First things first: I have nothing against PowerPoint. As means for displaying visual information it definitely has its merits. I have no issues with teachers using slides to share pictures, diagrams or moving images with student (although I do have a few reservations about using it to share text.) My argument here is focussed on the widespread practice of using PowerPoint (or any other similar product) as a means of implementing the curriculum.
When I began teaching the idea of displaying slides in classrooms was a distant dream. My first classroom didn’t even have a modern whiteboard and I made do with a pull-down blackboard. We did have an overhead projector knocking around somewhere in the department but the time and trouble of producing acetates meant it was rarely used.
Lesson plans existed – if they existed at all – in printed schemes of work. Someone would have gone to the trouble of writing down teaching objectives and a list of more or less sensible activities which were intended to lead to these objectives being fulfilled. When I planned lessons I either made them up or adapted the ideas that featured in the scheme of work. Either way, I had to think about what I wanted to do with students before the lesson took place.
Fast forward a few years and I was a new head of department leading the process of creating detailed schemes of work for pretty much everything we taught. When a scheme of work was written, it was distributed to the team and then everyone’s lesson slides were collated on the shared area. Sometimes I’d make slides from scratch, sometimes I’d look through and adapt other teacher’s slides, sometimes I just pitched up with a board pen and a bucket load of enthusiasm. Either way, I had to think about what I wanted to do with students before the lesson took place.
A few years later again and I’d moved to a new school with a senior leadership role. As part of my introduction to the new English department I offered to plan a sequence of lessons on something – I forget what – and share the resulting slides with everyone else. I have a vague memory of my own lessons going pretty well (there were certainly no disasters) but it turned out that this wasn’t everyone’s experience. One member of the team came to tell me that the lessons I’d planned were a bit rubbish. Taken aback, I asked what had gone wrong. “Well,” the teach in question told me, “I opened up the PowerPoint and I couldn’t work out what to do. The class were all sitting there so I just told them we were going to do something else instead.”
And here was the problem: she had not had to think about what she wanted do with her students before the lesson took place.
More recently, I worked with a group of schools who had a centrally planned English curriculum. Teachers were supplied with student booklets and lesson plans in the form of PowerPoint slides. Crucially, teachers were given the explicit instruction that these slides must be adapted for the students in their class. Sometimes this happened and sometimes it didn’t. I saw a number of lessons where it was clear that the content of the PowerPoint was as novel to the teacher as it was to the students as well as lots of lessons where it was equally clear that teachers had worked to put their own stamp on lessons.
Each set of slides had detailed bullet points of exactly what should happen at every stage of lesson, but it was very clear that most of these instructions were for the benefit of teachers rather than students. One of the things I modelled was how to take out extraneous information so that students only saw things that were useful to them and internalising the information I’d exercised to teach. This had some success, but I was left with an unspecified but quite strong aversion to using slides to implement a curriculum.
When I started work with Ormiston, the English department at Ilkeston Academy in Derbyshire got in touch to explain how they were implementing the new ambitious curriculum they’d planned over lock down. The key was to use what they called Teacher Guides. Each Teacher Guide provided annotated version of the texts provided to students, instructions on how to teach lessons to deliver the curriculum, and a curated selection of articles and resources designed to ensure each member of the team had access to all the specialist knowledge they’d need to teach each aspect of a scheme of work. They referred to these guides as ‘CPD in a booklet’ and spent department time showing every member of the team how to turn the information in the guides into lessons. Individual teachers were welcome to put together their own slides should they want to, but the focus was very much on using visualisers to model reading and writing to students.
I took very little convincing that this was how we should go about implementing the OAT curriculum and we set about creating Teacher Guides for the schemes of work we were creating. Although these sometimes provided suggested teaching activities and structures, in the main they focussed on specifying as clearly as we could manage, the content to be communicated to students and the knowledge needed by teachers to make this a success.
We made training videos on how to use the Teacher Guides and turn them into lessons and allowed schools to experiment with teaching the schemes. Unsurprisingly, this came as something of a culture shock to teachers raised on being provided with detailed PowerPoints. For some the notion of having to use the Teacher Guides to plan lessons felt like an unreasonable expectation at first, but most were weaned off PowerPoint with relatively little complaint. Obviously, there have been lots of hiccups along the way, but most of the feedback we’ve received is that teachers have enjoyed teaching our schemes and, through talking to students and looking at the work in their books we can see the quality of the curriculum shining through.
Planning a curriculum via PowerPoint is bad idea, even if you produce the best slides possible. We have to remember that the subject we’re teaching is a huge domain of knowledge. Our curriculum samples from that domain to give students access to powerful and culturally rich knowledge which they will be supported to use to make meaning. If we want students to have a meaningful experience of the curriculum, they need to see how ideas connect and branch beyond the limits of lessons. A lesson selects from a curriculum and seeks to distil complexity into a set of activities and actions that can take place within the confines of 50-60 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with the process per se, but it’s the action of having to select that leads to memorable and meaningful experiences. The problem with having lesson slides provided for you is that someone else has done that sampling and selecting for you. Unless we engage with as much of the domain – or at least as much of the curriculum – as possible before distilling content into a lesson we won’t know much about the content of that lesson ourselves and this can lead to teacher knowing little more than their students.
But wait, what about workload implications? What if you centrally plan bullet proof PowerPoints to ensure that ECTs and non-specialist teachers are fully supported? Wouldn’t that be better than asking teachers to spend their precious time planning lessons? When the DfE did their workload survey back in 2015, the biggest complaint teachers made was about unnecessary workload. Work that feels worthwhile and meaningful is not something most people tend to object to. But still, no one wants to add to the pressure on teachers unnecessarily. It’s important to remember that on one’s being asked to plan from scratch. The Teacher Guides contain everything needed to plan lessons and the process tends to take 5-10 minutes at most. We try to ensure that teachers are given regular – ideally weekly – departmental time to co-plan the week’s lessons and to talk though potential issues. All this make a real difference to teachers’ expertise and subject knowledge.
The essence of the problem: If someone else plans your lessons, you don’t learn the curriculum. The best you or your students can hope for is that you learn the contents of the PowerPoint. If you have to go through the process of turning the information contained in a Teacher Guide into a curated experience for your students to engage with, not only will they learn more, so will you.
Here are some examples of Teacher Guides for the OAT KS3 English curriculum.