There is a something deeply unsatisfying about a microwave meal. Yes, some may be nutritionally balanced; some may be a suitable option for those who are time pressed or lacking in the tools or know-how to create the dish themselves but no one, absolutely no one is ever likely to say: “I should like to forego the version of this meal created by a knowledgeable and competent cook using fresh ingredients; I’d much rather have a pierced film lid, 3 minute ping version please.”
It doesn’t matter how much you tinker with the “serving suggestion” of the microwave version; it’s just never quite as crispy or creamy or unctuous or satisfying as an original version created specifically for that mealtime. Whacking a few lettuce leaves on a microwave burger or placing your three-minute ping lasagne on a fancy plate is still a poor substitute for a beautifully crafted and cooked version, created by someone who knows how to handle, use and combine the ingredients to make a dish which is delicious, nutritious and balanced.
So why are we considering preparing the curricular diets of our children with a “popty ping” approach?
In a recent TES article, there was a discussion of the creation by Oak National of a national set of curriculum resources. I must point out here, before we go any further, that I used Oak resources during the lockdowns with my own children and was hugely grateful for the service they provided. It was optional. It was acknowledged that they were for use in the exceptional circumstances of the time, and they were designed to complement not totally replace the curriculum provided by each individual school.
However, the suggestion that any national, standardised complete planned curriculum be the quick fix solution to many of the curriculum challenges schools are facing at the moment, (whether provided by Oak or large trusts or publishers) is the equivalent of a national microwave meal curricular diet.
Since I began teaching, I have seen many versions of national programmes be trialled, implemented, adopted, scrapped and rehashed, reinvented or buried in the annals of nationally archived resources. I was a national strategy consultant myself in the late 90s/early 00s and have first-hand experience of trying to implement national programmes in hundreds of schools, all wildly different in their resourcing, staffing, contexts, size and ethos.
I can assure you that from experience in hundreds of schools, one size can never ever fit all.
In fact, when the national numeracy strategy was first launched, there was a huge wave of professional development which focused on subject knowledge, principles of effective teaching and learning, hugely helpful supplements of examples of what outcomes in each year should look like with exemplar questions for specific learning objectives/areas but no individual plans. My support in hundreds of schools focused initially on developing the knowledge of how Mathematics was structured as a subject; how to plan; how strands of it interconnected and how best to sequence these to secure understanding. It focused on understanding the “why” you would teach aspects in a certain way in a certain order, and it was an absolute joy to work with thousands of teachers to develop this deep and nuanced understanding of the teaching of mathematics.
Fast forward a year or so and the strategies introduced unit plans – a complete set of individual lesson plans and resources for the entire mathematics curriculum.
On the surface these were stunning.
They were packed full of all of the aspects I’d been working with in schools with all of those teachers.
However, did they help?
Instead of spending my CPD time in hundreds of schools talking with teachers about mathematics itself, I had to spend all of the time explaining how the plans worked, how to adapt them, how to make them work in each specific context, from tiny schools with 4 year groups in one class, through to schools where most children spoke little or no English, to schools with cohorts who were working way above the level of the plans themselves.
I spent more time talking about adapting the existing plans and then trying to get teachers to teach in an exact way rather than on developing teachers to really understand how to teach maths well and to develop their subject knowledge, which is what I’d been doing “pre-unit plans”.
The quality of their teaching often ultimately went down too. Teachers were trying so hard to work to the plan, to follow a train of thought which wasn’t theirs, to stick to timings not necessarily in line with their school day, to teach lessons not built upon their particular class’ existing knowledge and skill that the lessons were overwhelmingly of a lower quality. Where schools adopted them en masse too it was most disheartening to see previously confident and competent teachers of mathematics suddenly feel as if they couldn’t lean on their expertise and had to teach using a plan created somewhere by someone who’d never met their children or taught in their context. It was disheartening to say the least and although you could argue that now there were the national plans then all children would be getting a basic level of “nutrition”, what was actually happening in many schools was that beautiful bespoke planning and teaching had been replaced with the equivalent of the microwave meal. Teacher confidence often plummeted too and then another unexpected wave hit.
Prior to the unit plans, teachers were having to plan units of work themselves. This meant that they had to think through the structure, sequencing and core focus of each unit. This meant they had a clear overview of not only that unit but of the year as a whole and often more than one year group. They had to do the “big shop” themselves, gather and prepare the ingredients and then cook and serve them up. They didn’t just slide off the outer carton and pierce the film lid. There was often deep knowledge of curriculum contents and an understanding of not just what was in that unit but what had come before and what was yet to come. You simply couldn’t escape the need to have a clear, yearly overview and then an exact plan in your head of how it all needed to fit together.
In a fully provided, centralised resource, there is not this same need to internalise the curriculum. If someone is going to give you the microwave lasagne and you’re already busy, why would you then invest the time in understanding how to make a bechamel or season the meat? We cannot on the one hand claim that teachers need to be expert curriculum thinkers but in the next breath remove the need for that thinking. If we are also to meet the needs of our individual school communities and design a curriculum which is rooted in our individual school context and be responsive to its needs, then a standardised nationally planned curriculum is not the answer.
A pre prepared meal is guaranteed to save you time; it will never improve you as a cook. The same can be said for pre prepared curriculum. It may save you time, but it is unlikely to develop your overall curriculum thinking.
There is a sweet spot therefore between the huge workload which can be created when trying to create a complete curriculum from scratch and the provision of a completely designed pre-planned curriculum.
The aim should be to make curriculum chefs of us all. We need to understand which ingredients go together; how and why we would combine them in certain ways to create specific outcomes; how to adapt and respond to specific dietary requirements of our diners; why we would serve certain dishes together and how to pair them with other aspects such as drinks or side dishes. We need to develop curriculum thinkers not curriculum consumers or the waiting staff who simply deliver the meals to the table; and if we provide pre prepared curriculum microwave meals we are in danger of losing these skills and knowledge in the same way I saw this happen over twenty years ago.
This sweet spot then lies somewhere between workload, exemplification and ongoing curricular understanding.
By providing exemplars or outline planning this can help time pressed teachers to navigate the pressures of curricular design. However, by insisting on complete alignment with these or by over-providing the associated resources then these can be hugely de-skilling. I wrote in a previous blog about the impact of “PowerPoint teaching” and sadly many published schemes or curriculum resources rely heavily on resources such as these.
I don’t think a whole scale pulling away of the pre prepared curriculum tablecloth is a good idea either. Colleagues often need starting point, but we need to recognise these should be ingredients and not microwave meals. The more heavily scaffolded a resource, even if well intentioned and designed to help, the more it will result in a microwave meal. Or, like the case of the NNS unit plans, a use of CPD time where conversations move away from developing deep understanding and more towards operational adaptations.
Delivery of a great curriculum is not done by delivery automatons not involved in the creation of the original resource. It is crafted, created and delivered by highly knowledgeable and skilled teachers with a deep understanding of curriculum design. It is also designed and delivered by teachers who can conjure up the faces of the children the curriculum is designed to serve and who therefore know exactly how that lesson will land. Any pre prepared resource doesn’t know your children. It doesn’t know your school. It doesn’t know your community. It wasn’t written for your classroom, for your timetable, or for your class’ passions, your community’s needs and resources, or your own teaching style. It’s a microwave lasagne and although they’re alright for the odd busy Thursday, they’re never going to be a replacement for a home cooked meal.
Let us therefore not lose the collective art of a great bechamel or kid ourselves that a fancy plate will transform that microwave lasagne.
I’m off to do the big shop. There might be the odd microwave meal thrown in there, but for the bulk of the week? I’ll be serving up nutritious, home cooked food.