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Planning: What Is It Good For?

Last week we had a series of discussions in school around planning. I had conversations with other members of the SMT and with individual teachers, ahead of a full session with all teachers at the end of the week.

Planning has long been a subject of discussion and dialogue in our schools, as in most others. I see it has been the subject of a Twitter discussion last week, led by @Cherryl-kd, followed by her own post on the issue. I must say it is sometimes quite shocking to see and hear of some the practices that still prevail in other settings, and the rationale that lies behind these. But, I am a great believer that all schools and staff are unique in many respects and are all at different places in their journey of development, and this needs to be seen and recognised, before they can move on. We are certainly in a different position to where we were a few years ago, and that position keeps developing and evolving. This is why we needed the discussion.

I, and the other members of the SMT, have been looking at planning folders as part of our monitoring and observation programme. I had tried to suggest we might wish to stop doing this a couple of years ago, when we had begun to sit in and contribute to collaborative planning sessions with teachers. They were aghast and said they liked having their folders looked at and receiving written and oral feedback on them. The youngest teachers were the most vociferous on this point. I pointed out that as we sat in on their discussions and deliberations we already knew what we were going to see in their folders. As a Headteacher I certainly found being in amongst these collaborative conversations a lot more informative, than seeing their folders, because I had heard the thinking that lay behind the plans. Anyway, it would seem that was a step too far at that time, so we continue to receive folders and give feedback. This ŵas partly why we had last week's conversations.

I, and other SMT members, had as usual sat in on collaborative planning meetings with staff and so we were well aware of what we were going to see. That wasn't the issue we were concerned with, this was around two things. What was the true purpose of teacher plans? And, what should the plans now contain, and what could be omitted? We had long ago decided that planning should be 'proportionate and manageable' as laid out in 'Building The Curriculum 5' of Curriculum for Excellence. So our planning for each area  basically fits on one side of an A4 piece of paper. We plan for blocks of work and there is no requirement, or expectation of planning for every single lesson, as some still seem to do.

So what is planning for? We reached agreement on three main reasons for planning. The first is so that teachers know where they are going in a block of work that aims to move all the pupils on in their learning. Teachers need to be clear on where learners are in their learning and how they are going to develop and build on this. Their plans should set out how they aim to achieve this, what the impact is going to be for their learners and how they will know if they have been successful. Planning should help ensure progression in learners experiences, promote depth in understanding and application, and breadth in experiences and contexts. Secondly, planning is an assurance to themselves, myself and others that they know what they are doing and why? From the planning process, and the plans, the direction of travel should be clear and the rationale for this understood. Thirdly, we need plans so that we can maintain the learning journey, should a teacher be absent, without any interruption for the learners. Another teacher should be able to step into a classroom, easily understand where all the children are, then continue with their learning. Most importantly we again made clear, that plans were for teachers not for Headteachers, or others. They were for them and had to work for them, and they should help them narrate the learning journey the pupils were on. We agreed that without a plan for learning it would be impossible to ensure progression in learning for all learners within a particular class or when the pupils moved on to another class or teacher. We need to be clear about what we are doing and why, because if it is not clear to us then it cannot be clear to the learners.

So what needs to be in a plan. We have formats that have developed over time and which are linked to our journey with Curriculum for Excellence, the Scottish Curriculum that has been in place for over ten years now. All our plans start from the Experiences and Outcomes detailed in the curriculum, which teachers then convert into learning intentions, or outcomes. We then have success criteria, through which the pupils will demonstrate if the learning intentions have been met. We also have activities identified which the teachers have planned to deliver the learning intentions and demonstrate the success criteria. Then we have a section for assessment, though a number of the activities already identified will be assessment activities. Where we are now though is different from a few years ago, so we need to consider the various aspects of the planning formats we use and see if they are still as relevant as they first were. We also know there are raised expectations in terms of planning by HMIE and we needed to consider the implications of these, if any. Last week was the commencement of  a process of revisiting what we do in planning and why?

There are some aspects of CfE that we are not reflecting clearly in our planning. We need to add some of these, but to do this we needed to consider if there were some parts we could change or drop altogether. Making the plans larger and longer was not an option.

The first aspect we have started considering is the one around activities. We have had some disquiet about these for a period of time. What we often saw was a lot of thought being put into LIs and SC but that once the activities were put down on the plan, some teachers then focused on the activities rather than the intended learning. The activities could just become a checklist of things to do to complete a block of work. We were also getting told by teachers that they never completed all the activities planned because they had to change and adjust these as they went along in response to the pupils and how their learning and understanding developed. So they planned new activities, they changed groupings and adjusted in light of the professional judgements and assessments they were making as they went along. More were saying these adjustments were necessary as they became ever more focused on the learning intentions, and moved their focus from the activities. I loved hearing this, because what the teachers were demonstrating and articulating was 'adaptive expertise' as identified by Helen Timperley and others. Teachers were asking, 'do we really need to identify all the activities on our plans?' because, as they pointed out, these changed so much but the learning focus didn't. A few said that they recorded activities as they went in their daily diaries, and one teacher had produced a simple pro forma to do this, as she felt her diary didn't allow her enough room.

So, perhaps we could create more space by removing activities completely from plans. We recognised that our plans were not being explicit with regards to what are known as the 'significant aspects of learning' of each of the eight curricular areas and we needed to adjust them as a result. When we looked at these aspects we could see we were covering most as they are very general statements about the application of knowledge understandings and skills in different contexts. We felt it would probably be very easy to include the most applicable 'significant aspect' being covered at the top of any planning format. We are feeling we need to be more explicit with these so that we are more able to be more explicit with our pupils, so that they clearly know what skills and attitudes they were developing within a particular context or body of work. Our planning does not include enough of the skills, aptitudes and attitudes that we are seeking develop in our learners and we need to ensure these too are in our plans, so that they too are clear not only to us but to our learners. The four capacities of CfE are another aspect we need to think about in how we plan. We undertake a myriad of activities in school to develop our learners as confident individuals, effective contributors, responsible citizens and successful learners, but we now need to perhaps revisit these to see how they are reflected in our planning.

We have much to think about, consider and discuss over the next few months, but that is the only way forward. We are all considering the possible options and I am sure we will collaborate to achieve a collective understanding and an improvement in what we do.

That improvement will be measured in one way. Impact for learners! I will let you know later how we get on.

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