• Article

Planning collaboratively and learning together as a department

How a secondary maths department includes everyone in the planning process and fosters shared learning

Planning collaboratively and learning together as a department
  • Published: 22/06/2022

No two maths departments are the same. Every department finds its own way to construct schemes of work and plan the units of teaching that lead to lessons in a classroom. Approaches vary from those where teachers are given ‘ready-made’ lessons which they then tailor to specific classes, to those where teachers have a large degree of autonomy in planning, resulting in more variety of lesson approaches.

The approach at David Nieper Academy, in Derbyshire – a small but growing 11-18 school serving an area of high social deprivation – falls somewhere between the two extremes. But the key element is that teachers work together in a regular timetabled session to produce units of work that are eventually taught across the department.

At the heart of this collaborative process is a weekly one-hour meeting involving all six teachers in the department, including those recently out of training, and the two maths-specific learning mentors working in the school.

This system blossomed during 2021/22, a year when the head of department Rachael Brown found herself with a mostly new and relatively inexperienced staff team. In addition, she wanted to embed the teaching for mastery approaches the department had been working on in previous three years. Rachael is also currently training as a Secondary Mastery Specialist with her local Maths Hub.

Rachael recognised the need for members of her department, especially new members, to fully understand the principles of teaching for mastery, so that changes were achieved together, rather than imposed. With the strong support of school senior management, she secured an hour every week for the department to meet. Initially she used this to lead development sessions on teaching for mastery, but after a while the sessions began to be used to continuously write and review units in the scheme of work.

What happens in the one-hour meetings

On the day we visited, the department was reviewing a unit of lessons due to be taught soon, which combined fractions and probability. They had previously made the decision to cover Year 7 fractions work in the probability module to give context, and to make it feel like something new.

In this meeting, Rachael presented a skeleton S-plan for the teaching of the unit (image above, and available as a PDF download), and asked staff to:

  • consider what prior learning is important for the unit
  • look critically at the sequencing and think about whether any improvements could be made
  • look at the NCETM Checkpoints from the ‘Arithmetic Procedures including fractions’ deck and suggest which Checkpoints would be useful and at which junctures in the sequence of learning.

Conversations ensued, about whether ‘mixed numbers’ should be a separately addressed objective, or whether it should run as a thread throughout the other objectives, and about where in the sequence ‘simplifying fractions’ needed to be. These are complex pedagogical decisions requiring ‘horizon’ knowledge: both backwards (what is the required prior learning and how was this covered in primary school) and forwards (what learning comes later, that relies on this). For new and inexperienced teachers, being part of these decision-making processes is hugely powerful professional development, as well as freeing them from having to make such decisions alone.

How the teachers find the approach

Sarah, an Early Career Teacher, says:

‘In my placement schools on my PGCE, everyone planned their lessons independently. There was some sharing, but people were quite protective of their work and didn’t want to share with those they felt weren’t pulling their weight. Here we do the joint planning together which frees me up to really think carefully about delivering the lesson, language and so forth.’

That a department can so effectively support inexperienced teachers is important, but what about those with more experience? Scott has been teaching many years, and has previously worked in ten different maths departments:

‘There’s something special happening here. Collaborative planning is so often interpreted as dividing up the planning but here we are genuinely planning together and learning from one another – it’s the best CPD.’

Scott also argues that this sort of planning works particularly well when a department is trying to make the most of a mastery approach.

'I’ve worked in other departments using mastery, but it’s always been ‘imposed’ from a bought-in scheme or textbook. What we’ve got here is organic and developing – the NCETM approach is excellent, as are the resources. Mastery makes us better teachers – it makes you think of things in different ways and deepens your understanding. This helps you relate better to the different misconceptions you encounter in the classroom.’

Building on the one-hour meetings

An hour isn’t long, and there’s no sense at the end of the time that the unit is complete, or decisions are finalised. Rachael asks staff to email her any of their thoughts and continue the discussion informally, so she can piece the unit together. This is the strength of the department, she says, the informal support and planning, and professional discussions that happen continuously. And, because maths is taught in all-attainment groupings, the fruits of the collaborative planning process are used in the same lessons at the same time. That leads to a natural ongoing flow of planning conversations among teachers in the department.

Have you used the NCETM KS3 Professional Development Materials with your department?

NCETM KS3 Professional Development Materials can provide a basis for your department’s curriculum planning and professional development

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