23 May 2021

Autonomy vs Consistency

I'd like to present a hypothesis. Secondary maths teachers generally experience a relatively high degree of autonomy over the structure, style and content of their lessons. 

At my own school, I think the maths department is the only department where lessons aren’t centrally planned. That's not to say that lessons are fully scripted in other subjects, just that there's a sequence of lessons, planned by one individual, that every teacher in the department follows. Individual teachers make their own adaptions to these lessons, but for most part there's a high level of consistency over what is taught. 

Take history for example: all students in each year group will experience the same history lessons each week, regardless of who their teacher is. There will be variations in the style of delivery, naturally, but the content taught and the activities used will generally be the same in every classroom. 

Contrast this to maths: we are all teaching very different groups who work at different paces (because our students are taught in sets) so one centrally planned lesson would not be suitable for all. Also, we are a group of teachers who have different styles and preferences when it comes to pedagogy. So every teacher in the maths department plans their own lessons. I'm not saying we all plan every lesson from scratch every time - there are plenty of banks of lessons we can draw on, both provided by the MAT and available online - but individual teachers are free to decide the sequencing within each topic as well as the explanations and activities within each lesson. If you popped into maths lessons at my school at any given time, you'd probably see the same topic being taught in every classroom but you definitely wouldn't see the lesson being taught. 

Is it the same in other schools? Well I can't speak for other subjects, but a recent Twitter poll suggests that the perception amongst most maths teachers is that they do have a high level of autonomy. 

Of course, this Twitter poll doesn't give us enough information for a proper analysis. Perhaps those with a high level of autonomy are highly experienced and highly competent. Perhaps those with less autonomy are trainees, or perhaps they are teachers who need additional support. Perhaps if this poll had included non-Twitter users, the results would have been different. 

Regardless of the profile of respondents, I think it's remarkable how many of the 1653 teachers who responded to this poll feel that they are highly autonomous.

There are mixed views on whether this is a good thing. Here are some examples of thoughts on this:

Read the full thread for all the responses.

An Autonomy Spectrum
There is clearly a spectrum of autonomy in the classroom, which looks something like this: 

At one end of the spectrum teachers have absolute autonomy over both what to teach (i.e. no curriculum to follow) and how to teach. Though a wonderful idea in theory, even in the most extreme circumstances it's unlikely that this happens in practice. We have a highly prescriptive national curriculum, and we have public exams at age 16. Only in the case where a teacher neither follows the curriculum nor enters students into public exams would they have full autonomy over what to teach.

Just along from that end point on the spectrum we have schools that follow the national curriculum. For practical reasons they typically have an internal scheme of work that dictates the order of teaching to some extent (usually relating to internal assessment i.e. to ensure that students are all in a position to take the same assessment at the end of each academic year). As long as teachers teach the designated content (for example, teach angles in the summer term of Year 7), it's up to them how they do it. I'm calling this pedagogical autonomy. This means that no one tells the teacher what to do in the classroom. There are no school or department policies regarding lesson structure or style. Teachers plan all their lessons independently and without collaboration. Lesson style, structure and activities are determined by teacher preference, for example some teachers will use mini whiteboards, whilst other won’t, and some will use manipulatives, whilst others won’t.

In the middle ground of the teacher autonomy spectrum, there are a wide range of approaches. These may include one or more of the following:
  • Department polices on certain 'non negotiables' (e.g. use of retrieval practice, frequency of feedback etc).
  • A bank of centrally planned lessons that may be adapted by individual teachers.
  • Department policies on methods, representations and vocabulary (for example 'all students should see the grid method for expanding double brackets').

There are many more approaches I could add to this list, but you get the idea. Basically we're talking about measures to support consistency of experience for students, but still allowing teachers to plan (or adapt) their own lessons.

Towards the other end of the spectrum we have a situation where all teachers deliver centrally planned lessons. There's been an increase in this in the last couple of years as some schools have adopted curriculums such as Ark or White Rose to the fullest extent. 

At the extreme end of the spectrum we have zero autonomy. This is where teachers have absolutely no control over what they teach or how they teach it. They have no opportunity to add any of their own style or ideas. The only way I can see this happening is through fully scripted lessons where teachers are literally told what to say. 

I want to be clear up front that I hugely value the autonomy I experience in my own lesson planning. I certainly don’t create everything from scratch - I’m happy to borrow from resources and lessons created by others - but I take a lot of pride in my lesson planning. To me, planning lessons is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. I value being allowed to have my own unique style. Pedagogical autonomy is my happy place, and having the opportunity to be creative is one of the things I love about this career compared to my previous career. That's not to say that I have total autonomy. For example, department policy at my school dictates that my teaching does have to feature aspects of retrieval practice. But I would have done that anyway, so it's hardly an imposition! There's also a school-wide feedback policy that says my students need to receive feedback in maths twice every half-term. This means my teaching features end of unit tests, but I would have done that anyway too! All things considered, I think I probably sit about a third of the way along the autonomy spectrum. 

Although I very much enjoy having a high degree of autonomy myself and would be resistant to that autonomy being reduced, I am well aware that there are some very strong cases to be made for consistency across a department. In the remainder of this post I’m going to outline some of the arguments around the varying degrees of autonomy. I don't think there's a 'correct answer' here. To some extent, a school's approach will depend on the level of experience and expertise in the maths department. But there are certainly some considerations that all heads of department should be thinking about.

Workload and Wellbeing
It's hugely inefficient for every teacher to plan their own individual lessons. The workload associated with excessive amounts of lesson planning may have a detrimental impact on staff wellbeing. 

In my own school (we currently only have Years 7, 8 and 9), the weekly planning workload for a history teacher might involve reviewing, tweaking and preparing resources for six centrally planned lessons which will each be delivered to multiple classes. The weekly planning workload for a maths teacher might involve fully planning and preparing twenty different maths lessons. That's quite a contrast. 

I notice it myself - as an Assistant Principal with a large number of whole school responsibilities I really struggle to keep on top of my lesson planning. Though I only plan twelve lessons a week, this is four times more lesson planning than the other Assistant Principals on my team. 

Recruitment and Retention
For the teachers who enjoy planning and delivering their own lessons, autonomy brings job satisfaction and motivation. A department offering little autonomy may struggle to attract and retain expert teachers. 

At the same time, a department providing high quality centrally planned lessons (for example an 'off the shelf' mastery package) may attract and retain quality teachers who value work-life balance over autonomy.

Skill Development
Planning lessons and reflecting on their effectiveness is an important aspect in the development of the expertise of a teacher. I think we should be wary of de-skilling teachers by taking away their opportunity to make pedagogical decisions for themselves. At the same time, you could argue that moving the focus from planning to delivery means that teachers have the opportunity to perfect more specific aspects of their pedagogy. It's easier to refine your delivery if you're not overwhelmed by other aspects of your role.

Student Experience
Let's imagine Year 8 are learning about sequences and we take a look at what's happening in the maths classrooms one day. This is what we might see:
  • One lesson where the students are engrossed in a sequences investigation involving multilink cubes
  • One lesson where the teacher is at the board leading example-problem pairs 
  • One lesson where the students are silently working through a pile of Ten Ticks worksheets
  • One lesson where students are playing a bingo game involving sequences 
  • One lesson where the students are holding up mini-whiteboards while their teacher questions them and addresses misconceptions
  • One lesson where students are enthralled by a lecture about the history of Fibonacci
  • One lesson where students are being taught to find the nth term of an artihemetic sequence using the ‘shifting times tables’ method
  • One lesson where students are being taught to find the nth term of an arithmetic sequence using the ‘zeroth term’ method
  • One lesson where students are being taught to use the formula a + (n - 1)d
  • One lesson where the teacher has decided that arithmetic sequences are too easy and is instead teaching geometric sequences with surds

Do you read this and think 'what a wonderful diversity of experience', or do you think 'what a terrible inconsistency for students'?

I do think that there is a case for some consistency in methods, language and representations across a maths department. There may even be a case for some consistency in pedagogical style. But at the same time, who gets to decide what style is best? And who gets to decide the methods everyone has to use? What research are you basing that decision on? Choice of methods and representations often comes down to preference. If these things are going to be dictated or advised by department policy, I think it wise that the process of writing that policy is collaborative. I have seen some good work being done over the last couple of years on developing 'method policies' in some maths departments, and the best examples of these have always been developed in discussion with the whole department.

Groupings and responsiveness
In a school that sets in maths, it's logical for teachers to adapt the content and style of their lessons to best suit the class in front of them. Arguably, in 'mixed attainment' settings, there may be more of a case for 'one size fits all' lessons.

That said, a feature of all 'good' maths teaching, whether in sets or mixed attainment, is that it's responsive to students. Centrally planned sequences of lessons don't necessarily allow teachers to respond to their ongoing assessment of students' understanding. This is why planning lessons far in advance never works well in maths teaching - we can only really plan a lesson after we have taught the previous one, when we are in a position to determine the next step. 

Mathematical progression
In most schools, students have a different maths teacher in Years 7, 8, 9 and 10. There are many advantages to this, from the perspective of both students and teachers, particularly if there is a range of expertise in the maths department.

Some people argue that a disadvantage to students of changing teacher every year is that different teachers may 'do maths differently'. This could be confusing to students and may hinder their progression. On the other hand, this variety might actually be beneficial to students. I'm not convinced that "Mrs Morgan sets her working out like this and Mr Brown does it a different way" is necessarily a terrible thing, as long as Mrs Morgan and Mr Brown know each other's ways and acknowledge the different approaches with students. 

A typical example is when students have been taught to draw a 'wall' down the middle to separate the two sides when solving an equation. It's not a big thing, but I'm always a bit surprised when I see one of my students doing this.  
My students won't ever see me do this on the board (I don't have a problem with it, I just think the equals sign suffices to separate the two sides... I also don't like the way it makes the equals signs look like 'not equals' signs...). I always make sure I acknowledge with students that some teachers or tutors may draw a vertical line, and I don't mind students drawing the line if that's what they're used to. 

There's no point in trying to undo previously taught approaches or habits, unless they are mathematically damaging. It's fine for people to do things differently to me! I don't think these minor details need micromanaging.

Teachers do need to communicate well with the other teachers in their department though, and ideally pop into each other's lessons when they can. If teachers know what their colleagues do then they can at least recognise and acknowledge the different approaches in their teaching.

Quality of teaching
To ensure that all students benefit from high quality teaching, you could argue that novice or developing teachers should experience less autonomy than more experienced teachers, particularly where subject knowledge is lacking. This might come in the form of lessons always being co-planned with a more experienced member of the department, or perhaps a mentor checking the suitability of all lessons plans. A more extreme measure, which might be particularly suitable in a department with a high proportion of teachers who have been identified as needing support, is to insist that all teachers teach lessons that have been centrally planned. 

The big question here is: who's writing the shared lessons? And who's assessing the quality of those lessons? After centuries of maths teaching we are, as a profession, still a long way from universal agreement on what constitutes effective maths teaching. So someone claiming 'my lesson is best and everyone else should teach it' makes me a bit uncomfortable.

A few years ago, a friend of mine joined a school with scripted lessons. He was a highly experienced and knowledgeable teacher and was told to deliver scripted lessons written by a far less experienced teacher. This approach seems flawed. 

If absolute consistency is our aim, then we want all teachers delivering the highest possible standard of lesson. But I'm not totally convinced we truly know what that looks like.

Further reading 
If you want to read more about maths teacher autonomy, here are some articles you may find interesting:

I have not done adequate research to be able to support my claim that secondary maths teachers generally experience a relatively high degree of autonomy. But I hope that this post has given you a lot to think about. What is the optimal balance of autonomy vs consistency? I don't know the answer, but I know it's not an easy one. 

A plea
For an unrelated piece of work, I’d really appreciate it if you’d complete my survey if you teach Key Stage 3 maths. Many thanks!


  1. As a tutor with students from different schools, and different years within schools, I'd recommend some sort of 'middle ground' here. I think there does need to be a little more consistency, eg a 'house style' for certain topics! You mentioned 'nth term rule linear sequences', but the worst case of confusion for one of my poor students was when he was being taught 'nth term quadratic sequence', had two maths teachers (one teaching one lesson a week, the other three lessons) and they were each teaching different methods! (As a tutor I tend to avoid this in KS3, due to confusing them with MY preferred method! And once they get to Y11 I find few of them can remember ANY method, so I then pitch in with my favourite!

  2. We are one of the few school which have no sets for ks2 ks3 and ks5. In ks4 is only have two sets higher and foundation. We centrally plan all lessons. I plan for over 20 year 8 teachers. Teachers can adapt the lesson pretty much however they like. Someone always thinks it's too easy/too hard but I really really like this approach. It allows me to really focus on planning for year 8. I spend around 6 hours planning one weeks worth of resources.