Pushing for Purpose

When I was first teaching, I know that a lot of what I was doing was simply emulating others. I had spent two years prior to training to teach as a Learning Support Assistant and that, along with the lessons I had experienced as a student myself, was most of the basis of what I chose to do in my lessons. The training I received myself was quite minimal, having taken the Graduate Teacher Programme route and there were no schemes of work. There was just you are teaching this text for this number of weeks. There was also very little about how students learnt and why we did things the way we did beyond some reflection around if they did or didn’t.

One of the things I think which saved me from just being really terrible (alongside the fact I had spent two years sitting in lessons which ranged from amazing to awful and had spent a lot of time considering why), was the fact I designed my own lesson plan which included both what I would do, and what the students would do, at different points of the lesson. I had found it online as there was no lesson plan template in the school and I had no uni link yet, and it seemed to be the example which made the most sense to me. It was a laborious process, taking me ages to complete, but I did it for every lesson in my first year and then for every observation for about the next 10, even breaking up existing templates in my head so I could think about what was happening my end and what was happening at the students’ end of the activity.

Obviously, we don’t want people to be filling out paperwork like this nor hold onto folders full of these types of documents (four full folders by the time I had finished), but it really did serve an important purpose for me it turns out.

It made me really think about . . . well purpose.

Purpose is now one of my watch words finding it has increasingly become a really important part of my vocabulary over the last few years, alongside the phrase where is or what is the learning. I have done my fair share of wild and whacky lessons, some with success, others less so, but all the time I have had in the back of my mind the idea of purpose. What is the purpose of this starter? What is it for? What about this table? I am asking the students to fill it out with quotes from the text, but what is the purpose? Ok, so today you are asking the students to imagine they are detectives in 1914. What exactly is the purpose of that stretch of the imagination?

Sometimes an activity has multiple purposes. So, for example in my ‘starter/ do not or task one’ activity may well be designed to recap the previous lesson, accessing the prior knowledge in their schema and creating one of those sticky bridges to new learning. The starter might go further than recap and be retrieval, linking together other learning in anticipation for new information and materials. Its purpose will also be to ensure that expectations are set or reset, and the mental shift takes place for students who are now in my English lessons, and not still thinking about Maths or what their mate said on the way to the class. That task always wants them to think hard to ensure they are ready for the next part of the learning process and they get a sense of progress and progression. It also has the practical bonus of allowing me to check students have all they need for the lesson during this time, attendance is recorded, and any immediate issues can be dealt with quietly during this time.

The more I have learnt about the processes of learning the more my focus on purpose has sharpened. What is the purpose of this text? This video clip? This image? This layout on my slide? This model in this form? I have become a bit obsessive, and the word now pops up when I think about anything from marking and feedback, the meeting or CPD session I am attending or planning and pretty much everything else I do.

In fact, some of the most powerful questions I now find myself asking when talking to leaders or teachers is about purpose. When you do this particular thing in your lesson, your team or in your school, what do you want to gain from it? What is it designed to do?  Is it having that desired outcome?

Considering purpose has also had the added bonus of stripping out some nonsense in my practice too. We have all I’m sure been guilty at times of doing things without thinking, or for the wrong reasons or just because we always have. Considering purpose is something which has helped me reflect. It has helped me refine and it has hopefully helped me to get better in what I do.

I now like passing this question on to others, to encourage them to think deeply about purpose and see what comes up from that simple word. Maybe that tells me something about my purpose. I hope that it is working.

Zoe Enser is the lead specialist English advisor for Kent schools with The Education People and an ELE working with the EEF. Her second book, The CPD Curriculum: Creating Conditions for Growth, is available for pre-order now.

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