I’ve had a couple of experiences of collaborative lesson planning at different schools. What we are doing at the moment with our mixed attainment Year 7 classes feels like the best I have experienced. I’ve been pondering why this is.
Collaborative planning can be a hard sell . It can feel inefficient. Some may be thinking “I could have planned this lesson in the time we’ve been sitting here discussing it”. It’s sometimes difficult to get everyone involved, especially if the less experienced teachers perceive that the more experienced teacher will know the “best” way to teach a topic and therefore don’t feel they have much to offer. It’s taken me time to appreciate that there is no “best” way to teach anything – it’s a complex interplay of the teacher’s experience and preferences, the relationship with the class and what’s gone before in the sequence of learning.
However, it is also patently inefficient for 6 teachers teaching the same topic to the same age children to be creating 6 sets of powerpoint slides and worksheets. This struck me when I started teaching. How much time do teachers spend creating their own resources and lessons as if they were the first person to have ever taught it!? At the time I thought why doesn’t just one person in the department to it, or, better still, one person in the country.
If classes are in sets then there is a justification that each teacher needs to “tweak” things for that particular class and the “level” they are working at. I would speculate that this is usually down to the teacher’s preconception of what the class will or will not make a decent stab at rather than a clear understanding of the individuals’ prior attainment with that topic. However even if tweaking is required (we still tweak for our mixed attainment classes) it is still a whole lot quicker than starting from scratch.
There are, of course, plenty of lessons resources available either for free or by buying into schemes such as Boardworks, which could mean that nobody has to create any PowerPoint slides ever again. Or your department could follow a text book scheme which often have on-line resources to support them. But picking up someone else’s slides and just stepping through them is unlikely to result in a good lesson, teaching is not as simple as that. It’s not really about the PowerPoint. There are many subtle nuances within the flow of a lesson that are nothing to do with what is on the screen, the worksheet or the text book. And the temptation to spend to glance briefly at the resources just before the lesson without really thinking properly about the sequence of learning is always there.
This year, our Year 7 teachers have been meeting once a week for 55 mins in a timetabled PPA slot we call a TRG (Teacher Research Group). We are doing the same for Year 8 teaching. It is voluntary for teachers to attend these TRG sessions as it is not additional PPA time. So far, all teachers do regularly join and generally feel that they get back the time they give up. There is one designated lead teacher for each year group who “chairs” the TRGs and is responsible for keeping the files and folders organised. Being the lead shouldn’t be a big burden but it is important to have someone clearly identified in this role.
The TRGs vary, but generally will start with looking at a very simple overview of the next 8 lessons or so with names and dates alongside which we might spend a few minutes discussing – effectively the medium term plan. We try to keep a week ahead of the lessons being taught. Too far in advance and we are likely to forget what was discussed. Going the other way, we risk the situation (which we have sometimes slipped into) where lessons are shared the night before and we miss the opportunity to discuss them.
It is this discussion of the individual lessons that is the crucial part of co-planning. The teacher that has planned the lesson will run through it, with the other teachers thinking about their own class and picturing how things will run. As we go, someone makes changes on the slides or writes brief notes on them to follow up later. The discussion focuses on specific explanations and questions, but can also cover the flow of the lesson, the practicalities of classroom management or verbal questioning. Often there is not a clearly defined end point for a lesson, it is up to teachers to manage the pace with the class and draw the lesson to a close at an appropriate point. This can mean that we sometimes get out of sync by a lesson or two but this is manageable. We go at a decent pace in the TRG which enables us to get through a week’s worth (4 hours) of lessons. We have 6 classes in each year group, so that means that each teacher is creating a lesson just under once a week. The starting point for this teacher is sometimes last year’s lesson, or sometimes we will briefly discuss the key learning points and key questions for the lesson in the TRG to give the teacher planning it enough to go away with to start planning. Homeworks are also created collaboratively and are linked closely to the lessons aiming to include some more challenging open-ended or problem-solving questions alongside practice of core concepts.
In addition, we do “learning walks” once per week where one class will be covered, usually by the Head of Department. The teacher will go round the other classes to see the lessons in action. They are looking to see how the pupils are responding to lessons we have planned and are not commenting on individual teachers. Every few weeks we will devote some of the TRG time to learning walk reflections where we discuss more generally what we have noticed and what we need to change.
Personally I have learned a lot from our TRGs this year. As well as an efficient way to plan high quality lessons, it is also a very effective form of ongoing CPD. I feel more confident actually teaching the lessons having had the chance to discuss them with colleagues beforehand. It has been a fundamental part of our transition to teaching in mixed attainment groups, which I don’t think would have worked without collaboration. I also notice that we have more informal reflective discussions between teachers about how the lesson went as we all have the common ground of having taught the same lesson.
The key challenge of course, is time. It would be great to continue this model right up to Year 13 but timetabling all these TRG sessions will be difficult. My message to anyone in a position to make a decision on this would be to have a go, make a start. If TRGs are effective then they deliver high quality lesson planning and ongoing CPD for all staff involved. These are two pretty fundamental aspects of teaching, aren’t they? So let’s dedicate the time to them. Marking policies might be a place to look at for clawing back some of that time. But that’s a topic for another post…