The lesson lottery: teachers’ planning overload holds back students
16th October 2022

Great teaching inside the classroom relies heavily on high-quality curriculum planning outside the classroom. But achieving this is challenging.

Take secondary English – the subject I used to teach. The Victorian curriculum stipulates that a year 9 student should be able to “present an argument about a literary text based on initial impressions and subsequent analysis of the whole text”, but includes scant detail on what that analysis might actually involve.

Great teaching inside the classroom relies heavily on high-quality curriculum planning outside the classroom.Credit:iStock

This still leaves vast gaps for the teacher to fill in. For a study of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, for instance, the teacher needs to make a huge number of decisions themselves – how much time to spend on the historical context of 1930s southern America, which scenes to read closely and which to skip, what themes and literary features students should understand.

I often felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of curriculum decisions I had to make, as well as the late-night searches for the best materials for my students. And this was all before I even got to the part where I had to ensure students learnt how to write an analytical essay, let alone devise a strategy to help my struggling students, some of whom were still working on the basics of writing.

The near-infinite decision-making about the detailed content to teach is replicated across year levels and subjects. The inevitable result is a wide variation in teaching and learning between classrooms, resulting in a lesson lottery for students and teachers.

If teachers don’t know what preparation students have had in previous years, teachers may waste precious time planning for and reteaching concepts and skills students have already mastered, or they may overlook critical concepts and skills, assuming their students have already been taught them. For students, this means they can sit in classrooms packed with poorly connected activities, that can be highly repetitive or leave critical learning gaps.

Even the hardest-working teachers will struggle to give their students the best education under these circumstances.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Some schools have adopted a different way – they have committed to a whole-school approach to curriculum planning that reduces teachers’ individual planning workloads, builds teachers’ expertise, and ensures students have access to common, high-quality learning opportunities no matter what class they’re in.

At Grattan Institute, we’ve closely studied this approach in five schools across the country, to understand how they make this work in practice. A visitor to one of these schools can quickly see the difference. They’d notice that each year 3 reading class was tackling the same content as the other year 3 reading classes down the hall, with small adjustments to the pace of lessons, opportunities for additional practice, and the unique personality of each teacher shining through. Likewise with the year 6 maths classes, year 7 history classes, and so on.

The benefits are huge, as the teachers made clear to us.

For example, Docklands Primary School, a new government school in metro Melbourne, has invested up-front in developing rigorous, shared lesson plans that are highly sequenced from prep to year 6. This common approach means teachers are sharing the planning load and their collective expertise. Teachers also have access to targeted in-class coaching, which helps them bring the curriculum to life in their classroom.

But this kind of alignment does not just happen – it takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes to get there, and a strong culture of professional trust.

Unfortunately, Grattan Institute’s new survey of 2243 teachers and principals suggests these schools are the exception, not the rule. Half of teachers surveyed told us they were planning lessons on their own, and only 15 per cent said they had access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes.

To end the lesson lottery, governments need to offer a much more practical helping hand. All schools should have access to comprehensive, carefully sequenced curriculum materials that they can choose to adapt and use as required. These materials should be quality-assured by independent reviewers, so teachers can be confident the materials are road-tested and ready for the classroom.

These materials should be genuinely comprehensive – providing teachers with everything they need to teach right down to lesson-level materials – so that teachers can focus on adapting their approach to meet their students’ needs. Schools should have ready access to a broad suite of options, to avoid the perception that governments are mandating one option over another and ensure schools can make the best choice for their context.

Of course, making high-quality, comprehensive curriculum materials more readily available is not a silver bullet. Curriculum-specific professional learning for teachers and principals also needs a major boost. And teachers’ ever-expanding workload needs to be trimmed, so they have time to focus on preparing for class.

But ensuring these materials are available – and teachers know how to find them and use them effectively – is critical to ending Australia’s lesson lottery. It would have made a real difference for me and my students.

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