How To Achieve Both Curriculum Cohesion And Teacher Autonomy



Not that long ago, back when I was a teacher and before I had any SLT responsibilities, I worked in a brilliant school where we teachers had a lot of autonomy. Sure, there too existed many structures to ensure accountability, but we also had the freedom to make many decisions for ourselves. One such area of liberty was in curriculum planning. I struggle now to remember what was actually on the school's long term plan but I do remember half-termly after-school planning meetings where we developed medium term plans. This was in the days just prior to the publication of the 2014 National Curriculum and I remember being very creative with our planning - we had a Steampunk-themed unit in which we covered the Industrial Revolution, read Mortal Engines, created our own characters, designed and made costumes and wrote biographies. We planned a unit on conflict in which we covered World War 1 but also studied more recent wars and read Oranges in No Man's Land. Our local history unit Pity Poor Bradford involved walks around the city and focused heavily on artwork inspired by the city and a local artist. All of the above was designed by us, the teachers. We loved it - the creativity and the ability to tap into our own interests meant that we were invested and excited to teach the content. However, there were downsides to this approach. There was very little continuity - as year 6 teachers we had hardly any knowledge of what had been taught before, and prior learning would differ from cohort to cohort. We actually had to spend a lot of our own time planning these units of work - 100s of teacher hours went into these innovative units of work. A child and their sibling, just two school years apart did not get a consistent experience - a younger sibling looking forward to learning about a particular thing may never have got the opportunity to as the 'curriculum' may have changed. As continuity and consistency were impacted, so too was coverage - knowledge, skills, topics, themes, concepts and ideas that were intended to be covered fall through the gaps and never get taught. Teachers' own knowledge and interests, or lack thereof (and this is only natural, so no judgement), also led to poor coverage and a kind of pot luck approach to the curriculum - you can't just think that they'll get taught it at some point. I'm very sure that for each of these downsides, there are people who think the positives outweigh what I think of as negatives. Yes, there are even those who are OK with incredibly heavy teacher workload. However, I would stand by my assessment and say that good curriculum design should eradicate these downsides. But, the question remains: how do we ensure curriculum consistency, continuity and coverage without completely eroding teacher autonomy? We might even ask if teachers need any autonomy at all when it comes to curriculum planning. To answer the second question quickly, I think yes, teachers do need autonomy. Deci and Ryan's research suggests that autonomy is one of the three aspects of wellbeing so if we want our teachers to be well (and we all should, for so many reasons), then autonomy for teachers needs to built into curriculum approaches. I think the answer to the first question is quite simple too, and it is twofold. 1) Involve teachers in curriculum design. Often, these days, curriculum design is the preserve of SLT, squirreled away in offices. But even this work can be done in a way that is informed by teachers. Schools can create think-tank type groups of teachers who are consulted on a range of matters, including curriculum design. Whole staff meetings could be conducted, led by someone with a firm grasp on curriculum design, in which all members of staff have an opportunity to have input into the curriculum content. These are just two ways on which staff might be part of curriculum design - there are many more. Even if final documentation - long term plans, unit overviews, knowledge organisers - is created by members of SLT, when provided with these, teachers will know and see that they have had input, going some way to address that need for autonomy in that it is something that belongs to them and something that they have had a say in. 2) Require autonomy at the short term planning stage. This is where the real autonomy comes, even if staff members have not been involved in the design and documentation. If teachers are provided with the materials that support them, and ultimately save them time, then they can spend their precious time ensuring that the delivery, the implementation, of what is planned is as good as can be. And what might those materials be? I'd suggest the following as a starting point: Long term plans that show how units of work build on previous material and lay foundations for future work. Aim, purpose and rationale for each subject, including an outline of how those are achieved in each particular subject. Unit overviews each detailing curriculum coverage, key knowledge and skills, key vocabulary and a learning sequence which provides the basis for the content of the unit. Progression of skills for relevant subjects. Such documentation, coming on the back of training and supported by follow-up training, should be coherent enough for teachers to use to inform their planning - the stage where they get to make decisions about how best to deliver the material, although this usually will need to fit with their school's general pedagogical approach. This is where they will take into consideration the needs of the children in their class and will be able to inject their own personality into how the material is taught. In a recent episode of the Rethinking Education podcast, Jon Hutchinson said "teacher autonomy doesn't trump pupil entitlement" and I think this simple phrase is the crux of the matter. Yes, we want teachers to have autonomy, but not to the detriment of the children's learning experiences and opportunities. It is possible to put enough in place that teachers align on whilst still ensuring that they have autonomy. This balance can and must be achieved. Even with the best will in the world, each single teacher on their own cannot ensure the curriculum is consistent, continual and covered - this big picture work needs to be done for them so that they can play their part on the learning journey.


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