Teacher Autonomy: Part II – Curriculum & Teaching

Part II
In my previous post, I argued that teacher autonomy is worth sacrificing when it comes to decisions about behaviour systems. I suggested that this is the only way true consistency can be achieved and that consistency is essential for good behaviour to flourish. This is because good behaviours are good habits, which are forged through constant feedback.

What about teaching?
Every teacher within a subject community has similar goals for their pupils, ultimately. But every teacher also has a different set of pupils in front of them. Every teacher has their own personality, likes and dislikes. The philosophical question of this post is: How much autonomy should teachers have about pedagogy, curriculum and teaching?

Planning your own lessons is an obvious expectation in teacher training. But planning a really good sequence of lessons is really challenging. It requires a huge investment of time and expertise. This is why I believe so strongly in a centralised curriculum, as I have argued in this series of blogs on workload.

A curriculum is not just a series of stand-alone lessons. Nor is a curriculum a series of stand-alone units. A well thought-out curriculum is a narrative that breaks down a discipline into its constituent parts, sequences them with the learner in mind, and weaves in explanations, feedback and ample opportunity for pupils to practice to mastery. Designing a curriculum is a truly Herculean task. But the curriculum I have described here, is exactly the kind of curriculum that I as a teacher crave to deliver.

The only feasible way a teacher like myself can teach a dream curriculum as described above, is to plan it with an excellent team. And the beauty of such a series of lessons, is that they are renewable. Working with others provides the opportunity to pool ideas about optimal sequencing, misconceptions and crafting explanations. The end product allows for significantly better lesson delivery than lessons that were planned hastily, alone and without as much thought.

In response to part I of this blog post, Christine Counsell tweeted about the factors that affect the scale at which collaboration between teachers is desirable and feasible. She described the tension between ‘teacher creative, moral and intellectual agency’ – the desire of teachers to shape their own curriculum – and the outsourcing of curriculum responsibility in order to address the issue of workload. She added that one of the big issues is differences between disciplines.

@Counsell_C tweet

Christine Counsell’s thread about teacher agency in the context of curriculum.

For me, one of the big issues is that for a curriculum to be planned centrally in the first place, the team working on it must agree on how it is to be done. This is why values must be at the heart of all decision-making. Values influence content selection and exclusion, as I will discuss in my contribution to the Curriculum in Science Symposium organised by Adam Boxer. Values also affect the intended delivery of the curriculum. In other words, values dictate the relationship between the pupils, teachers and curriculum itself.

At Michaela, for example, we agree that the research favouring direct instruction methods is superior in outcomes to inquiry-based learning, so this is the approach we employ in our delivery, and in our curriculum planning. Therefore, we think essential tools of a good teacher include:

  • deliberate practice (extended practice on concepts broken down to their smallest constituent parts).
  • whole-class feedback (reading, not marking, pupil work and giving everyone feedback on common mistakes/conceptions).
  • dual-coding (using diagrams under the visualiser while you explain a concept)
  • retrieval practice (giving pupils lots of opportunities to recall previous knowledge so they they retain what they have been taught).

So, are teachers who use centrally planned resources, sacrificing their autonomy, like with behaviour? At the surface, the answer is yes. I can’t turn up to a lesson and do a information hunt on acids and bases in my classroom. I can’t do group role-plays showing the dissociation of acids in aqueous solution. The values and resources that shape my curriculum do not allow this. Nor does this agree with the approach of my school.  I can list more things I cannot do, each suggesting I have sacrificed my autonomy as a teacher.

But, in a school like Michaela, where behaviour is excellent because of the centralised systems we have in place and because of the consistency in its application, we have inculcated habits for success in our pupils. This gives me the freedom to teach from a brilliant curriculum, and do so with the full attention of every pupil in my class. I have the autonomy to help shape my ideal curriculum. I have the autonomy to teach this curriculum to pupils who take full advantage of this curriculum because we teach them to value it and work hard in lessons.

This highlights the importance of context when it comes to curriculum too: a school’s values on behaviour influence its delivered curriculum. Perhaps, this will always be a limiting factor in the sharing of an entire curriculum. But within a school or group of schools with shared values, a centralised curriculum is not only possible, but desirable.

And if you were to wander from one Year 10 Science class to another at Michaela, yes, the teachers would literally be teaching form the same set of resources. Yet, you would find them being used differently. Our self-written textbooks are well-thought out sequences of explanations that guide the narrative of the curriculum. They consist of a series of questions that help pupils practice the chunks of ideas to enable mastery. So pupils in different classes have the same opportunity to practice and build understanding. But that doesn’t mean the delivery is devoid of autonomy. Every teacher modifies their explanations to suit their classes. Every lesson you will see the teachers using their visualisers differently to model, explain and dual-code. The questions we pose to pupils will be different. Our responses to their questions will be different. Teaching is truly responsive.

If anything, the roadmap that is the curriculum booklet frees us to focus on the differences that suit our specific classes. It’s the ultimate form of differentiation and the optimal form of autonomy; we have an excellent set of resources within a well-designed curriculum to use a starting point in our teaching.

To take it further, having a centralised curriculum and having an excellent behaviour system means that I needn’t waste my time planning to engage, or endlessly chase up detentions. It gives me more freedom to craft a curriculum that will best help my pupils understand my wonderful subject.

As for more ‘progressive’ activities which you wouldn’t find in my classroom – I’m glad to have turned my back on them. In the same way I believe in an objective standard for behaviour, I also believe in an objective ‘best’ way to teach. To paraphrase Daisy Christodoulou: there are lots of ways of getting it wrong, but very few ways of getting it right. Different ways of teaching a particular topic will each have a different efficacy. Some ways will result in durable, deep learning. Other methods will not. My goal is to maximise the learning that takes place in my classroom. I seek efficient teaching. So I need to embrace the evidenced strategies. I wouldn’t call that sacrificing my autonomy – I would say that is doing what works.

I really enjoy doing what works. Indeed, I like shaping the curriculum to make sure it works. Wouldn’t you?


P.S. Michaela are hiring! Check out our vacancies here.

2 thoughts on “Teacher Autonomy: Part II – Curriculum & Teaching

  1. The advantages of centralized curriculum are obviously a decrease in teachers workload. When I taught science in Canada the textbooks were amazing and I knew in January that I was supposed to be on page 146 on March 23rd. It was that prescriptive! For an Australian teacher with 10 years experience of planning almost entirely from scratch I thought I’d find this restrictive. To the contrary, I found it liberating. I just had to focus on delivery not planning the content.

    The downside I see is the monoculture you create. Is the series of activities, the sequence of lessons on acids and bases you have prepared, the best way to teach this topic? You’ve said the role play on dissociation of acids in aqueous solutions is not one you do. How do you know if this would improve student understanding if no-one is allowed to give it a go? There is a fabulous new interactive on PHET that explains acid base dissociation. Will using it lead to better understanding than the activities in you text book?
    I suggest to our teachers the 80:20 rule. 80% tried and tested and common from the text book. 20% teacher choice. When we analyze the results of a unit we can key in on how effective these teacher choice activities were in improving student learning.

    If we never allow teachers to experiment and innovate we’ll never know if there is a better way teach this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment – I’ve only just spotted it, so apologies for the delay in my response. I agree that teacher experimentation and innovation are necessary for finding the best way to teach something. One of the problems I’ve discovered with ideas being filtered centrally before being used is that they retard quick trials and innovations; I agree with you there.

      However, it is also the case that we do not use the resources we make centrally alone – teachers create additional support resources to use and other teachers may or may not use these. The resources we make centrally are always a starting point – sometimes we may not even use them in a particular lesson if we deem appropriate.

      However, when it comes to pedagogy, we limit the palette, as it were. We primarily use direct instruction which excludes discovery based learning. We do not use role play as a whole class activity since it is incredibly time inefficient and difficult to execute with focus; we don’t use group work beyond paired whispers (except during practical work, of course). We might use the role play as a model to demonstrate, but there are usually better ways to illustrate a concept that is less cognitively overloading. The rationale for this is always discussed and agreed upon. Usually this is an evidence-based, or experience-based decision. They factors under consideration range from practicality and efficacy to efficiency and evidence-basis.

      Liked by 1 person

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