Planning for teaching

What to put in a plan

This is an introduction to the subject. These views are based on a background of teaching computing but could work for just about any subject. I am assuming that you are on your own or have few colleagues around that are able to help you out. This may seem unfair to someone in a field such as Maths (or Math to our American brethren) where there might be a team of teachers with a subject based on centuries of development. In computing much of the content is new and what was new 10 years ago could be worse than useless now.

Here are my views on how to go about preparing to teach something to a group of people using activities that will go on over several sessions. At its base is the concept of creating a scheme of work but there is more involved and you do not need a scheme for every set of sessions, although I generally do create such a document. There are no details of activities here but I will be putting plans, assessments and all that jazz on my Moodle section.

The first step is clearly establishing what you will be teaching. What is the class expected to be able to do when the course has finished? I have been asked to teach (with real students, proper salary and so on) in several such situations with worrying levels of lack of clarity. In such a case the first step is to make absolutely sure that there is no overall aim and that you are clear to do whatever you like (within the usual legal guidelines) for the lifetime of the course. Someone not telling you or a lack of clear instructions is not going to hack it when it comes to the end of a unit and certain objectives have not been met even if those objectives have never been stated.

Here are some examples of courses where I had free rain to do what I wanted. The first is Tech Prep Study Skills, this is for year 9 students in a South Carolina High School. Year 9 is the first year of High School, students move on from Middle School when they have completed all their units there or the school finally decides move them on, some year 9 students have beards. There are 3 levels of year 9 study, honours (these guys are good but hard to manage), College prep and Tech prep. Tech prep is less challenging for the youngsters than College prep and although not remedial Tech prep students are some of the less able. The remit appeared to be to teach ‘study skills’, there were no clear aims but I later found out that there was to be an exam. Luckily I got to write this myself and no one would be checking it too closely. I had more than 1 go at teaching this course and eventually settled on teaching computer study skills, document layout, Internet research (more complex then than now) and Spread Sheet work. I set the exam to based on this and ran some mock tests so the students did reasonably well (below 70% is abject failure in South Carolina, you curve the resulting grades to avoid this).

Another example is that of group tutorials. A scheme of work did exist; as did a book of lesson ideas. There was, however, no set exam and no requirement to follow the plan. This was a stroke of luck as the plan was pure hokum in relation to the target group that I had. It might have worked with a set of reasonably motivated 12 year olds. I had 18 and 19 year olds who were intelligent but easily distracted. I followed my own plan of using activities to foster group cohesion (after 2 years some of the group would still not know the names of other members despite at least 10 hours a week together). I also had the aim of getting the students to think for themselves rather than trying to find set answers to problems (as freely available on the Internet). I made use of several of the games described on this site to get the students to work together. Even those where the aim is to ‘do over’ the other players required them to interact (something the group did not previously do except with an aim to wind up the teacher). I also made use of equipment that we did not normally get enough use out of. We had a classroom set of Raspberry Pis but due to a lack of monitors with HDMI inputs we could only use them in 1 room. Luckily that room was the one that I had access to for the sessions. I made it clear to the students that the aim of the sessions was problem solving and creativity and that we would be trying a range of activities. They understood that some activities might not work and in such case we would not be pressing them. This meant that a single failed lesson would not throw off the whole plan. In some cases the activity went better than expected. A notable example is Storybird (https://storybird.com) a site where the user is presented with a series of images that they must make a story out of. A similar boardgame concept is Dixit. The advantage of an on-line system is that there are no resources to prepare (beyond the trudge of registering and allocating names and accounts). The disadvantage is that the whole Internet is before the students with the usual distractions that need to be policed. As a whole the class took to the activity and some pleasant work was created, free writing without too much overhead. One student did try to get as much sexual innuendo into the story as possible and had to be leant on. At the beginning of a subsequent session there was considerable demand to use Storybird again, it is unusual for a group to request an activity that has some educational purpose to it. So I filed that session for future use and ran with Storybird again. I avoided a third session, best not to push something too far, the students could always continue to use the tool at home.

The key with these open-ended courses is to have some plan of activities to run. Ideally there should be enough to run for the whole set of sessions. With no exam at the end this could be cut back to planning enough for the first half of the set of sessions. This could be the approach where there is no way of knowing how the group will react to the activities. If they react badly a whole new set will need to be sketched out. With a set of perhaps 10 or 12 in the bag each linked as subjects running over 3 or 4 sessions there is some hope that at least 1 of the sets will take off giving a few weeks’ grace to sort out new activities. It is all a lot better than turning up in front of the class with no overall plan or just the dangerous fall-back of running some diagnostic tests (that may tell you something but will not help with the planning). It is important to note the activities that have been done and any modifications to the original planning.

It is quite possible that you may stay with the group as they progress to another equally nebulous teaching area such the group tutorial in the following year. This will necessitate using a completely different set of activities. It is not all bad news most of this sort of group activity will work for anyone from about 12 upwards to adults (I suggest a different set for younger audiences). So with some slight modification the same lesson could be run with groups in years A, B and C; one set of activities total. In the next year a new set is written and presented to the new years B and C (the old As and Bs). The new As are brand new so can use the plans from the old Bs. This is all in the land of hope and glory. It should work but I have found that an activity that works with one group is a total failure with another. This will require more than a single set of activities for all groups. On the other hand if an activity does fall over with one group it should not be completely dismissed but could be trialled with another group. The key is record keeping so that activities can be recreated, possibly years later. Those plans that completely crashed and burnt should perhaps be quietly slid aside.

The situation of there being no clear aim as to what a course should achieve should be quite rare unless it is a brand new subject or level that is being delivered. In the latter case there may be some guidance around from similar offerings around the world. All courses of a certain level and subject matter ought to have something in common. Even though there might be quite a lot of leeway in the goals set it makes some sense to look at what else is out there. In the United Kingdom school children take GCSE and A levels, confusingly these are described as level 2 or level 3 courses. Levels 4 through 6 relate to the three classic University years. Level 7 is a masters but this used to be called level M. Below level 2 is level 1 and then less obviously entry 3, then entry 2 and at the lowest level entry 1. Courses rarely have these numbers in their titles but the number is often hidden away in the course description literature. Many countries follow a Baccalaureate system which tops out at level 3 in theory but in some cases this is a pretty steep 3. The International Baccalaureate system for example is level 3 and designed for entry to University type education but emphases many logical and wider thinking skills that most A levels would not cover. In the USA the final school year is grade 12 (that is a UK year 13 because the overall school journey is one year shorter). So a 12th grade (senior) exam should be of A level standard (level 3) and a 10th year (sophomore) should be of GCSE standard. There is considerable variety within each of the levels (see the honours, college prep and tech prep descriptions above). The best 12th grade students are working towards AP (Advanced Placement) exams. These earn credits towards the 1st year of College courses so would be categorised as level 4 not level 3.

Getting back to the core discussion, if there is no guidance or syllabus for the unit to be taught there may well be something similar for a course on the same subject already in existence. It is worth considering courses a little harder or easier as the set level to get some feel as to what exact level to pitch. Many of these courses have syllabi and subject guides that can be downloaded and possibly exam papers with the possibility of set answers to those papers. On the other hand they might not but a few hours spent looking around might pay off. There may also be government or industry body guidelines on what a course should include. These are often vague and could be over optimistic but provide a background against which a new course can be justified. If the new course has to be validated or signed off by someone else before it is delivered some of this evidence should be used to support the new course proposal. From experience it is most probable that you have been forced to create a new course because no one else is capable of the job. This means that anyone validating the course will not be well acquainted with the details of the course nor really understand the implications of how all the bits fit together. So if a course proposal is well put together and justified with reference to industry, government and educational standards it is likely to get approved. Having been approved as ‘good to go’ you are stuck with it, at least until it can be revised (forms and meetings are probably involved here). Take heed that if great care is not taken in deciding what is going to be taught you can end up having to teach it. A common problem with many teaching courses is that you end up having to teach some things that you would rather not. These are parts of a syllabus that some well meaning individual has got put in that you know will be of little use to the students in the big plan of things and will be a pain to teach. When you are that person and have tied yourself up by not considering the big picture or not working out the consequences of the scheme then there is no external source to blame. You are stuck with your own mistake and just will have to suck it up and teach it.

The relationship of the course to existing courses at the same institution or linked institutions should be considered if any such courses exist. In the UK school children of about the ages of 14 to 16 are working towards GCSE in key stage 4. Not surprisingly the age group below this (11-14) are in key stage 3. This is probably in the same institution, a secondary or high school. In some areas there are distinct middle schools so the key stage 3 and 4 children will then not be in the same institution. The key stage 4 pupils are working towards GCSEs and these generally have syllabi, sample exams and textbooks although the latter will vary greatly in quality. The longer the GCSE has been running the more material will be available. Some of this requires an account that must be set up by an educational institution that is running that exact course. If such an account is not available some material is available on forums and web pages although legally it is not supposed to be, so if you see it grab it before it is taken down. Even if the material is not for the exam board that you are using it will give some general idea of difficulty. Example questions from other boards are always useful as long as the material maps to the syllabus of the actual board being presented.

In general key stage 4 material is the easiest to get hold of, in contrast key stage 3 can be a very indistinct area. Although it includes 3 years of study the actual hours per week (often hour per week) for a given subject can be very little. At this rate the kids are forgetting stuff almost as fast as they are taught it. There is probably only a limited government or industry guideline but you do know that the class should be of a standard to begin their GCSE work at the end of key stage 3. Based on this knowledge the final level of knowledge needs to be lower than that of GCSE. If you are teaching the GCSE and the key stage 3 then start with what is needed to answer all the GCSE work and map back over 5 years of study. If the GCSE program requires very little basic knowledge then the hour or 2 per week may be way above what is needed to feed in that basic knowledge. The key stage 3 work should concentrate on working with the subject. It should build up core skills and amuse the students. If the GCSE is not compulsory the course should aim to get those students with aptitude for the subject enthused and ready for the subject. It should also aim to convince those with little interest in the area to take up something else. You want enough GCSE candidates to keep the course running but you do not want classes full of students who are unlikely to achieve good grades. This plan could involve teaching subjects that are not in the GCSE syllabus but compliment the GCSE content. Basic skills need to be built up but repetition or tasks seen as ‘busy work’ are to be avoided.

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