The Department for Education has been looking for ways to reduce teacher workload. This week it published two further reports – one on shrinking the burden of data collection, and another called Addressing teacher workload in Initial Teacher Education, offering guidance to providers. It is that guidance I’d like to address.
While the impetus behind these publications is to be welcomed, I think we need to be wary of cutting the wrong corners. One suggestion that particularly caught my eye was: ‘How have you reviewed your provision to develop trainees to focus on planning a sequence of lessons rather than writing individual lesson plans?’
Why do I pick out this example?
As a teacher educator and external examiner of teacher training provision I strongly believe that student teachers need to learn how to plan lessons that are increasingly effective – specific lessons, in detail, with actual pupils in mind. It’s simply vital – so much so that I’m surprised that anyone would suggest otherwise.
Planning for individual lessons is a learning tool. Progression for a student teacher includes developing a wider, more adventurous range of teaching approaches that motivate their pupils and increasingly address their diverse needs. This is not the same as implementing template guides or ‘off the peg’ schemes of work, no matter how good they are. Becoming a qualified teacher means – rightly – being able to go further than that. Planning lessons requires student teachers to think deeply about important aspects of effective teaching. Expectations grow as the training year develops. That is different from progressing to planning sequences of lessons. That is also important, but is not a substitute for attention to focusing on the quality of individual teaching episodes.
Poor progress by a student teacher is very often rooted in surface-level knowledge of how to plan. As an examiner I’ve frequently observed student teachers at risk of failing, and nearly every conversation I’ve had with them about a disappointing lesson has trailed back to a flawed understanding of what needed to be in place to help the pupils to learn. This has always been shown most tangibly in the lesson plan. Learning how to plan is a major part of learning how to manage classrooms – trying to identify where a lesson went wrong is difficult if a student teacher does not have a detailed plan for which they have taken responsibility.
This is not to say that teachers must always ‘reinvent the wheel’ and plan every lesson from scratch. My point is that planning lessons is core to how teachers learn, throughout their training year.
Please, let’s not view planning lessons alongside administrative chores and data management as something that is a poor use of student teachers’ time. Let’s not lower expectations that student teachers will focus on the detail of what their learners actually do to learn, throughout a lesson – this is a fundamental part of learning to be a teaching professional.
The DfE request is based on recommendations from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group, and reducing all teachers’ workload is of course a serious priority. That is separate from the fact that student teachers are learners and protected time should be spent on learning. Yes, we do all need to be explicit about the purposes of lesson planning and ITE providers should indeed also emphasise the importance of planning sequences of lessons. Lesson planning should not be used to produce burgeoning evidence files or to satisfy misguided fears that this is ‘what Ofsted wants’. Lesson plans are far more important than that.
The most productive use of time is when a mentor spends time planning with the student teacher, co-teaching and reviewing how the lesson went, looking back to the plan as the basis for understanding what has been effective or otherwise. That’s where the real changes in workload are needed: we need a revised vision of how time should be spent – by all teachers – to grow the profession, from within.
Let student teachers learn how to teach, not expect them to take on those burdensome tasks that are not about developing classroom practice. This is an issue which is further complicated because so many student teachers are, of course, employed by their schools.
We need to insist that student teachers have time to learn to plan lessons and to be able to identify where the problems in their teaching (and classroom behaviour) are coming from. That means reducing time spent on other activities – such as multiple assessment loads, data management, admin or covering for other teachers. The DfE advice is well-intentioned – but it is based on a worrying misunderstanding about what lesson planning actually is.