“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. I say this a lot but I really think it holds a huge element of truth. That isn’t to say in any way that what you’ve always done is wrong or bad, just that if you always do it, you will get, more or less, the same outcomes. This status quo has bothered me for some time. Perhaps it is the time spent reading, perhaps it is seeing how amazingly schools have navigated the pandemic, but I really think that now is the time to start thinking more deeply about not just what we do, but why we do it – in particular, why we do it ‘that way’.
Over a series of blogs, I want to try and unpick some of the ‘norms’ that I have seen in the schools I have worked in and raise the question of ‘why’. Not to criticise (as a school leader, I would be criticising myself!) but to open the door and maybe encourage looking at things through a different lens.
After a conversation on Twitter a week or so ago, I want to start with a look at timetables. The question raised was a valid one – ‘How much time are people allocating on the timetable for English?’. I’ve been there. I remember having discussions with subject leaders as we tried to divide the timetable up to make sure we had enough time for everything. I also remember having the conversation with the senior leadership team at the time that we had a very English/literacy heavy curriculum and whether or not this was balanced correctly.
I totally understand the dilemma. We have so many subjects to fit in – English (possibly divided into reading, writing, spelling, handwriting, phonics), maths, science, history, geography, RE, art, DT, PE, PSHE, music, computing and languages. We then need to fit that into a three hour morning (with a break) and a 2 hour afternoon (crudely speaking). It’s hard. But are we making it harder than it needs to be or even should be.
If I were to think about the schools I have worked in, the timetables have all been much the same. All mornings followed a pretty similar pattern:
9:00-9:30 – Guided reading
9:30-10:30 – English
10:30 – 10:45 – Break
10:45 – 11:45 – Maths
11:45 – 12:15 – Spelling/handwriting
I’d imagine this is pretty common. The afternoons were then either blocked for content (so two whole weeks on science to cover the unit) or split out with different subjects on different days. To give an anecodatal example of how this seems to revert to type, I once ran a ‘free pass week’ at school which allowed all staff to teach what they wanted, when the wanted and in the way that they wanted. The idea was for staff to realise that through taking risks and changing the norms, we could achieve more. The week was great, well received by staff and children, but the week after, the very large majority reverted to the same timetable as before.
But is this the right way to look at things? The literacy and numeracy hour were introduced in the mid 90s, but their legacy remains. We still broadly teach maths and English in hour long blocks, regardless of what we are teaching. They tend to be in the morning (children think better in the morning or more support in the morning or other reasons) and tend to follow the same patterns.
I love the analogy that I first read in Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Making Good Progress’ where she talks about marathons. You don’t get better at running marathons by running lots of marathons. Instead, you break the component parts down and practice those – stretching, endurance, sprinting, nutrition, recovery, mindset etc – before eventually piecing them back together for a marathon. I think this is so true for learning and something that needs more exploring, but fundamentally, we can apply that to our curriculum subjects. Children aren’t going to get better at writing by doing lots of writing. Ofsted have also taken this on recently and refer to components – the building blocks and composites – requiring several components together.
So what does this mean for timetabling? A lot comes down to the way we’ve always done things. We tend to plan English lessons that last an hour. This can be the case whether or not we need an hour to cover the content in the lesson that we wished to be learned. This immediately throws up two things. Firstly, if we do only focus on one thing in the lesson, are we dragging it out to reach an hour with lots of activities that don’t necessarily support the learning of the concept. Secondly, and perhaps a more pressing concern, do we dilute the content by adding in two or three concepts in a lesson in order to ‘fill the time’ that has been allocated. Not only will this significantly add to the cognitive load we put on children, it may also mean that instead of looking deeply at one component and working on it towards mastery, we scratch the surface of a few components without drawing together the necessary links – or worse before the children have the prior knowledge to make the links in the first place.
This is where we need to think about a change. Why aren’t we looking at the component parts that need teaching, planning our instruction, modelling and practice around that and working out how long we would need to teach that component? For example (and I know it is a bit topical at the moment), if I were to be introducing children to fronted adverbials for the first time, what would I need to do? As it is the first time, I would want to ensure that I had planned my explanation to be really clear, taking note of the prior knowledge (adverbs/adverbial phrases etc) that the children had. I would want my modelling to show clearly the process. I would then plan some modelled examples with some scaffolding (maybe the sentence stem to which the adverbial was to be added) so that the children could work on moving towards a deeper understanding of fronted adverbials. Looking at this, I do not think that it would take an hour. I would possibly allow 30-40mins for the lesson. If that is the case, we should stop there and then once the lesson has been completed. We need to avoid the temptation to include ‘filler’ activities or even bits of writing if they do not further benefit the original intention of the lesson. It is worth adding here that when I last taught fronted adverbials, I did not do it this way as my understanding was not as strong as it is now.
I use this example as one that could and, I believe, should be applied to every lesson in every subject. Don’t plan your lessons to fill the time on the timetable. Flip it on its head and plan your timetable around how long your lessons will take. By doing this, I think you could maximise learning time by keeping your focus on the component parts of whatever ‘marathon’ you are running. It should help to reduce children’s extraneous load as they will not have to be juggling various, possibly unrelated or not yet mastered, components in their heads. But mainly, it will mean that your timetable is formed around your planning and teaching rather than the arbitrary times allocated to subjects.
I appreciate that this may not be easy to do. If your timetable is prescribed to you, then having this flexibility may not be a luxury you have. However, I do think it is important to ask ‘why’. In a polite and professional manner, I think it is fair to challenge a timetable. If the answer coming back is something along the lines of ‘we’ve always done it like this’ then I’m not sure it can continue to stand up. We need to be thinking more about how we can get the very best out of the time we have and we need to challenge things that are seemingly written in stone.