–>review cycle. Not a Lesson Plan – it’s just planning for learning. So I might want my students to learn that the Moon has phases because of its position relative to Earth and the Sun. I’ll think about the best way to explain that, how to support students to progress towards independent practice and then how to go over their work properly. And again, it takes however long it takes. I spent 45 minutes recently with my year 7s explaining the difference between mass and weight and how we can use that to construct an equation to relate weight, mass and gravitational field strength. It was a further one and a half lessons before they were practising using the equation completely independently. I had no idea in advance it would take that long – it’s just the amount of time that the content required.

That’s all folks

So there we have it. No doubt, as with all my posts, someone will pop up to say “that’s how we’ve always done it” or whatever. That’s cool, I was very careful to couch this as my experience. I’ve got a hunch that I’m not the only one though.

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