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The Big Picture, 15 minute medium term plan

Last month I spoke about medium term planning at the Priory Ruskin Academy Super Teachmeet (see poster here) so I thought I might describe it here too.

One of the things that used to iritate me as a teacher was learners who would arrive at the classroom door and demand to know what we were going to be doing that lesson. I was about to explain this to the whole class and stopping to tell this child individually would clearly delay things. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so impatient with learners who clearly just wanted to know what the lesson was all about.

This enthusiasm to have the context of their learning explained is quite understandable. We all feel much more comfortable when we know what is going to happen. And perhaps even when we know that the learning we are about to experience is likely to be tough and troubling it ishelpful to know what it will be about. In fact, in these circumstances it would seem to be even more important to be able to see the big picture, to have some idea of the learning edifice that we are hoping to build, even if we are only able to glimpse a hazy, shadowy version of it through the learning fog.

So, with this in mind, a few weeks ago I started to put together an almost literal big picture planning document. The aim was to gather together, on one sheet of A3 paper, an outline of the main features of a scheme of work using a mixture of text and graphics that would help to make these features more memorable for teachers and learners alike. My thought was that teachers could then refer to aspects of this sheet periodically throughout their teaching in order to make explicit to learners how the various aspects of what they are doing fit together to make a cohesive whole. They could also use them to refer back to learning in previous or forward to future units of work to try to show how learning episodes build upon skills learned previously and prepare learners for challenges that are to come through reference to the relevant sections on past and future Big Picture sheets.

So, what exactly is on these planning sheets? It is divided into a 3 x 3 grid. The top left cell is titled “Things we are going to learn” and the top central cell is “Things we are going to do”. This is an important distinction that is all too often lost. In the panic to think up engaging activities for learners to do, the focus on what they are actually learning is sometimes lost. If this sheet does nothing other than make this separation clear and helps learners to see how what they are doing is linked to learning aims that build on previous learning and prepare them for future learning, it will have been a great success.

The top right cell encourages learners and teachers alike to think about the cross-curricular links that can be made between the learning in this scheme of work and what is going on elsewhere. Too often learners seem unaware that they are allowed to use things they have learned in another subject area to inform their work elsewhere. This cell makes these potent learning links explicit and encourages teachers to find out more about what learners do in other subjects and to exploit this learning in their lessons.

The central cell is for details of the assessment task or tasks that the unit is building towards. This helps to keep the end goal in sight and gives learners confidence that what they are doing is building towards something and that they understand what this something is. It also helps teachers to plan their assessments so that they include variety, test a range of different skills, are linked to and build upon previous assessments and prepare learners for those that are to come. It could also help both teachers and learners to focus on extending the range of alternative ways in which skills could be assessed if discussed at the start of the unit, opening up the range of options in a potentially engaging way.

The centre right cell is for ideas around the issues of extension and enrichment. What activities can learners get involved in that will take this learning out of the classroom and make them connect it with the rest of their experience? How can individuals and groups of learners take their ideas and develop them further to enrich their understanding? How can we make good use of the local community to support learning? How might current events be linked in? The potential here for stretch, challenge and personalisation is huge and just having the heading to nudge thinking on might be all it takes.

Consideration of the language that will be required if learning is to be effective is the concern of the centre left cell and the whole bottom row. Here are spaces to outline important new vocabulary; consider modes of speaking and listening that may need teaching; note reading techniques such as skimming and scanning that could be introduced in a planned manner or record the text types of which you may need to teach or revise the conventions if learners are going to be successful. The emphasis is on planning these aspects of learning rather than just expecting or hoping that they will happen. It is all about making expectations explicit – to both teachers and learners – so that lasting learning links can be made and so that developmental progress is optimised.

Hopefully, these Big Picture planners can be completed quickly and easily by individual teachers, groups of teachers or teachers and learners together. I think they will make the components of the learning process clearer and make it easy to demonstrate how everything fits together. If you’d like to try it out, DM me your email address via twitter @stevewillshaw and I’ll send you the word version to try.

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