Rachel Rayner is a Primary Mathematics Adviser at Herts for Learning.  Reflecting on her travels around schools, Rachel shares her observations about what can cause teachers to focus on aspects of planning that hinder teachers’ delivery of lessons. 

At the beginning of every year I work with new schools and teachers who are new to my existing schools.  In my last blog Teachers Reclaim Your Inner Artisan, I talked about how schools are changing their view of planning, how they are being unshackled from the ‘accepted planning routes’.  But I have also spent time with teachers over the last few weeks who are or feel they are, and that is an important distinction here, tied to a certain proforma, a definitive process for planning.  

The ‘oh yeah, that’s lovely but I’m not allowed to plan like that,’ was palpable on our leads’ day for the new ESSENTIALmaths materials. When it was suggested that scrawling all over the steps and sequences was planning, there were lots of nodding heads and relief,  but there was also the feeling that ‘I’ll never get away with that in my school’.  Plenty of leaders photographed the model we displayed, and the example from one of our schools, and were happy to take this back to school to discuss. Another teacher in a school I support had spent 6 hours planning mathematics, clearly that isn’t sustainable.

On each occasion I’ve worked with teachers and leaders on planning I’ve been amazed at how much of this is still about filling in boxes.  And the fear of all of those filled in boxes being looked at in a planning scrutiny.  Planning is crucial, it’s the dress rehearsal for our main performance.  We need to plan to ensure we lead towards our learning destination, to consider the approach and how we will make sure it is accessible for our learners, what will be modelled, clarified etc. But the better the planning looks does not equal a great performance or pacey secure learning. I recall seeing the most beautifully colour coded plan, clearly care and time had been spent getting these boxes just right.  I must confess, it looked like this teacher was on it, it was going to be a lovely feedback and…it wasn’t. The delivery was confusing and the modelling wasn’t effective, and the teacher looked dazed, my heart went out to her. Another teacher I worked with was planning the most wonderful lessons with bells and whistles and some trumpet fanfares thrown in.  But it turned out the bells and whistles distracted children from learning and they weren’t progressing, it was too pick and mix.  Easily done, I can recall lessons which make me cringe now, in hindsight I’m not sure what the purpose of the activity was.  Some of these lessons I was observed for and received positive feedback, because they looked good and the children were all engaged, it seemed like they were learning.  The more I work at teaching, the more I wonder if I am observing surface level activity or real sustained learning, it makes me push more now, I wish I’d pushed harder with my own classes. And now I approach box marked ‘Activity’ with much more care – is the activity making children ‘look busy’ or is it purposeful examples focussed on leading pupils to secure core learning? Much of this is down to experience but in each case the planning format and the fear of accountability was a blocker.  Once we strip this back with teachers and focus on planning the sequence to a known outcome without the planning format, with the pupils at the heart of our thinking and keeping it simple – learning happens with greater clarity.

The bells and whistles teacher went on to teach some of the most elegant lessons, it was a privilege to be part of them.  Pupils made links from lesson to lesson and the teacher made very sure that they attended to the core learning. The lessons weren’t boring either they were purposeful with a splash of creativity.

The teacher who spent 6 hours planning found that actually SLT had no problem with her not filling in all of the boxes on the form and were horrified that she had spent so much time on this.  Resolved in a conversation.  She now wants to spend more time understand what she is teaching, how she will model, clarify and provide access to the learning.

The question should be asked – Are we planning to fill in boxes or are we planning for learning?  There are plenty of examples of how either perceived messages about planning formats or the planning formats themselves are limiting (or at the least too time consuming).  Just because we are working on questioning, do we need yet another box on the planning form?  Does having the word ‘Activity’ on the proforma lead to those bells and whistles activities rather than the carefully ordered examples we need to provide for pupils to progress?

Finally – do we need days of the week on the form?  It used to make me terribly guilty that by Friday I was still in Wednesday’s planning row.  Could we have the order of teaching set out as first, then, next…finally?  I wouldn’t feel so guilty then and that would ease my burden.

Can of worms anyone?