Early in my career I was part of a teaching paradigm shift, caused by the installation of electronic whiteboards in almost every classroom in English schools.
Before the arrival of these (enormously expensive) pieces of technology PowerPoint was rarely used, and when it was it tended to be for staff training and not day-to-day teaching. Schemes of work at my first school were held in a library of folders in departmental offices, which were followed and contributed to by teams working collaboratively. While, of course, there was some deviation from these (mine were usually unwise!), this centralisation of planning meant curriculum was coherent and departmental heads had oversight of it.
Interactive whiteboards, or just MASSIVE SCREENS as they were much more commonly used as, changed everything. Lessons became PowerPoint presentations with material that would once have been found in textbooks now projected above the heads of the pupils. This coincided with the strange belief that textbooks shouldn’t be used at all and that They Who Must Not Be Named would raze to the ground any school in which they saw them.
One of the effects of this was a decentralisation of curriculum. Teachers began creating their own lessons. In some contexts Schemes of Work became a hotchpotch of directionless standalone lessons. With lessons saved to personal memory devices and private areas it became more and more difficult for anyone to know exactly what was going on in each lesson. While the strongest departments continued to share and work collaboratively, the result was that in many contexts planning became atomised. Personal relationships and internal politics sometimes complicated this still further with some teachers reluctant to share their work with others. All of this increased workload for everyone, because everyone was now expected to plan their lessons effectively from scratch.
Fifteen years into my career, in my school and in others, we are seeing another paradigm shift. This time though, it is much healthier one.
Booklets and visualisers are changing everything.
For those still unclear on the terminology, as I was until fairly recently, a booklet is really just a personal textbook that contains the material pupils will need alongside the tasks they need to complete. This, in effect, is an embodiment of the Lemovian principle of ‘everything in one place’, which results in less time being wasted on transitions between different resources and activities.
In our Trust, in each subject, each booklet is drawn from a planned and sequenced curriculum that covers the entirety of the five years pupils are at secondary school. Each pupil in each year gets the booklet at the same time, which means that assessments can be genuinely standardised. As the pupils keep these booklets with them it makes setting homework very simple, as it is usually something as easy as ‘learn what we covered on pages 3-4 for a test in your next lesson’, or ‘answer question 6 on page 7’.
Writing the booklets is a task shared out among all the history teachers in the MAT (working at a larger scale does make this much easier), which means no one teacher is overly burdened. There is no getting around the fact that doing this well does take a long time, with most of our booklets (that last roughly a half term each) coming in at between 30 and 50 pages. Regardless, we’re finding most teachers don’t mind. Having ownership of an entire unit of work that will be taught to hundreds of pupils is an inspiring responsibility and very different to frantically typing text onto PowerPoint slides in time for P4 after lunch. The greatest advantage of this approach is that it means that everyone then benefits from really high quality work from the rest of the team – instead of spreading out the work thinly and producing lots of lower quality resources, the more focused booklet strategy means overall standards are much higher. It also offers opportunity for further professional development – some members of our MAT history team asked to write booklets on topics they knew little about so they could improve their own subject knowledge. It is also important to remember that the big effort is only at the beginning. Assuming the booklets are of a decent standard, work the following years is really just editing them based on the feedback of the teachers who’ve used them.
Having these booklets radically changes planning. Freed from time consuming resource creation teachers can concentrate all of their efforts on effective delivery. For most this means annotating their own copy of the booklet with the words they’ll need to teach, scripted explanations, diagrams and the questions they plan to ask. Most teachers at my school now also keep their own exercise book in which they model tasks and project onto the board using a visualiser (more on this later).
Teaching using the booklets is very straightforward. Much of most lessons is spent on teachers reading the booklet with pupils, elaborating on the material through explanation and checking understanding through questioning. Page, and even better, line numbers make it really easy to keep pupils on track and to refocus those who have for whatever reason lost their place (“Lucy, page 3 line 26, please”). For pupils who have been absent it is now much easier to catch up – read the pages in the booklet you missed and then just ask the teacher about what you didn’t understand.
Assessment is much fairer; because pupils take booklets home with them they always have what they need to study from. No more trawling the internet for vague ‘revision’ websites and fairer for those pupils who might not have books at home to help them.
While booklets on their own have a huge impact, when combined with the use of a visualiser the effects are transformative. Again, for those who have not come across them a visualiser is basically a camera that can project work on a desk up onto the screen at the front of the classroom.
The Nuneaton Academy, where I work, now has visualisers installed in every classroom and it has been really interesting to see, without any particular direction from SLT, how their use has increased and created consistency in practice. While consistency is not, of course, a positive thing in itself I think even Mark Enser would approve of what is going on; teachers are simply, without external direction, moving to the method that works best.
In most lessons this now means the teacher places their own copy of the booklet the class is working from under the visualiser and reads, or asks pupils to read, from the text. The teacher then highlights key passages and annotates them to illuminate and add further layers of meaning and understanding, while talking through their thought processes. Pupils follow along, adding their teacher’s annotations if they are helpful and their own if there is something else they think worth noting down. Some teachers task pupils they know to be good annotators to sit at the visualiser freeing them up to draw on the board or to give more expansive explanations, while providing peer role-modelling for the rest of the class.
The visualiser is even more effective when used by teachers to model work. Putting their own booklet or exercise book under it and then completing the tasks while explaining why they have included the material they have, or how they are linking seemingly disparate points together provides pupils with strong models. The teachers I’ve seen do this best incorporate this into the “We” section of the “I, We, You” teaching sequence by pausing to ask pupils what they think should be included before setting pupils off on independent work.
The efficiency of all of this has meant I’ve had to make some alterations to my teaching and unlearn some internalised habits, but overall the switch has been pretty painless because it has been so intuitive and easy. It all feels very different to the days in which we were frogmarched into training on how to use the IWB for engaging learning games. Already I’m finding I’m clicking the PP icon on my desktop less often and even when I am using it, it’s mainly just to show an image in the booklet on a bigger scale so I can point out the details in it, or to show something that reinforces the material in the booklet.
In some ways seems a shame. A bounty of the Great Stupidity I have banks and banks of PowerPoints, representing probably thousands of hours work, stored in neat folders dating back more than a decade.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever use any of them again. I wish I’d never had to.