Curriculum | creating the conditions for collaborative planning

In the summer, I wrote a list of some of the ideas I had been talking to teachers about and tried to catch up on blogging about them. The fact we are in November speaks for itself here! Collaborative planning is something I talk about, not just as a way to ensure our time feels purposeful and considerate of workload, but because it enables us to have better conversations around curriculum, using it as a vehicle for our own development as a wonderful by-product of the work we undertake in schools.

A caveat: if you get to the end of this blog and think it’s a good idea for teachers to plan collaboratively, make sure they have the time to do so. Even the very best of ideas has all the makings of a tipping point if the time isn’t available. For a bit more about that, this might be a useful read.

We know that one of the most effective ways to develop mental models is to discuss different ways to approach a given hypothetical, and planning lessons is no exception. Subject knowledge is both fluid and infinite. Undergraduate degrees alone cannot equip us with the knowledge that we need: to know the various components of subject-level curriculum and to break it down to the granular components required to recontextualise it for the classroom. If I studied Lear at university, there’s a likelihood that I might know the text to be able to articulate character motivation, contextual relevance, conceptual themes to another adult, however, a great deal of thought and planning would need to take place before I put myself in front of a class of Year 12 students to dissect it for and with them.

Planning in isolation is not only counter-intuitive to developing these mental models, but is also a significant blight on teacher workload. Not only are we replicating work, but planning in isolation will inevitably lead us on one certain path as opposed to the deliberation of paths. That isn’t to say that there is a better choice over another in terms of what one teacher may plan for the same lesson as the next teacher, but opening up a discussion around those choices will help us to make more effective decisions and sense check our own logic and rationale for where we direct student attention. For instance, if I am planning a lesson to look at Blake’s London, I have several options at my disposal for the way in which I present the poem to students. I might want to place emphasis upon the extreme poverty in London and Blake’s polemic frames his own limitations, even though he is in a position of power himself in comparison to the figures he draws our attention towards. I might want to place emphasis upon the criticism towards more structural representations of power within the poem, such as monarchy or parliament and the relevance of the political climate within which Blake was writing. I might simply want to draw out the soundscape of frustration and helplessness that runs through the poem which could then lead to the construction of power as heavily reliant upon two parties: the powerful and the powerless. I have choices. Not so much good and bad ones, but ones that would do well to be explored further or thought on with others to decide the way forward.

Choices that might be better explored with others as part of the discourse for several purposes. I might not have called to mind that students discussed polemic poetry in Year 8 when they looked at Shelley’s Peterloo. I might not have thought about the way that soundscape was also prevalent within Owen’s Exposure to highlight a universal sense of vulnerability. I might not have considered that the class struggled to grasp the concept of power as a construct beyond the individual figure when we looked at Ozymandias and so my effort might be best spent there.

Effective implementation of collaborative planning ensures that we utilise the time that colleagues have together in what are essentially time-poor environments. Beyond saving time, collaborative planning allows us to create a discourse around our choices, draw on the expertise of others and ensures that we keep an eye on coherence over time that when, at our most time-poor, we can revert back to lesson-to-lesson thinking. Put simply, it reduces areas of our planning where we might be more subjective, yet still draws from the knowledge we carry about our students and their starting points.

Collaborative planning can be less effective when we interpret it as creating a lesson for many. Centralised materials enable a start point and help subject teams to follow the same ‘thread,’ in terms of key concepts, particular vocabulary to draw attention to perhaps, but we should exercise caution when using collaborative planning as an opportunity to plan for all, which is then unlikely to attend to the gaps of the students themselves. I have sat in collaborative planning sessions which resulted in three teachers huddled around a computer, watching another teacher type out some starter activities. In time-poor contexts, using this time in a way that is highly beneficial makes sense. So, what does an effective infrastructure for collaborative planning look like?

Creating the conditions

Collaborative planning sessions require the same thought that you would give to a collaborative task within a lesson. If colleagues are not well versed in coming together to sound out ideas, it is often useful to be explicit in the need for honesty, sharing of error and an appreciation that there is no ‘best’ way, but simply best bets to our decisions.

Creating a shared language for the process of collaborative planning is a helpful starting place and spending time unpacking key terms for pedagogical practice so that when we say the same thing, we mean the same thing. Terms such as misconceptions (or knowledge gaps, how these are different, the implications of that), exposition, hinge points, exemplars, procedures, along with any subject-specific frameworks that we might all use (what-how-why, for instance) is well worth the investment of time. Not only does it make conversations far easier in future sessions, but it aids students because this then becomes the language of our classrooms. It means the student who sat in my classroom in Year 8 will come to your classroom in Year 10 with the language we use for learning and applying particular processes or handling specific ideas.

Unpacking a shared language also helps us to ensure we draw back to the principles for such practice as a temperature check for practice. It helps us to take care not to mutate helpful ideas from their origin, such as retrieval practice or feedback. We become less focused on whether retrieval is retrieval based on where it features in the lesson, or how many questions because we spent time discussing that retrieval encourages students to recall what has the potential to be disused. It helps us to make sense with others to better understand feedback, so that we become less interested in how often, the boxes on the feedback sheet, the method of delivery even, and more interested by what it might reveal in terms of learning gaps or how it might be used by students in future lessons:

The five key strategies of formative assessment (Wiliam, 2018) taken from the EEF Guidance Report: Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning

Alignment of language cultivates the conditions for collaboration because we are not fighting to understand one another’s comprehension and can begin to deliberate over the process of preparation itself.

Posing useful questions

Useful collaborative planning roots back to the questions we ask ourselves. A good place to start can sometimes be how we are looking back and looking forward: irrespective of the aspect of planning that we might focus upon- our expositions, the verbal or written examples we use with students or questions we ask of them, drawing back to how we utilise what has been taught before and considering how it might be used in future is useful. Claire and I included a series of questions that might be used to draw these discussions in Symbiosis and I have also shared ‘the week ahead’ here if useful.

The focus should be on the discussion as opposed to the outcome and to do so, it might be useful to approach early sessions with a key focus instead of trying to do it all. This enables the shared language for the work of collaborative planning itself to become habitual. For instance, if teachers are going to look at possible misconceptions that students might present with when studying Eric’s semi-confession in An Inspector Calls, then it might be helpful to spend time on defining a misconception, using our own examples to highlight when a misconception might be better defined as a gap in knowledge- why it matters, and then tackling how we might approach the scenario together. Do students understand consent? How might we frame this through a critical literary lens for them to know what is being implied? How have teachers who have taught this text before approached it? What prior knowledge did they draw from to make sense of it? Where have students encountered a more subtle representation of inequality of power? How might we remind them of it to help them to make connections? What key reflections can those teachers offer about their experiences? I go from only owning my own experiences in my classroom, to a snapshot of the classrooms of many to help to inform how I might approach such an example in the future.

If looking at the retrieval that we might use before reading Fagin’s introduction in Oliver Twist, we might have a discussion around effective retrieval/ less effective retrieval to ensure we draw less on superficial aspects from previous study that are less relevant (name a character in such and such a text, complete this line in such and such a poem) and instead focus our energies on establishing that students have a firm grasp of the terms villainous and obscurity (activating prior knowledge by returning to an earlier reading of A Christmas Carol/Bleak House where obscurity was used as representative of feeling). By centring on a principle before verbally rehearsing where students might go wrong , this helps us to build a series of mental models stolen from the classroom of others to then feed into our own planning, as opposed to just using one lesson for ten classrooms over.

Making strategic choices

As previously mentioned, bringing a group of teachers together to discuss commonalities and difference in teaching will inevitably draw out debate- debate is good! It moves us forward. I remind you of my earlier comment about the focus of the discussion and not the outcome. With that, it may help to think about colleagues who will model such discussions, work with less experienced members of staff and most importantly, how ownership is given so that staff can use collaborative planning as an opportunity for professional development as opposed to an operational process. If I know Shakespeare well, yet I openly admit that my literary analysis of Jekyll and Hyde is a little rusty, do I have the opportunity to work with the colleague who knows Stevenson inside out? Have we identified the strengths in the team as a collective? Are we being open with our development areas?

This also has an impact on the work undertaken in development of curriculum over time; colleagues can make informed choices around who to have conversations with for particular aspects of long-term panning, or who to mull ideas around with before making choices regarding specific components of teaching practice. Shared scripting, crafted multiple-choice questions to draw out key moments of teaching, modelled exemplars and the debates around these- they become part of critical and reflective conversations that act as the fabric of subject departments.

Finally, it is important to mention that these conversations are without assumption that the less experienced teacher will be the less knowledgeable teacher. Collaborative planning is an opportunity to transcend and challenge our own misconceptions in regards to expertise, Instead of working as isolated bodies of knowledge, we recognise a subject team as a combined set of expertise, collectively tackling the challenge of teaching.

This might also be helpful to frame conversations:


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