Testing times for timetablers

Running a school right now must leave even the most experienced leaders feeling breathless. As fast as schools tackle one challenge there’s another along promptly, all the while punctuated by an endless stream of government guidance and updates. All the while many of a school’s ‘normal’ tasks still need to be done. Such as the timetable.

As a former timetabler I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the current COVID-19 challenge if I were leading a school.

I imagine that there is many a timetabler out there who is, as in every previous year, currently drawing together a version for 2020/2021 ready to commence in September. It’s often a curious labour of love that goes through many iterations and crises before victory is snatched from the jaws of a scheduling defeat, or at least that’s how it can look from the outside.

On the inside, timetablers know two important truths. Firstly, we like timetabling (even though we might pretend not to). Secondly, it essentially boils down to a series of trade-offs: making X work will make Y more difficult. The key question is always: what do we want to prioritise? Once we are clear about that, things fall into place a little easier.

Given we don’t know how schooling is going to take shape over the rest of this term, September seems a long way off. But of course, it’s not in terms of school weeks (maybe 7 or so). Teachers have always called for the timetable to be finalized and published as soon as possible, ideally before the final day of term, so they can do any necessary planning and logistics before the summer holiday rolls around.

And that was when what teachers expected to teach in September might look largely like what they would have done in any other year. Except this September it might be very different. If COVID-19 continues to disrupt education and wider society it is plausible that even in September we will still be looking at a very different normality.

For example, it could be that sizeable numbers of pupils are still being educated remotely. Or, it could be that there are further periods of lockdown, either nationally or locally.

Many schools have found out this year that the ‘normal’ school timetable can be difficult to adhere to in the context of remote learning. The exceptions are those schools which have stuck to the timetable in their online schedule, delivering live lessons and so forth in regular slots. However, I know of several schools which started this way but found the rigidity didn’t work for their teachers or pupils. As ever, some things will work in some contexts but not others.

So what is a timetabler to do?

I think it’s helpful to see this in terms of scenario planning. No school will want to be scrambling to put together a timetable at the end of August, so having one prepared, as I know most schools will have, seems a sensible action.

But it’s also worth thinking about other scenarios, including if substantial numbers of pupils continue to require remote education from September.

I know of some schools which have decided to roll over the current timetable into next year, maintaining consistency of teachers and pupils groups as far as possible and using the old year 11 time to teach Year 7s. Then, as and when we know more about what lies ahead, they can bring a new timetable into play at, say, half term or Christmas (or later?!).

This might work for some schools, but not all. For example, constraints such as the availability of new staff might make this more difficult. It may also be that a school wouldn’t want to create the sense of pupils being held back in some way. Again, it might work for some schools but not others.

I have another thought I want to float though: whether creating a new timetable for September or rolling over the existing one, does the timetable as we’ve known it previously matter as in previous Septembers? Should we be thinking more explicitly about the rhythm of our pedagogy as well?

If we know that the standard timetable is hard to maintain remotely, or even undesirable for some schools, should we be approaching this from a different direction? Does this give us an opportunity to make structures for remote learning work more effectively from September?

I know that some teachers have found it difficult to juggle the competing demands of catering for different classes, setting work for across a range of year groups while trying to find time to assess what pupils have understood and address any issues and misconceptions. And that’s as well as dealing with anything else they might have going on in their lives, including caring for their own children or perhaps someone who is shielding.

The risk here is that teachers are paddling so hard to keep up with the generation of resources, the time taken to set remote work, create videos etc that the vital part of assessing what pupils have/not learned and responding to this are missed out. Pupils can lurch from one set piece of work to another, with limited insight from the teacher about whether the work is being understood, therefore leading to insecure learning and shaky foundations for the future.

Is there an alternative pedagogic approach that could make it easier for teachers to assess and respond?

For example, imagine a pedagogic framework in which for subject X all pupils in Year Y were given a common instructional video on a Monday, created by one teacher but used across the whole year group for all classes, in which key content was introduced with some limited opportunities for practice.

Then later in the week (let’s say Wednesday) class teachers held seminar sessions, eg through video conferencing or a Teams chat, probing pupils’ understanding and addressing misconceptions. This could then be followed up later, sharing further practice materials or whole class feedback, helping to ensure that what has been taught that week is well understood and properly connected to what pupils have previously studied, perhaps even providing the means for them to discuss it with each other. On a related note, Mark Enser’s fabulous blog is worth a read if you haven’t already. Drawing on evidence he explains, “The EEF also points to the importance of continued peer discussion in remote learning, something that can be achieved through the use of forums.”

The evidence of the efficacy of spaced repetition suggests this approach could also play a useful part in remote learning, particularly for pupils preparing for exams. Should we build this into our thinking as we turn our attention towards September?

The sort of approach I’m exploring here is interesting to me mainly because it foregrounds the important work that teachers do in helping pupils to build new knowledge into their schema, and to do it without misconception. It makes teaching and learning a more dialogic practice – something that is easily lost if remotely taught content becomes fire and forget.

I don’t claim that this process mirrors Rosenhine’s principles but there is an echo of it in adopting a pedagogic approach which makes explicit the need for teachers to check for understanding and guide practice.

It might also help with teacher workload in that you don’t have all the teachers in a department frantically reinventing the wheel for their own class. They could take responsibility for creating a high quality, step-by-step weekly instructional video for all pupils in a particular year group and after that their job is to help their own classes understand and practice the curriculum content for that week, deepening and extending as appropriate.

If the curriculum stars align, it may even be that some of this initial instructional leg work is being done by teachers elsewhere in the system, such as those at Oak Academy.

None of this is about trying to lock teachers and pupils into cumbersome mechanistic approaches to teaching and learning; the mutated remote version of the three part lesson.

Rather, it’s about thinking through what will best help pupils to understand and remember what they’ve been taught, especially in the challenging context of remote learning, and how leaders can help to facilitate that.

The more time teachers spend crafting resources in isolation, the less time they have to help pupils learn it. This is really about opportunity cost. Or, in the language of timetabling that I mentioned above, it’s about priorities.

And for that reason, at a point where time is such a precious commodity, we want to ensure that what we do has the most bang for our pedagogic buck.

And it is vital to make this manageable for teachers who may find themselves teaching some pupils face-to-face while still having to teach some remotely.

There is a great deal of useful material out there which provides evidence-informed frameworks to help teachers think about how they structure learning sequences. Tom Sherrington and Oli Caviglioli’s new ‘Walkthrus’ book is one such example and might well be a useful resource for teachers and leaders to dip into.

The needs of subjects might be different so it might be that some sort of generic whole school approach is undesirable. But at subject level a common approach across teams might be helpful and worth discussing with subject leaders.

Given that remote learning seems likely to extend beyond September in one way or another, any time that can be spared making it more effective is likely to be time well spent.

All of which brings me to this: have a timetable ready for September by all means – you may need it, or parts of it, for September. Indeed, you might need to adapt it through further iterations when we know more about what we’ll be dealing with in September.

But also know that the most important frameworks a school builds, particularly in relation to remote learning, are likely to be pedagogic.

And that’s coming from a timetabler.

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