The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.
Robert Burns

Ah, the scheme of work. We’ve all got ’em. but what are they for? To spell out the structure of each lesson in advance? Or to act as a guide through the objectives to be covered during a term? Are they a crutch, a straitjacket, a sign post, or a waste of everyone’s time?

Consider this analogy. Does buying a cook book make you a good cook? Certainly having a recipe to follow increases the likelihood that the meals you serve aren’t awful. But’s what’s more important? The meal or the needs of your dinner guests? Unless you know a bit about the culinary arts any deviations could result in disaster. But as we become more skilled and knowledgeable we can experiment. At the risk of over extending the metaphor, we need to be able to dip a finger in to ‘taste’ the learning if we are going to serve up something truly outstanding.
Daniel Edwards has written about the fallibility of the scheme of work and how we often only have them to fulfil the demands of school policies and the inspection regime. He argues that if we want lessons to respond to students’ needs (and we do) then planning a term in advance is ridiculous. They’re only helpful in detailing the content to be covered but little else. He concludes by saying, “There will be a scheme of work and it will meet school policy. I just don’t think I will refer to it very often.” Now this seems a sorry state of affairs. If we’re only creating these documents to avoid a telling off then, really, what is the point?
A few years ago I started work at a new school with various non specialist teachers delivering the KS3 English curriculum. To ensure that they covered it properly we went to a lot of trouble to write and resource very detailed schemes of work which took teachers neatly through lessons, ticking off assessment focuses and arriving in a timely fashion at the end of unit assessment. Job done. Only problem was, although the teaching was covered none of this took any notice of the students’ learning. Didn’t get the objective of lesson 1? Tough. We need to start lesson 2. Sound familiar?
Peter Blenkinsop points out that schemes of work do solve some problems. Resources need to be managed to make sure every class doesn’t need the same stuff at the same time; topics have to be covered in a logical order and the exam board’s specification must be covered. Now, I’m all for long term planning and one of the most important jobs a competent middle manager will sort out is a programme of study that details what needs teaching when, by who and to whom. This information is crucial if everyone is to feel secure. But does any of this require detailed lesson plans as part of the mix?
He suggests replacing schemes of work with schemes of learning. Now, I had come to think of the terms as interchangeable with SoL having become more fashionable than it’s down at heel cousin the SoW. The difference, I thought, was merely semantic. But what if this isn’t the case? What if a ‘scheme of learning’ could be something radical and dangerous, focussed on the outcomes that students might produce and designed to tackle mastery rather than content delivery? The Learning Loop is a model which could accomplish exactly that.
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Sticking rigidly to a series of lesson plans is a guaranteed way to fail your students, just as mechanically working your way through a recipe book with no regard for your ingredients or interest in the requirements of those you’re serving is a sure fire way to mess up mealtimes. But, a good recipe in the hands of a skilled chef can be a thing of beauty. And while Ofsted have said they’re not interested in lesson plans, they do expect to see planned lessons.
So, should we rip up our schemes of work? No. But maybe we should have a really good look at whether they’re fit for purpose.
Food for thought.

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