Reinventing the Wheel. Again.

In a previous post, How much teacher autonomy is healthy?, I explored the good reasons for collaboration and coherence in curriculum planning from the perspective of a novice teacher:

 I want to be part of a team where the planning is shared, where the resources are good and available to me, where I don’t have to make curriculum planning decisions as if they’ve never been thought through by anyone else before.  This was especially true when I was just starting out; it’s also true now I’m teaching new things in a new context. …There’s a fine line between being given autonomy and being left to sink or swim. ….I’d happily sacrifice some autonomy to stay on the right side of that line – for the benefit of my professional development, my workload and for the good of my students.

I’ve come across this question  again as I visit schools and see how teachers and curriculum leaders everywhere are experiencing the same issues.  It’s not acknowledged enough that, with curriculum changes being implemented at every Key Stage, schools are working through a period of unprecedented turbulence creating a total workload that is absolutely massive.  Every A level, GCSE and KS3 scheme of work is under construction.  Y10 and Y11 are on different programmes, Y12 and Y13 are often on different programmes – depending on choices made about AS/A2 combinations – and the KS3 curriculum has to be adjusted to meet the new NC, to build on KS2 changes and prepare for new GCSEs. This could be made more complex where schools opt for a two-year KS3 and need to make the transition to a new model.

The task facing schools  – to reach a point where resourced schemes of work for the new courses are all in place with assessments to match  – is daunting.   Even for experienced teachers, there’s a big additional workload that stems from implementing change on this scale.  It’s so, so much easier to teach when you’re familiar with the materials and the assessments and, crucially, the nuances and details of the required content. Despite all of this, I can’t help thinking that we’re making it hard for ourselves. I get all the arguments about valuing autonomy; people wanting to have ownership, to be creative – but there’s just too much to do for this to be sustainable for everyone.

It takes time and expertise to break learning down into lesson-sized chunks in a coherent manner with the right sequencing with appropriately designed assessments built-in, designed for formative assessment of the content.   A unit of work needs to be crafted with materials that support students and teachers in the right way – the appropriate depth of information,  good questions, quality visual resources, diagrams, exercises, problems, practical work, selected high quality multi-media inputs and so on. Given the time it takes to do well, all too often we’re scrabbling it all together, working in silos, making our own instead of borrowing each other’s, writing them together or buying them in.

Even when we do borrow and buy, there’s the issue of excessive flexibility and choice. We’re very protective of any area of autonomy but, very often, teachers are actually spoilt for choice; it’s overwhelming.  Even with what seems like a standard scheme of work, these are usually presented as a suggested outline with a surplus of possible activities and resources.  This means that each teacher has to make a hundred choices  selecting the readings, the  worksheets, powerpoints, video clips, questions, the homework tasks and so on. This might be ok if everything available is relevant and of high quality – but too often it isn’t.   I’m sure it’s a familiar scenario across the country that schools have shared network areas with folders that have mutated from order into chaos over time, over-full with multiple versions of the Othello slides, energy transfer powerpoint or Basic Algebra homework sheets.  When all you need is the one really good resource,  it’s a total pain to have to filter out all the dross.  I’d swap ownership for quality any day.

Similarly, there are various online sharing options – dropboxes and resource banks full of stuff on every subject, often of varying quality or relevance for your classes.  Availability of the odd resource here and there isn’t the issue; the time it takes to find the specific resource that does the exact thing you think you need is just not worth it all too often. We don’t need proliferation of all the components – we need more people prepared to pull it all together and do the weeding out.   How many teachers across the country are currently trawling the vast web of bits and pieces to teach the suvat equations or earthquakes and volcanos or mitosis or Frankenstein?  Surely it should be possible for people to assemble a definitive streamlined package of materials that is absolutely awesome – that teachers anywhere could use freely.  Currently this commercial space is dominated by a few major players – and even their stuff is often too busy and too expensive.  There’s definitely a gap in the market – lean, high quality and cheap.

As well as all the teacher energy wasted in duplicating curriculum planning, there is the important side-effect that different students can get a very different curriculum experience.  That often means different in quality too.  However, I would argue that, on workload grounds alone, it makes sense to have much more tightly prescribed resources for units of work, with the task of generating them distributed across small collaborative teams and an expectation that teachers will use each other’s materials.  There are too many teachers who end up showing some crap youtube clip or easy gap-fill worksheet they found via a hasty googlesearch to plug a gap because they didn’t have time to find something better; ideally they should have access to a quality video input or question-set that has been evaluated and designed into the scheme as a whole, for a specific purpose, in the one place you go to find all the exact resources you need.

What about text books?  When you get a great textbook that every student can have a copy of, it’s bliss.  All your effort goes into plotting your way through the course and thinking about the students – not into finding, filtering or creating resources; it’s all there already -with the added advantage that students can look ahead or look back .  However, for too long, textbooks have been rubbish, largely because there’s been too much chop and change in the curriculum. It’s so rare to hear teachers rave about a textbook.  In some subjects it’s hard to find one book that covers the whole curriculum (eg History where there are so many options) and with all the exam changes, KS4 text books have been continually out of date or not sufficiently aligned to an examination to cover exactly the right material in the right way.   Hopefully we are entering a period of curriculum stability where this might change.

Even if money were no object, I fear we are our own worst enemy.  In our determination not to be dictated to in the one domain that is ours – our classroom – we risk making our lives much harder than we can manage. Our best bet is to approach the challenge with a sensible approach to collaboration, coordination and an agreement around sticking to a common set of core materials without being too precious about it.


  1. Couldn’t agree more. Nonsensical to be an island. Before each topic, we have a ‘division of labour’ quick meet. Pays dividends! Always astounds me on learning walks, how few share. “Steal good ideas relentlessly, share good ideas unselfishly” (Sir John Jones, I think!)

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  2. Problem with common resources is that different teachers have different styles and varying expectations of students. So as a language teacher, I like to present rich content and lots of examples that are slowly worked through, a la Michaela. But some of my colleagues have a different approach to language teaching, preferring to do games and picture slides, for example. So I think before common resource can be used, teachers must agree upon a style and philosophy of teaching, as they have done in Michaela. This is very hard to achieve in most schools, though, and asking long-established teachers to change their style is virtually unheard-of


    • That is a problem. Ideally you need to have an agreed approach within a school – otherwise children get vastly different experiences depending on who teaches them plus everyone is working much harder than necessary.


  3. As a trainee teacher this is one of the major things i struggle with. There are so many possibilities out there, I’ve spent hours looking for just the right thing and yet not found it. I feel like i’m constantly trying to reinvent the wheel which without much experience is a daunting task, and feels like I’m trying to learn my trade with one hand tied behind my back!

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  4. English NQT here. This approach seems rational, and I think: even with the same resources, no two lessons could ever be the same.
    My issue is the PGCE didn’t cultivate this mindset. I continue to focus (fuss over) individual lessons,and not on “progress over time”/seeing the learning as a journey.
    Am I still a teacher: even if the lesson wasn’t planned by me? The teaching standards inflict a sense of the teacher as “lone wanderer.”
    I find myself apologising if I ask for other people’s lessons, and I can’t help but wonder whether ITT has a lot to answer for.

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    • An interesting point. There is tremendous skill in selecting appropriate high-quality material and lessons that others have designed and then adapting it (without breaking it) to the needs of your own students. This should certainly be encouraged in ITT courses: it is much more effective to spend 30 min adapting some really good material to your class’s needs than 1-2 hours designing something from scratch, which may well be of lower quality (because many teachers are generally overtired).

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  5. I think, and have done for some time, that fixing this problem will basically fix teaching, which despite all the brilliant things going on in so many schools is dangerously close to breaking because it’s so tough to survive the early career phase. However there’s a long way to go. Every year I have trainee teachers denied access to resources on the grounds they ‘need to learn to plan for themselves’. I think that’s a symptom of the wider problem you describe here. I also think it’s the thing the chartered college could most productively start to address.

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    • I totally agree. Of course teachers need to learn to create resources and assessments but, early on, all of this should clearly defined and even prescribed so they can focus on everything else. All those hours browsing for stuff – it’s such a waste of effort, often with some dubious results.


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