Can the scheme of work be a working document? Conversations with teachers

This week I have been delivering training on planning for learning in several colleges and I have had some fascinating discussions about the way the teachers conceptualise, devise and use these significant documents. It struck me that this can be an under discussed topic in our sector, as we tend to receive input on planning skills during initial teacher training and then just get out there and plan! It is the first time in a long training career that I have been asked to grapple with this topic with experienced staff in a CPD context and the experience has been interesting with a few key themes emerging in the dialogue.

1. Is the scheme of work or plan for learning designed and intended for teachers, management or students and what difference does that make to its layout, style and use?

Discussions here highlighted the notion of the scheme of work as proof of professionalism, of it acting as a plan to ensure coverage of all learning outcomes and assessment criteria within the given timeframe for the programme, both valuable attributes. Some teachers mentioned having a scheme or work as a teacher-facing document written in the jargon of our profession, showing compliance with the current trends in the sector, e.g. Embedding of numeracy and literacy, strands on employability skills etc. It is a kind of catch-all space to show you have covered all bases and here debate and disquiet became evident as some teachers commented that it can become a hoop-jumping exercise to evidence the latest hot trend in Ofsted thinking. Some expressed a tension here – what learners might need if you simply respond to what you learn about them versus the feeling of needing to incorporate “on message” elements in your scheme that may be less relevant, helpful or timely.

In our conversations the notion surfaced repeatedly of the scheme of work as a bureaucratic document that is generally added to the intranet in August and only re-visited before an observed lesson, an inspection or in preparation for the following year. Some teachers mentioned that their ‘real planning’ takes place in a personalised format captured in a paper-based planner or notebook or online folder. Some said that they print off their outline scheme of work and then annotate it with comments, reflections etc after the sessions and keep those sheets in a folder for reference or sharing with co-tutors on their teaching team. This would seem to have many positives in terms of collaboration and communication with colleagues but also personal reflection on your practice. It is too easy to teach a session and not have time or space to capture the interesting things you noticed in that session for yourself and your learners, so a quick note on paper may be a practical approach.

In some colleges I am definitely noting outbreaks of column craziness, as schemes of work get wider and more infested with spaces to cover different aspects of ever-multiplying embedded themes. There is a need for a sense check every time we create a pro forma and a column cull is a recommended activity for every summer term in my opinion. Retaining our focus on the learning of core knowledge and skills is surely important. Some colleges are artfully avoiding column overload by adopting The Embedding Box on either the top of the scheme or work or the group profile. This is completed in overview by the course team and then manifests itself in delivery at session level only as and when appropriate. This means harnessing naturally occurring opportunities to embed literacy and employability as opposed to feeling the tyranny of the column, nudging you to wrench in things that really shouldn’t be there in that session….

Some staff told me that they have devised something more akin to a plan for learning, which is student-facing, including an outline of content, learning outcomes, assessments and resources, written in student-friendly language. This has obvious benefits in terms of learners being able to catch up, review, preview materials in their own time and at their own pace, which sits well with our current emphasis on encouraging learner independence. We are here to help learners learn so this feels appropriate. The plan is for the learners after all.

2. Can we devise and use this plan as a true working document that is revised, re-imagined even, as we work with our learners?

This was indeed a thorny one, with many teachers telling me that it is common practice to devise the scheme of work in detail at an inappropriate time of the year (July/August) under pressure from managers and the way development/planning time is configured in our calendars. The more we talked about this the less it made any sense at all. In July and August we either don’t know learners’ results or don’t know the learners at all. How can we possibly plan detailed activities and resources for the session on February 10th of the following year? We just don’t know enough about those students to do detailed planning with any degree of reliability. In my opinion this is unsound, impractical and a waste of valuable time.

Here is a more pragmatic approach to consider:

1. In July and August, look at your specification for the qualification and chunk it into a top line, provisional plan of areas to cover each term. Spend time reviewing your work this year and identifying what went well and what could be improved, if you are teaching the same programme next year. Gather links, resources, video clips that will help you create a scheme of work or plan for learning to appeal to different needs and levels of learner. Do some of this with colleagues as a sounding board and source of inspiration/alternative approaches. In your outline plan/scheme, leave some sessions intentionally blank so you have room to be flexible and respond to what is arising at that time.

2. Plan in assessment points and assignment deadlines if that is possible.

3. Think about skills and knowledge development over time and how different aspects of the scheme connect and interrelate. Think about how you can create a golden thread through the scheme of core skills, concepts, approaches within your subject.

4. Plan induction and some sessions that involve a range of activities and tasks that help you diagnose needs, skills, preferences.

5. Later in September, use data on your learners and your observations as a professional to plan activities and resources that will help you work with this specific group of learners and then flesh out your scheme of work or plan for learning. By this point you will have a more solid basis of information to draw on in order to plan appropriately at the level of session details.

6. Re-visit the scheme or plan with colleagues for peer review conversations and amend and tweak it as further needs and issues emerge. Bring it to life as a real working document, reflecting your journey with that group as they move with you towards those learning outcomes. Used appropriately, I think a scheme of work is tweaked and altered very regularly as you respond to a live learning environment. Topics may need to shift in terms of sequence and additional remedial work may be needed as issues arise for learners within tasks.

I can hear some of the leaders and managers I know groaning and saying ‘We just don’t have time to do it this way!’ Yes you do, if you re-think the use of CPD/staff development days and curriculum team meetings over the year and that block of dead time in late June and early July. It is about will, focus and priorities. It is about realising that the current planning process in some colleges does not benefit learners or staff and fosters schemes or work as a piece of bureaucracy while the real learning process goes on elsewhere. Teachers really don’t have time to waste on planning in a way dictated more by bureaucracy than their real context. We need to work smarter here and we can.

3. How can we incorporate our own personal and unique ways of planning into a document?

Thoughtful, insightful managers realise that you don’t need one single standard scheme of work template in place to evidence good planning in your college. You need evidence of effective planning in some form. Even Ofsted came out to state that they do not specify a format or expect this to be evidenced in one particular way. This may mean that several sample templates are circulated as food for thought but teachers are also encouraged to submit their versions for discussion and debate.

Teachers working on linear A Level delivery told me they are grappling with how best to plan and represent this as they develop their practices. Teachers who deliver workshop sessions where learners work on individual personalised targets also find that the classic scheme of work template often doesn’t fit with the way those sessions are structured and delivered. For me we need more flexibility, more creativity and more personal engagement with devising planning documents so that they more closely mirror our real practices with learners.

4. How can we plan effectively in teams where we collaborate on delivery of a programme?

Teams who collaborate to deliver a programme need a virtual and physical space to share resources and reflections. This can be a shared folder or active scheme of work online, a box in a workroom and/or a regular slot to meet and share where they are and what they are noticing about those learners. Course team cluster meetings within the wider curriculum team or faculty meeting can help here.

By the end of September, course teams should be meeting for a look at what they know about those learners and how this can be reflected in their scheme or plan. To me it would make sense if colleges scheduled a half day staff development slot at that point and allowed teams to configure the meetings to suit them. After Christmas, another such session would be helpful.

5. Is it possible to over-plan and live to regret it as a waste of time?

Yes, and we need to be wiser about this. You can open the debate in your institution about this if you are a teacher. If you are a manager you can start exploring other ways of working with your team and you can raise this at management forums. If you are a leader, you can give the teachers the valuable gift of time to spend on sharing reflections and planning effectively for their learners. What could be more important?

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