- Published: 30/01/2017
The answer to this question is the same as the answer to many questions related to improving teaching – ALLOW MORE TIME! – but time is a finite resource and getting ‘more’ of it is not an option; so what else might we do?
We know that detailed lesson preparation is a vital element of effective maths teaching, yet preparation time is continually squeezed out by other tasks. I’m not going to list these tasks here, or enter into a debate about their educational value, but you know the sorts of things I mean. This blog post doesn’t attempt to present solutions to those issues. Instead, it presents an idea for how maths departments might use what time is available for lesson preparation more effectively:
How can maths departments organise their teaching to enable more detailed lesson planning, and facilitate effective collaboration between maths teachers?
How many different year groups do you teach each week? How many different topics?
Could teaching across your department be organised differently, to reduce the number of different lessons you teach?
At the beginning of my career I taught in a very high-performing state school with a selective intake. In a typical week I taught five or six classes, spread across different year groups from year 7 to year 13. I was well supported by my colleagues and enjoyed my teaching, but I knew that I could have done a better job if only I had had time to improve my lesson preparation.
When I changed jobs, moving to a large sixth form/FE college, my teaching became much more specialised, focusing mainly on A level Maths and working as part of a team of maths teachers who were also focusing mainly on A level. I had taught A level Maths at my previous school, and had deluded myself that I had done it well. The school had high academic standards and I was confident that my teaching was meeting them. However, I realised very quickly that being able to focus on teaching fewer different classes, and working closely with colleagues teaching similar classes and following the same scheme of work, my teaching, and hence the learning of my students, was improving significantly. I almost always taught the same lesson at least twice to different groups of students and, even if I thought the lesson had gone well the first time, I generally felt it had gone better the second time, informed by the experience of the earlier lesson. Being able to teach the same lesson more than once meant I had fewer lessons to prepare and therefore more time to prepare them thoroughly. Often, key lessons were jointly planned and resources were shared. Because several of the team were teaching the same topics at the same time, it was easy for us to share feedback and learn from one another’s experiences too.
The benefits of teaching fewer different classes and working in teams focused on one or two year groups can be used to good effect in secondary schools. If teachers on the same teams can be timetabled to have a common free period – impossible for a whole department, but much more do-able for a small team – this can allow formal time for joint planning and the sharing of experiences. Furthermore, if teachers with different levels of experience and expertise can be deployed to work together in the same team, this will facilitate in-house professional development that can have an immediate impact in the classroom and will also help to ensure a consistent standard of teaching across classes.
I know such practices already happen, to a varying extent, in some secondary schools, but why not make them standard practice? A concern might be that teachers would lose the flexibility to teach across the full secondary age range. With suitable planning, this need not be the case. A teacher might be deployed to teach different year groups in different years, so that over a three of four year cycle they would still have the opportunity to teach across all year groups.
I have discussed these ideas with several secondary maths teachers. All felt that their work could be improved if their timetables could be organised to limit the number of different lessons they had to teach, and all would value the opportunity to work in teams that were focused on teaching the same year groups.
I’m very aware that the practicalities of implementing these ideas in school may make it very difficult. It is likely that complex staffing and timetabling issues will need to be overcome. If you organise maths teaching in this way in your school, please do let Carol Knights (the NCETM’s new Director for Secondary Mathematics) know. We would like to publish realistic case studies on the NCETM website that provide first-hand experience of what the issues are and how they can be addressed.
I’m convinced that the benefits of having fewer lessons to plan, and of working closely with small teams to share ideas, resources and experiences, are considerable. With so many demands on our time, it must make sense to do all we can to plan our work in a way that best supports the most important thing we do – teaching mathematics.