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News & Views

The five minute lessons that don't exist
By Terry Freedman
Created on Fri, 13 Jul 2007, 14:29

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The QCA yesterday launched the new secondary (high school) curriculum for England and Wales today, and this has provided an opportunity for some journalists to demonstrate their skills of tenacity and research.

How else would you explain the fact that the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard both reported that one of the recommendations is that students be given 5 minute lessons in various subjects, yet try as I might I cannot find a single reference to that. Clearly, there is a limit to what I, an amateur with limited journalistic skills, can achieve when it comes to in-depth research and reporting.

My feeble understanding of the new curriculum is that it is designed to be flexible. I was privileged to hear a talk by someone from the QCA the day before the official launch of the new curriculum, and what he was saying that schools are encouraged to think creatively about how some aspects of the curriculum are delivered. (Also, as you'd expect, I've been keeping abreast of the review, and making my views known at various stages. And that's another thing: the QCA didn't simply disappear for a few months into some sort of bunker and then emerge with some hare-brained new scheme: they actually consulted with people  who work in education. But I digress.)

For example, it makes sense for something like some mathematical skills to be taught and practised on a regular basis throughout the year. However, undertaking a project in Design and Technology in one, or even two, 50 minute lessons each week makes no sense whatsoever -- at least, not if part of your aim is to turn students into problem-solvers. I know from my own experience that when, in one school, I was timetabled to have one class twice a week for two hours each time, it was a fantastic block of time to work with. It afforded so much flexibility that I was able to treat the students, all of whom had some learning difficulties, like adults -- with wonderful results.

Since writing the above last night I thought I ought to check with the QCA that they really hadn't stipulated 5 minute lessons. After all, we've had some hot weather here in London recently, and it is just possible that some form of collective insanity had descended upon the QCA building in London. This is how my initial conversation started:

TF: I can't find any official reference to the 5 minute lesson

QCA: Neither can we.

Someone phoned me back within the next 15 or 20 minutes (someone I've worked with, in fact, so it was nice to catch up). He confirmed my suspicions that the press, ever in search of the soundbite no matter what the consequences, had been somewhat economical with the truth or, to be extremely charitable, had presented their headlines in way that could cause people to infer something that wasn't the case. He explained that the whole point was flexibility, and provided a good example. Does it make more sense to practise a musical instrument for 10 minutes a day, or for two hours in one go before an exam? Clearly, the former is preferable.

Going back to my own teaching days, I would always convene the whole class 10 minutes before the end of the lesson, in order to consolidate what had been learnt and achieved, and to make sure they knew what they had to do next. And then, if there were still a few minutes left, I'd do an oral Q & A session with the class:

John, what's an absolute cell reference?

Mary, what's a field?

It helped to reinforce the terminology and the concepts, and also gave a very important "hidden curriculum" message: I never told the class that as they had worked hard they could now have a few minutes enjoying themselves. My view was, and is, that the lesson itself should be so exciting and full of achievement that anything else would pale into insignificance. Besides, why would I want to convey the message that we could afford to relax? I have always been a firm advocate of the advice given by the Zen master Suzuki:

A Zen student must learn to waste his time conscientiously.

In essence, the idea behind the time issue is that the time that a school devotes to an activity should reflect the best interests of the learning, not be some arbitrary amount.

Back to the press coverage of the new curriculum. I've looked at The Sun and The Guardian, ie a tabloid and a broadsheet, and they both say that Churchill and Hitler have been cut out of the History curriculum. Here is what the History curriculum actually says:

The changing nature of conflict and cooperation between countries and peoples and its lasting impact on national, ethnic, racial, cultural or religious issues: This includes studying the causes and consequences of various conflicts, including the two world wars, the Holocaust and other genocides.

Now, I think that if there is any teacher in the country who can teach that lot without mentioning Hitler or Churchill they should be given some sort of award.

The reason I have digressed from ICT itself is that this single episode belies a large part of the argument presented by Andrew Keen in his Cult of the Amateur, which I will review here next week, that the press gets it right and amateur bloggers get it wrong. It took me 10 minutes to whiz through the documents on the QCA website, 5 minutes to search Google for a non-existent quote by Lord Adonis, and then 15 minutes to chat to people in the QCA. So for the want of half-an-hour's research, some newspapers have successfully raised the blood pressure of a lot of people unnecessarily, and dismissed the efforts of a dedicated team of professionals who are passionate about the curriculum, and what it could become.

How dare they?

Focusing on the new ICT curriculum at Key Stage3, the content has been slimmed down, functional skills in ICT have been embedded into the curriculum, and various "pointers" have been incorporated into the now much easier to read document. Here are the generic changes to the whole curriculum, taken from a document entitled "The new secondary curriculum: what has changed, and why"

The revised programmes of study share a common format:

  • An importance statement describes the important aspects of the subject, explains what learners can expect to gain from studying it and identifies how it links to the aims of the curriculum

  • Key concepts identify the main ideas that learners need to understand in order to deepen and broaden their knowledge, skills and understanding

  • Key processes identify the essential skills and processes that students need to learn to make progress in the subject range and content outlines the breadth of subject matter from which teachers should draw when teaching the key concepts and processes

  • Curriculum opportunities identify opportunities to enhance learners’ engagement with the subject (for example through debate, museum visits or activities in the community).

A lot of the detail has been cut out. The result is a much easier to read document, of just 5 pages, and one which gives a lot back to the profession in terms of trust in our expertise. The key characteristics of the Level Descriptors have not been included, but then they were part of the non-statutory guidance anyway. We will know in September, when the new curriculum officially launches, if they have been retained.

The Key Stage 4 ICT document has been similarly slimmed down. Weighing (if that's the appropriate word) in at only 4 pages, it too leaves much of the detail to the professionals.

Having said that, the National Strategy's Framework for ICT is in the process of being revised, so help will be available.

Here are the challenges for the ICT Co-ordinator and the Head of ICT as I see them.

1. Although these changes have been made at Key Stages 3 and 4, they will affect primary schools. More than likely, secondary schools will implement the new curriculum one Year at a time, starting in Year 7 in September 2007. Clearly there is not much that primary schools can do this year, with term coming to a close. But I would strongly recommend that primary colleagues familiarise themselves with the new curriculum, and team up with one or more secondary schools to make sure that everyone is on the same page. No doubt the National Strategies will be running appropriate training, but that is no reason to sit on ones laurels.

2. Secondary schools will have to manage the process of repurposing the materials and lesson plans they already have. I would suggest adopting a minimalist approach to this, in the sense that I do not think a wholesale revision is necessary. The standards, which are enshrined in law, have not changed. And although much of the detail in the documentation has disappeared, if you read the document closely you will realise that you still have to teach (much of) the stuff that has been omitted, cf the example from the History curriculum I gave earlier.

3. Make sure that you are seen to add value by certificating the acquisition of functional skills in ICT. The document about Functional Skills in ICT, at:, maps the relationships between the functional skills syllabus and the Key Stage 3 curriculum. In other words, the work has been done for you, and all you need to do is make sure the students are explicitly rewarded. Well, not quite all you have to do, but you can see what I am driving at.

4. It's too late to make changes to the overall timetable of your school, but certainly not too late to draft some ideas for special "events" that might require the use of the school's ICT facilities for a one day "special". Think about what you might do, and how you might involve other colleagues. You are now officially allowed to be creative and flexible!

What do you think? Please leave a comment.