We Teach Too Many Lessons

Image result for confusionIf you want to get really good at something, you need to practise it repeatedly. This is commonly accepted in sports and drama, but often ignored in the academic curriculum, where ideas about creativity and independence are wrongly interpreted to mean that drill and practice will somehow hold back the intellectual development of pupils.

Drill and practice are absolutely essential for fluency, however, and this applies to teachers as well as pupils. Fluency of teaching cannot be achieved without repetition, any more than pupils can achieve fluency in any academic subject without repetition. But how often do teachers get to repeat lessons? Often, teachers will only deliver a lesson once a year, and it is one among hundreds. By the time they come round to teaching it again, too much time has lapsed for them to remember and apply the lessons learned and fine tune the delivery. And there is no hope of automaticity with such infrequent repetition.

This infrequency of repetition results from the typical arrangement of a British secondary teacher’s timetable, where they teach their subject across multiple year groups. It is not uncommon for a secondary English teacher to be teaching as many as seven year groups. They could easily have between twenty-five and thirty different lessons per week, making hundreds of different lessons per term. With the best will in the world, there is no way that they can become fluent in the delivery of any of those lessons.

We have to recognise our own limitations as teachers, and apply the lessons of cognitive science to ourselves as much as to our pupils. Teaching lessons is a demanding and complex process, and the majority of it needs to be automatic for sufficient attention to remain for thinking about the really interesting element: the subject knowledge. If there is going to be any hope of real mastery on the part of the teacher, there needs to be a limit on the number of different lessons they have to teach each year. I would suggest that no secondary teacher should teach more than three year groups. Two year groups would be even better.

Teaching fewer year groups would also have the benefit of allowing teachers to deepen their subject knowledge and become really expert in the part of the curriculum entrusted to them. Of course they should know about the rest of the curriculum to some extent, but deep expertise cannot be achieved in everything. Teachers would be able, in these circumstances, to think of themselves more in the way university academics do, as real experts in a particular aspect of their subject.

Schools are more free to innovate than ever before. It would be wonderful to see more brave leaders considering this question of mastery and fluency in their teaching staff, as well as in their pupils, and placing limits on the number of year groups each teacher has to deal with.

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5 thoughts on “We Teach Too Many Lessons

  1. A very good point, though one has to balance it against repetition ad nauseam. I feel it takes five or six years to refine a course to the point of smoothness – and yet we often don’t get that long before things change.

    I think there is a wider point too – teaching *in general* accumulates the kind of automatic expertise you mentioned; it does not really require the multi-repeating of every lesson. And yet experience is dismissed in favour of youthful energy all the time. What price the nearly 26000 lessons I have taught so far?

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  2. A friend of mine, who also happens to be an RE teacher, once told me that their 5th “performance” of a lesson tended to be the best; up to that point, they were working out how to best teach the lesson, beyond that, who said what became a bit of a blur.

    As a science teacher, most years I teach each lesson once an once only, and your experience of not having the repetitions to get things right chimes with mine. In a sprawling subject like science, one class in a few year groups is already a full timetable.

    In addition to focusing on fewer year groups, it would help a lot if timetabled subjects weren’t so big. Splitting science back into biology/chemistry/physics (for example), and letting teachers specialise, would give teachers a chance to repeat lessons and get better at them.

    It would mean admitting that generic pedagogy isn’t the only way to improve, and that there’s something to be said for specific subjects, but one can hope.

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    • Another science teacher here. My first couple of years teaching in England were tough, I had all year groups and was having to plan from scratch for everyone. So much time was spent on lesson planning that wasn’t even that good – my time was to spread and didn’t have the experience. I supported a system where at least we had doubled up classes – two classes from the same year group (maybe different sets).

      Im my school in Barcelona we have three classes per year group and our head of department gives a whole year group to one member of staff. 9 hours of teaching a week, 3 classes. Lessons improve quickly, you notice the pit falls with the first class, improve, do it with the second class, tweak it again. Next year round same again.

      I only teach year 7 (3 classes) and two IB biology classes. I have now taught year 7 for 5 years, and now with three year 7 classes at the same time, my year 7 course is very smooth (and I’m still tweaking lessons and tweaking SOW). I’ve just started IB so will take a few years until I feel the same about that course. Whatever happens, I am campaigning not to be moved out of Year 7 and IB (very unlikely anyway – but not taking the risks).

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  3. I definitely agree. When I moved from the US to England it was a very strange system, to my mind, to require so much prep and planning instead of teaching one year group so that the work you had done could just be repeated. In my school experience, teachers taught 1 or maybe 2 subjects. I would be hired as the 7th grade English teacher and perhaps teach one elective such as Creative Writing or Journalism.

    Some of the best districts in the US are also giving shared planning time to large departments with mutiple 7th grade English teachers to split up tasks and discuss methods/assessments. I don’t mean a curriculum meeting after school, but time in the school day each week. Additionally, a minimum of one PPA a day is given to teachers and it is only taken in the most extreme circumstances, often less than once a year. The only time I covered another lesson during my PPA was when a colleague went into labor. Maybe I’ve had a very unique experience within my career in these examples. I’ve never taught, and I don’t have friends who teach in urban schools, so this may bea rural/ suburban phenomenon.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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