Back to Schemes

I blogged about planning before, but focussed on lessons. It being that time of year again, and thinking about planning & schemes and documentation, I thought this might help me consolidate my ideas.

So, long term planning, course plan, scheme of work, whatever it is called where you are. What is it for? For me, unlike formal written lesson plans, a scheme is something I happily complete reasonably “properly” for the plain and simple reason I can’t stand lying in bed on Sunday night not knowing what I am doing on Monday morning. I hate it.

There are usually a couple of bug bears for teachers when it comes to planning long term: how much should I plan in advance, and what about the form I have to use?

Now for the first, I can teach off the cuff, some great lessons have been improvised, in fact. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you tried to run a whole course that way it wouldn’t be long before someone got a bit fed up. “Where are we going?” they might ask, “what’s the point of the course?” and increasingly “we’ve done this before”.

A whole course needs structure and balance if it is going to make sense to anyone involved with it, and I find myself wondering what people actually mean when they say “I don’t like a scheme of work because I can’t always tell what’s going to happen in the next lesson.”

For me there is always flexibility in a scheme of work. I don’t think I have ever printed a full scheme except for when I’m being observed simply because it does and should change. Something pressing or important might happen meaning that my preplanned scheme gets put on hold for a few sessions, for example. In fact the reality of my forward planning is that by the end of every term I have a handful of unused sessions which I can carry over to the following term, and in some cases never get taught because we all move on from there.

But how much should you plan in advance then? In my experience of FE colleges the requirement is usually a term or half term at a time. This always seems reasonable to me, although I personally prefer half a term at a time, mainly because of the point made above: by six weeks or so I am beginning to go off my pre-planned scheme, and add bits, extend bits, so it’s all changing anyway. I could do a term at a time, but find that it’s changing so much by the 8th week that I might as well not bother past that point. I would say that any more than that on an ESOL course is patently ridiculous. The class itself might have changed so much you can’t recognise it, and the scheme is no longer relevant; no matter what diagnostics you use, you cannot predict with any certainty how quickly or slowly your learners are going to learn; topical events may lead to changes beyond your control; and if you open up the classroom to the learners and their contributions, as suggested by the NRDC ESOL Effective Practice Project, (http://www.nrdc.org.uk/publications_details.asp?ID=89 ) this might change significant parts. In short ESOL courses tend to be deeply responsive to learner need, and not teach to the curriculum or to the exam, but to the learners themselves. If your E2 learners need and are ready to learn present perfect (and they may well be) then teach it to them, don’t ignore it just because some civil servant said present perfect is an E3 tense. (And before you say “If they’re ready to learn present perfect, then they must be E3 learners.” bear in mind that the term spiky profile can refer to grammatical knowledge as well.)

In some ways the only bits of the course which could be realistically planned a year or so in advance are the bits relating to assessments. The exam prep sections of the course (i.e. pretty much every lesson after Easter) are generally pretty predictable, with past papers and so on. This, however, is not a good thing: the proportion of backwash on ESOL courses is often enormous, with lots of classroom time being spent on preparing learners to pass the exam. I would take an estimate at about a quarter of the course, if not a third sometimes, being spent on getting learners ready for their summative assessment, regardless of the awarding body. But this is an issue around the way in which courses are funded, and the values of the organisation and their auditors, rather than anything to do with planning, so perhaps it is time to move on!

The other issue that teachers get bogged down on is the form. What does it look like? What do I put in which box? This is one of those issues which generally ends up with me finding a big wall and hitting my head against it. In many cases, bitching about the form is generally an excuse for bitching about forward planning in general because the teacher in question can’t be bothered to do it. You get the following boxes for the most part: some sort of “when” column (date, etc.), learning outcomes, teaching & learning activity, resources and often an “assessment” column.

I’ve seen all sorts of levels of detail on these. Generally, although not alway, the scheme and the lesson plan are (and should) be two separate documents. They have a different role in life, so when they are put together it gets confusing to see the sequence of sessions because you spend your whole life looking at a load of lesson plans. The scheme is generally for longer term planning and one which I generally do fill out pretty properly (for most of the year anyway), a lesson plan is basically there to either help you plan a lesson (say when you are trying something brand new, or you are relatively inexperienced) or, more frequently, a way of showing your thinking behind the lesson to an external observer. Therefore for the most part I don’t write lesson plans. I plan, as I said before, but I don’t always write it down and fail to see who would benefit from me writing a detailed lesson plan for every lesson I teach. I wouldn’t, and the only time anyone ever looks at the things is during formal observations. Don’t get me wrong, I can, and do, write lesson plans!

A scheme, then, is not a lesson plan and just doesn’t need that level of detail. It forms a sort of simultaneous tracker of the course to date, and a plan of where the course is going, all hanging around the nexus of the lesson in progress. In terms of detail I put in (say) three learning outcomes, with carefully spurious curriculum references if I have to (does anyone ever check these?), a learning activity which will develop each outcome, any resources, and how each learning outcome will be assessed (peer checking, monitoring, marking of written work, etc.). And that’s it. I’ve seen schemes with such a stupid time wasting level of detail you wouldn’t believe, with warmers, fillers, detailed extension tasks, random musings and the rest. Why? That’s a lesson plan. But then that’s just me, perhaps. But it does seem like an awful lot of work to achieve not very much. The worst one was where someone sketched it in advance and then when updating to reflect the lesson actually wrote a mini lesson plan, with all the bits and pieces they had done. Note the “had done” there. They actually did all the silly detail after the lesson had happened. Why? I have no idea.

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