(Not so) Splendid Isolation

Don’t want to wake up with no one beside me
Don’t want to take up with nobody new
Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first
Don’t want nothing to do with you

I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows
Lying down in the dark to dream
I don’t want to see their faces
I don’t want to hear them scream

Splendid Isolation
I don’t need no one

This is one of my favourite songs but one of my favourite artists, the great, late Warren Zevon. As quite an introverted character, I prefer my own company and would generally rather work alone. When it comes to teaching though I can’t deny the power of collaboration to reduce workload and improve teaching and learning. I was somewhat saddened then by the results of a recent Teacher Tapp poll that found only 14% of teachers had collaborated with colleagues on their first lesson of the day and that the majority were planning lessons on their own from scratch.


This strikes me as a massive waste of time. Lets take my own department as an example. If all four of us have a year 8 class we are teaching about population change in China, all with the same objective, how can it possibly make sense for the four of us to plan out four slightly different lessons to achieve it? By one of us planning the lesson and sharing it we could either free up more time to do other things and/or spend more time planning a better lesson.

So why aren’t teachers collaborating?

The myth of difference

The biggest barrier I have encountered when talking to teachers about this is the idea that they are all so different, so unique, they couldn’t possibly teach a lesson someone else had created. It wouldn’t fit their own preferred “teaching style”. There are striking similarities here with Ben Newmark’s recent excellent post Where did the textbooks go?

The problem here comes from a department (not to mention a profession) not having a shared understanding of what makes a lesson effective. If a lesson is effective, then it is effective for everyone as long as everyone understands the “why” of the lesson – the pedagogy behind it.

The second myth of difference you find teachers using to justify the need to plan each lesson themselves is that their pupils are different to everyone else’s pupils. They are all such unique beings that they couldn’t possibly learn the same way as everyone else. Whilst some adaptations of lessons is always needed for your own class, pupils are far more alike than they are different and what works for one class will almost certainly work for another, at least within the same school.

There tends to more of an issue when classes are set and there is pressure to teach down to a lower set. As Mary Myatt argues in this brilliant piece for School’s Week, the solution is to not set them. And certainly not to teach down to lower sets. Instead, plan in support so they can all access the same high quality education.

The department than plans together, stays together

So how can we successfully overcome these barriers and collaborate on lesson planning?

The first step is to spend time building a shared culture, a shared way of doing things around here. We spent time as a department thinking about the components of an excellent lesson (see here – Building an excellent lesson) and agreeing what works and what doesn’t. We have also spent time as a group talking about the “best way to teach” and have come up with a rough structure that we think a lesson should follow (see here – Is there a best way to teach?). This can of course work across a wider group than a department with a shared culture across MATs and clusters of schools. I have even seen this start to develop on Twitter between very distant schools who are still able to collaborate in this way as they share a common understanding of what works.

Once we have a shared understanding of what works we can start the actual collaboration. I’d suggest the most time efficient way of doing this is only to spend the first stage as a group, coming up with a overview of the topic you are planning. This is a great opportunity to decide what is the very best of your subject that you want to pass on to the next generation. Once you have this overview, break it into key ideas and assign them to different people – playing into different people’s areas of specialism and interest.

Make sure there is time in subsequent department meetings to share these lessons and discuss their teaching. Failing that, include teaching notes with the resources you create (you’ll be planning far fewer lessons, you now have the time to do this). Each teacher may still need to/want to make a few tweaks and changes as they would to one of their own lessons.

Finally, make sure that you are able to have honest evaluations of the lessons. This is always the hardest part as people will have put a lot of effort into planning for the team and it hurts to hear that something hasn’t gone well. Start with your own lessons and be brutally honest with pulling them apart and encouraging others to do the same. Correct them ready for next year.

United we stand

Teachers sat in their own classroom planning each and every one of their own lessons seems to be symptomatic of a wider problem in education. High turnover in a department makes building a shared culture difficult, young and inexperienced teachers makes it harder still. We have a cult of busyness which means that any attempt to work more efficiently is viewed with suspicion and seen as somehow cheating. Throw in a belief that a lesson should be differentiated 30 different ways and personalised down to the last child and you have a recipe for disaster.

It is time to leave our egos at the door and come together. United we stand. Divided we fall. And fail.


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