The Scheme of Work

Hopefully some concept of what will be taught and what has to be achieved at the end of it has been worked out. With luck an official syllabus and sample assessments have been located. If these are available it is essential that they be the correct version. Official courses rarely stay the same for long. In computing new areas become relevant and topics that were at one time complex tasks become ridiculously easy. A good example of this is accessing the Internet. A course may also change to keep it in line with other courses. In the United Kingdom more than one examination board may offer the same course. The courses out of these offerings that will actually be taught are probably a mixture of those that are most relevant to the prospective students and those that are easiest to pass. The exam bodies will shuffle and tweak their syllabi to hit this market and all aim to get the most students on board.

Generally the most up to date version of a course is the one to go for and this is best sourced from the examination board website. Minor revisions may be only noticeable by a date or reference number hidden somewhere within the document. It is even possible that quite major changes may have large sections in common with older versions. Someone has earned easy money creating the new course by reusing many elements from an existing and soon to be discontinued version. After one revision in the HND in Computing a colleague was appointed, taught some modules, then left. Afterwards we found that a module from the previous version had been taught and assessed by them. The resulting assessments were about 2/3rds useless. This sort of mess up is not popular with students who will need to take new assessments based on the correct syllabus.

It is possible that an older version of a course is to be offered because that version is easier to pass or its content has already been mapped to teaching resources or to fit in with other existing courses. This is generally a bad plan, a course is seldom revised just for the sake of making more teaching work. Still if a sub optimum course has to be taught it is not an option to run off and teach a different version. The exams or set work will still map to the original choice and having a student prepared for the wrong end of unit test is not a good plan.

The core of teaching something is that the student should be able to do something at the end of a course that they could not do at the beginning. This is probably a mix of learning some new skill and of passing some sort of test. Whatever the content of a syllabus the student must be able to cope with the test. This could come right at the end of a unit or be gradually introduced and built up over a period of weeks. If someone can pass the test at the beginning of a course there is no purpose in their carrying on with the plan of instruction. They are likely to forget what they already knew and do worse at the end than the beginning. Such an example was possible in some key (or core or whatever the government chose to call them) skills tests in ICT. The first session was used to set a mock test. If a student flew through that with excellent marks they needed to be put through the real test as soon as possible. If this were not done these students would have no useful role in the class. Any instruction would be based on skills that they already possessed. Ideally these students would be swiftly tested and passed on to other roles while those in need of core instruction were concentrated on and gradually passed through the exam. The students passed through the course could be let out of further teaching (an excellent incentive to get a student to pass an exam), used as teaching assistants for their peers or set on some other course such as a higher level ICT qualification.

The first step in working out what to do session by session is to start at the end point. Get hold of the exam or any example assessments or exemplar answers (this is in decreasing order of likelihood of finding any of these). If assessments or exams need to be written, write them now, they can always be tweaked later. Look at any specimen or previous assessments and honestly decide how hard they appear to be. This might be in some range from:

1. How can anyone not know this?
2. I had to think a bit but generally fair
3. I had to look a lot of this up and am still not sure
4. What is going on here, I do not understand this?

While it can be said that teaching something is a good way to learn that subject it is a better plan that the teacher should be very confident in the material before beginning to teach it. They should be able to do well in any exam or written work. These tests are generally only a few hours in length; it is a good exercise for the teacher to take any exams or tests before starting to write the course. If it takes 10 hours to complete a programming exercise that a student should do in 4 that is a minor issue, there is time to improve. A minority of tasks may be difficult to solve because of poor wording, hazy diagrams or very obscure subject areas. Mistakes in these fields can be overlooked. Yet if the teacher has no idea how to solve the problem as a whole then this will not bode well for the students passing the unit. Looking up potential answers on websites and forums is not good enough. This may get an answer to one particular problem but will not build the skills to solve other problems. The teacher should be better at the subject than most of the students. There is the occasional student that is so clearly gifted that this is not the case, I came across one such roughly every 5 years. If the subject has to be properly learnt before the scheme can be built then that is what will need to be done.

After identifying and overcoming what needs to be achieved; those needs can be chunked down into segments. These chunks do not need to be of equal size as some concepts may take longer to get over than others. A unit on control systems included concepts on feedback and the maths of numbers. If a class began the course with good maths skills they would all know about exponential numbers, logic gates, binary and so on. In that case a recap session and a swift test should cover the ground. Unfortunately the UK maths system meant that a student could get a respectable GCSE in maths without covering any of the above as most of it was hidden in the higher tier paper that they did not need to study for. This led to an unnatural bias of the control system course to key maths skills. Luckily there was plenty of time for this because the core feedback and similar skills were relatively easy to get over.
The teaching plan can be set up in outline and details filled in as it develops but the details need to be set up before teaching begins. A number of sub topics have been identified that make up the whole and a sequence of sessions set out for each. All this planning is best done electronically. A simple set of tables in a Word Processor is fine. This will allow slots to be set up and moved around. Although possibly more trouble than writing out a plan on paper having an electronic copy allows easy modification and by saving under a new name one scheme can be developed into another. Thus one year’s work can be modified for the next presentation or a long course cut down for a shorter presentation. Avoid using spread sheets, these do come with boxes built in and can build up dates or add up times. The slight advantage that this may offer is heavily outweighed by the system trying to calculate stuff where that is not required and the cell layout driving the author to frustration.

In the happy event that there was some sort of syllabus these sessions can be linked to section numbers or parts of the syllabus and the relevant sections checked off as the scheme is drawn up. If there is some sort of practical work to be built up with the course this can be slotted in amongst the sessions that support it or all put at the end.

If all the teaching time is devoted to creating a portfolio of work to support the course then there will be no teaching going on. This is the workshop approach. All the work goes into creating the supporting material and ensuring that the students do the set tasks. If the students are capable of achieving these tasks without prior instruction they have not learnt any new skills from the teacher. This was the aim of the optimistic ‘teach yourself in 24 hours’ books. The books did assume 24 hours without sleep and a good deal of practice not included within the quoted 24 hours. A number of web based courses follow this approach. It is not applicable to a course that is formally taught. I have had students who have clearly stated that they had paid good money to be taught something that could given a great deal more time and effort they could have tried to teach themselves.

Where a portfolio has to be created, ideally as much as possible should be done outside of the regular class time. Part of the teaching scheme could be allocated as workshop or homework time. This does not need the original teacher to be present although the work created will need marking. In the Pearson BTEC suite of awards a student could submit a piece of work an unlimited number of times. The teacher was only required by Pearson (an examining board) to mark one submission but could end up marking seemingly endless iterations of the same piece of work until a suitable standard was achieved. Poor marking would be to explain that a section was wrong and to show how to correct it. In such a case the teacher has done the work not the student. The opposite approach is followed by some Universities; a student has 2 submissions or they fail. Rules such as that focus the student mind, nearly all of those students do submit. Cunning marking is to emphasise areas that need improvement but not how that should be done. This is rarely popular as many students would rather have the answer than be encouraged to work out how to get that answer.

Where possible parts of tests or written work should be slotted in alongside the taught work. If a topic is to be taught and is unlikely to be needed again in any detail it makes sense to check off the assessment part as soon as the topic has been covered rather than leaving it until the end. This avoids the routine of covering something then having to cover it again because the student has forgotten all about it. This approach assumes that the students are all able to pass the tests or complete the portfolio work by the set time. The process starts to fall apart when they cannot. If they all fail; no problem, tweak the overall scheme and do it all again (hopefully with new bells and whistles). If only a handful fail they will need to do extra work that can be tracked. There is always a chance that they will fail the whole course anyway reducing the need to get them through any one hurdle. This sort of student is fairly easy to identify. They need to build up their own motivation to get on top of the work, many do some don’t.

A common outcome is for some to achieve the set work and others won’t but there are not enough in either camp for a fixed plan of action. This problem needs to be addressed with the planning of the assessments. There may be some overlap so a student can complete the work one part at a time but there will be some way to cover the missing bits later. A final written exam and vive vove (oral questioning) may be able to cover some of the gaps. It should not be the easy path to avoid doing all the tasks at the set time then rush them all at the end. This option can be left open but the easiest plot for the students to do well is to follow the plan and do the work when set.

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