The Elephants Approach

I’m reaching that point in the academic year where sleep seems just out of reach and I’m getting by on a diet of [insert stress response behaviour] and adrenaline.  It’s an exhausting, creative time, balancing four projects and the bread-and-butter work of supporting superb social purpose educators.  I’m learning so much I’m barely Birds Dec 2012 2registering, never mind processing  (most of the time).  And what’s really lovely is that I’m not on my own doing this.  I’m discovering the benefits of collaborative planning, online.

I love planning, you get that, right?  I’m a planning geek.  I plan mindfully and sharply (see here)  and I have always assumed that this is why once I get into the classroom I never need more than a glance at the plan – and that I’m confident to accept the gifts that each session brings me to deepen the learning experience, even if that means mixing my plan around.  I would like to claim that I never get complacent but of course that’s not true and in the past weeks the pace of my freshest thinking has been off the scale.

Lesson 1.  Good planning saves time

Planning is basically formalised thinking, and as Nancy Kline says here, thinking well means that you can achieve so much more, in less time.  Around the beginning of 2014, I applied for four funding bids for The Northern College, thinking I might get one – and won all four.  Credit is due here to South Yorkshire Funding Advice Bureau, which I chaired for several years, clearly inhaling fundraising skills along with my steep learning curve (check out SYFAB’s excellent website here).   I would not have expected anyone to trust me with their money if I hadn’t put together a really good plan, so why should we expect students to trust us with their time?

In the same vein, I wouldn’t expect those four projects to be succeeding now if I hadn’t put a decent project management plan in place.  What good plans do is make you think it through – both strategically and operationally (see below).  It’s not about being rigid or inflexible – quite the opposite.  Mindful, reflexive planning means that when you need to change your thinking mid-stream, to react to some great opportunity (such as a diversity ‘gift’), you can do so with absolute confidence in your teaching judgement.  If you knew that investing wisely in your planning would enable your students’ learning to be more deeply aligned with their individual needs, what would change for you?

Lesson 2.  As teaching changes, planning needs to change

I was observed in my teaching recently, and, smug in the knowledge that my planning was detailed and thoughtful, I said, bring it on.   It was a Community of Praxis session, where students decide what we’ll do for the day and I was shocked to be asked (nicely), where is the content?  Actually, the content was just where it needed to be – in the online spaces of our blended learning course – but I was showing no evidence of that.  Our move towards rhizomatic learning (‘the community is the curriculum’) had not been matched in pace by the structure of my planning.  This seriously stopped me in my tracks.  I couldn’t sustain my initial sense of outrage for more than a few seconds.  I had certainly been resting on my laurels, planning wise.

Lesson 3.  Plans can be strategic or operational (or both)

So I cleared the decks and started to do some really sharp thinking.  Inspired by the story of Louise Michel, I took my time and went back to first principles to figure out why we plan.  It occurred to me that planning is both operational and – in a micro-sense – strategic.  It’s important to separate out the long game from what happens each time, which should evolve in response to students’ pace, depth and needs.  My scheme of work shrunk in size to become a strategic document, focused on delivering the College’s mission of transformation.  The session plan expanded to express my intent on this blended learning course, including the online elements.  This brought with it significant new challenges as I faced the question, what is online learning?  I’m still thinking about that one…

To see where I’m at with all of this, check out the planning stuff for #TDReflex14 here:  TeachDifferent Reflexion Programme 2014 v3.

Lesson 4.  Ofsted’s line on planning is sensible

It really is.  Ofsted ask for evidence that a session is planned, which any Inspector worth their salt would surely be able to infer from the purposeful nature of the teaching.  Scanty planning always shows, believe me.  Ofsted do not want to see mindless, one-size-fits-all session plans (organisations, take note).  They want to understand why you’re planning what you’re planning – with the underlying ‘why’ always being that it’s your teaching judgement that’s how your individual learners – the very people you have in front of you – will most effectively learn.  Real learning is messy, uncertain, sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s palpable to someone who knows what they are looking for.  If you pretend you have all the answers before the question is even asked, you’ll get found out.  Be honest.  Be real.  Be true to the individuals in your care.

5.  Collaborative planning generates great thinking

I do feel the need for a caveat here.  Please don’t sit me in a room where we’re trying to write a course by committee around a boardroom table.  But give me like minds, social media communication and a stack of post-its and we can make something beautiful happen.  It’s been an education, planning via Yammer with my colleagues Kay and Chris, thanks guys.

So I’m totally sold on planning again, having got – let’s face it – a little bit jaded.  That teaching observation was certainly timely and I’m grateful for it.  As for the challenges of the future – who knows?  It’s certainly true that there is no shared understanding out there of what a teaching intervention is, in a blended learning context.  And it’s equally true that some of the certainties of employment that exist currently – that assessment is worth only half the hourly rate of ‘teaching’, for example – seem meaningless in the face of digital transformation.  We’ll see.  And we’ll keep figuring it out together.Elephants


And the elephants?  They are appearing over the horizon so frequently, so unexpectedly, that even this ADHD brain can’t get bored.  Thanks to John Dougan for reminding us that there is humour and joy in unexpected places 🙂



Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

5 thoughts on “The Elephants Approach”

  1. Where’s the content? Bah humbug.

    Asked by someone who didn’t see where the session was on the process – product continuum. and assumed that learning was to be assessed by your learning outcomes and not the learners, and failed to see the social constructivist epistemology at work perhaps?

    I had one mentor – the event was training children’s workers – who told me if we didn’t have children we would have sheep to work on.

    You can’t always see the product when the focus is on the process – but you’re looking for the wrong thing.

    I think there’s nothing wrong with your planning, or your explanations, but your session plan may not have evidenced the importance of process on developing critical thinking and self-directed learners, and in allowing learners to evidence their learning through reflective practice on their own ipsative assessment?

  2. Lou,having got to know you a little through joining courses at Northern College, ‘jaded’ is not a word that springs to mind when thinking of your work. Quite the opposite in fact. What impresses me about this piece is your response to feedback and how it made you explore your practice even further. I would love to be able to help teachers develop this positive approach to feedback and hope that I will be able to do this through acting on learning from the Reflexion Programme.

  3. This is excellent Lou – helpful for me to read, not only to gain positive insights and to “think well” about planning and what I’m writing about my planning, but also a collaborative “like-minded” way for me to improve my writing skills. Great support for a developing social purpose educator completing my portfolio this week. Thanks.

  4. Just re read this and think that your Lesson 3 that planning can be strategic or operational or both is particularly relevant for people taking part in the Think Differently Project . Session plans and schemes of work can take on a life of their own like a herd of stampeding elephants – getting back to first principles is the elephant standing staring at me in my room at the moment

    1. I was really inspired by hearing the programme about Louise Michel that I wrote about here. There is something liberating about having a proper fettle and that’s what we are going to do with the paperwork thanks to the TeachDifferent project! 🙂

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