Schemes of work and lesson plans…..a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance?

It’s September. The start of a new, bright term and, for millions of unfortunate college lecturers, this means a pile of admin…. For the part-time lecturer this is particularly annoying, as payment is only per teaching hour ‘to include necessary preparation, etc.’. Lecture notes, of course, take a lot of time to prepare but this is, at least, work that feels worthwhile…and for the law lecturer it allows a little indulgence to pore over a few interesting judgments along the way (hooray for www.bailii.org – an absolute saviour for those of us who do not have the luxury of a nearby law library!)

What really gets me is spending a Saturday on what I consider to be the pointless admin…that old favourite…the Scheme of Work. As anyone who actually does the job will tell you, it is virtually impossible to stick to a scheme (unless you press on regardless with a complete disregard for the needs of the actual human beings who end up in your class) and said scheme has usually proved itself to be totally pointless by the time you get to week 5. However, the detailed scheme of work is vital for a good inspection or observation (we’re all familiar with the old Monty Python joke that ‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’, but we’re all forced to expect this one…..constantly…..) so it must be done.

I’m not saying that you don’t need some sort of plan. It does indeed make sense to figure out how you are going to cover the entire syllabus, with time for revision, before the exam! However, the ludicrously detailed Scheme of Work usually bears no relation to reality and seems, therefore, a pointless waste of time.

Then there’s the lesson plan. My first encounter with this thorny little beast was on an early teacher training course, where we were set to admire a one hour lesson plan explaining how to sharpen a pencil. Great…but can someone please tell me how this relates to explaining the rules relating to the defence of provocation? The emphasis these days is on ‘activity learning’. This is a wonderful idea, and considerably more fun for the lecturer than droning on for 2 hours about strict liability, or some other less-than-gripping topic. However, it is more suited to some subjects than others. It’s fine to encourage students to discover what colours make green by mixing their different combinations of red, yellow and blue….but can you do the same with Law? Let’s see….

Teacher to student: “go off and see if you can work out a set of rules for proving that the defendant owes a duty of care”
[student goes off and returns with list]
Teacher to student: “oh, you’ve created a lovely set of rules there, well done! But now you should forget the rules you’ve just invented, because this is the rule laid down by Lord Atkin, and this is the one you need to use to pass the exam”

In my book, it doesn’t work. Practice in applying the law once the correct principles have been learnt is essential but activity learning as a means of discovering those principles simply adds to the confusion.  I’m all for doing everything you can to make it interesting and fun, but I believe there needs to be a balance. At the end of the day, if a student can’t cope with a strong focus on the written or spoken word rather than games and pictures, is Law the right subject for the individual?

I will continue to do my best to make the studying of Law both interesting and enjoyable for my students, but it’s Law, it’s not Bricklaying or Beauty therapy and you can’t teach it in the same way. I love to use a good case to provoke interest and amusement, or the odd silly picture if I think it will help cement a case in the student’s mind. What I do resent is being forced to spend pointless hours inventing a Scheme of Work that is palpably unfit for purpose, unsuited to the students in question and not remotely workable…..but does look lovely for an observation :-)

All of which brings me to a final, heretical ,thought…do these institutions really care about the quality of delivery offered to students? I know there’s constant talk of ‘quality’, but everyone knows that the Schemes of Work and the lesson plans are about as realistic as the prospect of me turning up to class looking like Claudia Schiffer. It’s well known that savvy teachers often have a special ‘inspection lesson’ they keep up their sleeves for just such an event. (I understand that it works a treat, as long as you can do something to divert attention from the startled look on the students’ faces when the wonder what’s happened to their usual lecturer.) A far better way of honestly assessing standards in such places, in my opinion, would be to lower the unrealistic expectations of endless perfect paperwork and wonderful activity based lessons and conduct no-warning inspections that see it as it really is…week in, week out.

I shall keep pressing for my own mini-revolution but, until then, you know what they say…”if they’re not playing Bingo, they can’t be learning!”

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