Can we ‘unplan’ the KS2 curriculum?

In my transition from PGCE student to NQT one of the big changes I have had to get to grips with is that of going from producing Osfted style lesson plans for every lesson, to a real world situation where time is at a premium and less detail is possible.

In the last few weeks I have been teaching forces to year 4,revisiting the topic which comprised much of my teaching on my first PGCE placement. I remembered being really happy with the outcomes of those lessons, and thought it might be useful to return to such detailed plans after a term of more real world planning. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but on reflection these ‘perfect’ plans that I spent hours writing seemed no better than the recent occasional lessons when circumstances have forced me to plan on a post it note during the preceding lunch time.

I have always struggled with the idea of unplanned lessons being hugely successful. On the one hand a lot of my teaching values are based on early years practice, and I believe that fundamentally if we just let Primary age children do what they want, whilst providing them with high quality opportunities and intervention at the point of learning, then they would achieve success appropriate to the stage of development they are at. As the research of Ferre Laevers suggests, as long as children have a high level of well being and are provided with opportunities for tasks they can engage with to a high level then they will learn. This supports the suggestion that a more ad-hoc and ‘unplanned’ approach to the curriculum will promote children to work in their own zone of proximal development for the greatest amount of time, and with high quality interactions with teachers produce the most profound learning.

In my own experience it is when my classroom operates like this that the most exciting learning opportunities happen. On a very basic level, in the unit on explanation writing we are just finishing I allowed my class to choose their own subjects for explanations in a very free way. I began by allowing them to explore a range of high quality explanations on the BrainPOP website, discussing the usual structure for explanations with them and giving them totally free choice as to what they wrote their own explanation about. I exerted no control on the subject matter they chose, and they could easily have chosen something which was not appropriate to the genre of explanation writing. However, because they all had a high level of involvement and interest in the topic based on their free exploration of high quality examples, not one of them chose a subject that was not appropriate to the task. The vast majority chose examples that were appropriate to their own level of development, with those who find writing challenging opting for something along the lines of a playground game they were comfortable with, and those who are more confident writers choosing a subject that challenged them.

Despite my base experience in teaching being based in a forward thinking Early Years setting, I was trained to be a follower of the Primary Strategies, and this is where my difficulty with ‘unplanning’ the curriculum occurs. As someone educated to deliver the ‘three part lesson’ I find it a challenge to convince myself I am ‘doing the right thing’ when I allow lessons in my class to occur in a more freeform way. There is a fine line between genuine child centered learning and ‘messing around’, and through my work on Learning Agreement Time this year I have been challenged with locating where this line actually lies.

The problem I have with ‘unplanned’ lessons is that when one occurs that I feel has gone really well I always find myself questioning whether it seemed good because there was a genuinely high level of learning going on, or simply because there was some learning going on in an unexpected way. If you tightly pre-plan a lesson and the expected level or learning occurs then the lesson ‘feels’ good. If you do not rigidly plan a lesson and some learning occurs, does the excitement of unplanned learning lower your expectations and make you ‘feel’ that a lot of learning has happened when it is actually below the level you would have expected had you tightly structured and planned the lesson? Now I am not suggesting that those following Early Years practice are not planning, just that the planning of providing provocative resources and situations which they children are free to engage with or reject is hard to square with conventional practice in key stage two.

I can’t help feeling that some of this thinking is a hangup created by the strategies oriented focus of my recent teacher training. However, if we are going to move towards a more ‘negotiated’ curriculum, it has to be one that builds on the academic rigour of the ‘three part lesson‘, and not simply a return to the more woolly practice of primary and early years schooling of many decades ago. I have spent much time looking for information online regarding schools that are taking this early years approach to key stage two, and so far have come up with very little. However, I am convinced of the merits of ‘unplanning’ (in the conventional sense) the key stage two curriculum in order to provide every child with the genuinely personalised learning experience that even those advocating rigid planing say should be our aim.

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School Radio: Phase two

18 thoughts on “Can we ‘unplan’ the KS2 curriculum?”

  1. I am increasingly using an Early Years model for Foundation subjects in KS2 Y3. I clearly define what outcomes I expect, but allow the children to approach their learning in a manner they choose. I am rarely disappointed. Recently, the response I have had from my class, has increased my confidence in my own creativity and I am exploring using this technique for Shape work in Maths.

    1. That's great to hear! In many ways I think Maths is the hardest subject to conceive in this way beyond the Early Years due to the way it is presented as being based around very specific finite outcomes. I would be very interested to hear how you 'plan' to do this. =)

      1. I'm linking it with Places of Worship – have some cool middle/ far eastern style building blocks, with domes and cone topped minarets (ESPO Arabian Nights lol) and other 3D shape blocks in wood. Children are going to build a church or a mosque and then describe the properties of the 3D shapes they have used. I know they will largely self differentiate the complexity of the buildings they make. My TA and I will help out those who are over ambitious.

        1. Sounds good, but from the work I have done on 3D shape making, quite challenging. Great task to get them really motivated to succeed.

  2. Dughall McCormick

    Great post, Oliver.

    I am really impressed with the degree of reflection and maturity in your post. It took me years to have this level of insight in my early teaching career.

    I have always maintained that detailed and formal planning for trainee teachers and in one's first few years is really important. I think it is a bit like learning to drive (or learning anything, really). You go through stages where you have to think about and detail everything, but slowly, things become unconscious competence and you do them well without having to think about them. When certain aspects become 'natural', it allows thinking space and focus on specific aspects. Importantly, the formal/detailed stage has to be gone through for good habits and practices to be established and become unconscious.

    You have also identified the inherent tension between an early-years approach to learning (that I'm sure in all of our hearts we believe is of immense value) and the standards agenda. As long as schools are measured and compared on 'hard' results, it may be difficult to justify such a creative approach across a whole school. This is partly because OFSTED might (justifiably) say to a low-achieving school “You've got these results… can we see the planning in KS2?” To some extent, schools that are 'protected' by their high standards are better placed to take this kind of approach to learning – and I know it is happening increasingly in KS1. However, I still don't believe this is the norm. Further, how many KS2 practitioners would be brave enough to have a 'freeform' lesson observed by OFSTED? Of course they should, but safety may be more tempting.

    I could go on and on, but I reckon it boils down to having clear objectives (and not losing sight of them), but how they are achieved is entirely flexible. Child-centred, active learning with real relevance is always going to hit the mark. Early years or not, the 3-part lesson idea is important:
    – we need to know what we're learning and why
    – we need to learn it
    – we need to check if/how well we've learnt it

    1. Thanks for the comment Dughall. I agree with you, the idea behind the three part lesson is of value, but I think we need to encourage more reflection on learning to enable the three aims you list to happen more fluidly in order to keep that rigour but make the curriculum more relevant and pupil centered.

      You are right about planning being important when you start, but I have found that as I am in a school which encourages reflection I find the paperwork planning process less valuable, and my own reflections on the previous lesson feeding into the next one much more valuable.

      I know what you mean about ofsted, I would love to think I would do something more free for an observation like that, but lets be honest the system encourages you to know what they are looking for and deliver it.

  3. Oliver, this post, and so much of what you have been up to in your first year of teaching (can that really be true?) gives me so much hope – because your reflective practice is grounded in a healthy mix of research, policy and sharing practice. If NQTs are coming into the profession with this combination, there is some hope!

    Your comments about unpicking the place of 'planning' in the role of the teacher, and empowering the child in the exploration of ideas and knowledge, WITHIN a clear framework are especially important as the new Primary Curriculum rolls into view.

    Too many teachers will find the challenge of this more open curriculum a shift of mindset, rather than practice.

    On a more selfish note – Thanks for evaluating BrainPOP UK and, more interestingly to everyone else, for seeing how valuable it can be as a resource to engage kids in a genuine learning journey!

    We are not like many other educational resources – in that the movies are not made to answer every objective in the curriculum, or at a specific age group. The site has grown from the sort of 'unplanned' curriculum you are discussing – and we are unapologetic about that – though it does mean that lots of teachers find our approach a little challenging to the approach that they have got used to from Publishers.

    Anyhoo… thanks again for the inspiration and hope, and don't stop doing what you are doing!

    1. Thanks very much! I think that's why I've found your product so useful; it fits well with what I am trying to do. I really need more open ended resources like that at the moment!

  4. Before I did my PGCE 2 years ago I had the pleasure of teaching EFL abroad for many years including a couple of years in a bilingual school that had no curriculum! During that time I worked with several Montessori & Steiner trained teachers who do exactly what you're talking about. I've also met a lot of teachers who have worked in other 'alternative' school systems, including Summerhill. I have learned so much from these teachers and yet on my PGCE course they were never ever so much as mentioned in passing. I'm not saying these are perfect alternate models of teaching but it seems insane that ITT courses in the UK don't even make teachers aware of them. Having had many years of teaching freedom I find the constraints of lesson plans very difficult and rarely stick to them!

    1. I f8ind the concepts of Montessori and Steiner schools really interesting. I have done quite a bit of digging on the internet, but have found very little in terms of examples of teachers taking this approach beyond the early years. I'd love to find out about people doing this sort of thing with older children if anyone knows of such a thing happening.

  5. Oliver-I too felt the same as you but I was in a position to do something about it (being assistant head in charge of curriculum) I felt that the QCA units of work often used as standard were restrictive and not creatively inspiring for pupils or teachers.

    Luckily I had experiece in Creative Partnerships which had opened my pedagogy to much creative practise. One of which was the Italian early years approach of Reggio Emilia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reggio_Emilia_appr…) and used it as a basis to revamp the curriculum-where the pupils made the choices and the teachers planned and executed amazing end-products to work towards.

    Listen to my ipadio broadcast http://tiny.cc/wfDWi from teachmeet mobile last month if you want to know more.

    There are people brave enough out there to make steps towards this way of thinking but unfortunately many are not in the same position as I was and do not have the same support from their SMT.

    You are only at the start of your teaching journey-why not try out some of your ideas in the classroom-convince others of the same and inspire your pupils.

    Btw try 'Mantle of the Expert' http://www.mantleoftheexpert.com-if you haven't already heard of it.

    1. Thanks, I'll have a listen to your podcast. I am lucky in that I am in a school which does allow me quite a bit of freedom with this sort of approach, especially in our Learning Agreement Time for the first hour of ever day when we do negotiated learning. I am almost a little scared of the day I have to move on in case I end up somewhere where I can't continue to work on developing these ideas.

      Great to hear there are other schools with similar ideas.

  6. I agree with much of what you’ve said here. This year my school is following The Rose Curriculum, which although thrown out by the new government, I’m really enjoying. I feel it leaves a lot more room for personalised learning than the old NC, where I felt forced to cram too much into a packed timetable. My partner teacher and I tried to be really brave last half term in terms of ‘unplanning.’ It wasn’t easy to take that step back, but I feel it was really successful. For example, we had medium term plans (all linked to the topic ‘East meets West’) and although we had an overview of what we wanted to cover, we took our short term topic planning week by week and really tried to respond to where the children wanted to take things. This was particularly true of a D.T. project which involved building an Indian village hut and fitting it with an electric circuit and switch. I couldn’t believe how much the children took ownership of their work because it really was THEIR work, lead by them. We (my partner teacher and I) reflected on last half term’s work and we really want to replicate that sense of ownership and child led learning again this term if we can. Basically we’re trying to give the children a framework, but still leave them with enough choices to make their own path. It’s a tricky balance that I’m still working at!

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