It would be fair to say the modern-day primary teacher has a lot on their plate, from statutory assessments and marking books to Ofsted visits. To continue would not make a positive start to this blog. However, amongst the daily splitting of priorities and energy that teachers face, far too often it is the foundation subjects that are pushed to the very back of their thinking.

Two years ago I read Greg McKeown’s fantastic book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. One quote sticks with me, as it frames the challenge we face in primary: “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done”. Although the book was aimed at improving the reader as an individual and had nothing to do with teaching at all, I found myself drawing clear links back to my life in school and as a teacher.

How often had I applied the essentialist approach to my teaching and planning? How often had I got to the end of the week and looked back thinking, ‘I squeezed so much into a packed timetable and don’t really feel like I achieved that much at all’? The answer, sadly, was that I frequently felt like I was trying to ‘have it all’ with the curriculum choices I was making. Inevitably, it meant that nothing was ever covered in enough detail for there to be true depth of learning or joy for me or my class.

This reflection requires us to take a step back and consider what the school system and curriculum had made me feel like I needed to focus on. Was it deep and meaningful learning? Or was it coverage for coverage sake? Sadly, it was the latter. I would often spend my weeks desperately trying to squeeze in subjects into a timetable so that on paper I was covering everything but in reality, the impact and outcomes for pupils was not where I wanted it to be. And this is where the issue of conflating being busy with being productive raises its head.

Effective schools and effective teachers are able to separate how much time they have spent on something, with the impact that time had. If you want to become a better piano player, it is true that you will need to put in hours of practice. If that practice is misguided and focusing on the wrong things, you might have spent years of your life trying to improve but the outcome will be that you haven’t made much progress.

If that practice had been half the time but twice the focus on the right things, the progress would have been incomparably improved. I was guilty of this approach when I first started to teach primary foundation subjects and only by questioning that approach and ensuring that any time, no matter how short it might feel, being spent on these subjects was maximised to ensure as much pupil progress as possible.

In Mary Myatt’s Fewer things in greater depth blog she quotes E.F Schumacher as saying: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction”. It is the middle part of this quote that I think is worth focusing on. If we accept that the way foundation subjects have been taught in the past is not as effective as it could be, if we want to change our way of working in a meaningful way, then it will take conscious effort and commitment. This will not be an easy process, nor will it happen overnight.

The hope is that you are working in a school that is either already adopting approach similar to this, or is flexible and open to change. As an early career teacher, it can be difficult to make decisions around changing pedagogy, and you are likely still getting into a rhythm with your teaching career. However, the approach we are talking about makes things easier as opposed to harder. It is worth taking the leap and trying to make change for the longer term benefits.

With all this in mind, it’s important that we consider what this might look like in practice. Below is a table taken from my new book, Teaching Primary Foundation Subjects, which outlines the shift in mindset that we can achieve if we take an essentialist approach to our teaching practice:

Nonessentialist teacherEssentialist teacher
Thinks“I have to”
“It’s all important”
“How can I fit it all in?”
“I choose to.”
“Only a few things really matter”
“What are the trade-offs?”
DoesReacts to what is most pressing
Says “yes” to people without really thinking
Tries to force execution at the last moment
Pauses to consider what really matters
Says “no” to everything except the essential
Removes obstacles to make execution easy
GetsTakes on too much, and work suffers
Feels out of control
Is unsure of whether the right things got done
Feels overwhelmed and exhausted
Chooses carefully in order to great work
Feels in control
Gets the right things done
Experiences joy in the journey

I hope this demonstrates the fact that it doesn’t need to be an overwhelming change or shift to make profound change. Just by using different language, prioritising different things and choosing simply to focus on the things that have highest impact we can start to become far more efficient and effect with our time. This is particularly pertinent when considering how squashed and under pressure our primary timetable is.

The reality for us as primary practitioners is that there will always be more that we could do. We can either choose to try and cover as much as we can, never really reaching a great depth of learning or enjoyment but meeting a checklist of subjects taught, or we can aspire to strip away the unnecessary and focus only on the things we know that matter. The things that will enthuse us and the children in our classes.

The concepts and knowledge that we know will lead to meaningful and long lasting learning. It takes a conscious effort to do so but the rewards for everyone in your classroom, including yourself, are profound and can make a significant difference to the outcomes and futures of the pupils in your class. Yes, there has never been a more important time for trainees to secure subject their subject knowledge and build their understanding, but sometimes doing less is more.

James Coleman is Head of Operations and Training at NASBTT. His book in the Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers series, Teaching Primary Foundation Subjects, edited by NASBTT Executive Director Emma Hollis and published by Critical Publishing on 3rd April, is available to purchase here.


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