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Leading computing - top 10 tips for reducing workload in a computing department

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Teacher attending our Python programming CPD in classroom with other teachers.

Last year, just 1% of teachers told the NEU their workload was always manageable. The same survey revealed secondary teachers spend 77% of their time on non-teaching tasks. 1 in 4 teachers were considering leaving the profession last year with 92% of those citing unmanageable workload as a reason.

Losing experienced staff from teaching is a national tragedy for young people, while the stress of excess workload contributes to burnout of our valued professionals. For all these reasons, as subject leaders we must do what we can to reduce workload. Below are some top tips for computing leaders to tackle high workloads.

Planning and Resources

1) Use a centralised curriculum. Do not ask teachers to plan their own schemes of work or provide individual lesson plans. The free Teach Computing Curriculum (TCC) provides a solid foundation for KS1 to KS4 Computer Science, and any adaptation needed for your context should be performed as a team and stored in a shared folder. See our course CP255 (Primary) or CP461 (Secondary) for more help implementing the TCC. Consider also supplementing it with Isaac Computer Science, a free "online textbook" with interactive content and practice questions, also free.

2) Exploit generative AI (gAI). Try out gAI tools such as ChatGPT and Perplexity to write lesson content, for example, multiple choice questions for a “Do Now” retrieval practice quiz. Alternatively, learners could prompt gAI to explain topics to them when revising, and ask the tools questions to deepen their understanding. And Harvard’s free CS50.ai has been trained to help students write code, so why not get students “rubber-ducking” with it in class? See my earlier blog on gAI for more advice.

Staffing and staff development

3) Timetable developing teachers well. If you have any control over this, consider the best way to allocate non-specialists and ECTs such that they cover less content within a cycle. For example, if a non-specialist teaches all of Year 8 instead of a mix of Years 7, 8 and 9, they will teach the same lesson many times in a week, rather than lots of different lessons. This can reduce their planning and improve the effectiveness of their lessons dramatically.

Teaching and Learning

4) Try flipped learning. I’ve had great success in KS4 and 5 setting self-study homework ahead of the lesson, which reduces the time spent delivering the content. This frees up lesson time for more valuable application work such as guided practice.

You can set a section of Isaac for homework, (or one of the websites listed in the teacher guide of a unit in the TCC), and ask the students to summarise the content in a “sketchnote” or in Cornell Notes. This takes time to get right and isn’t for every setting, but when it works the payoff is remarkable. See this NCCE blog for further discussion.

5) Provide self-study websites. Sometimes it’s not possible for the teacher to be everything to every pupil. Learners may achieve more with access to self-study websites such as Isaac Computer Science. Just set up your classes and invite the students. They are free to study at will, you can assign gameboards to direct their attention and gather some progress data at the same time.

Inclusion

6) Use accessibility tools. The range of technology available to assist learners with additional needs and those with English as an additional language is now vast - we’ve come a long way since Google Translate and the much-maligned Windows Magnifier! Microsoft’s Immersive Reader is an integral part of all 365 products and is also in the Edge browser.

It provides font changing and resizing options, text-to-speech, dictionary, and translate features. I always make my teaching resources available on a shared drive and show learners how to use the tool, rather than creating multiple supporting resources every lesson. Chrome extensions are available to add similar features to Google Suite.

Marking and feedback

7) Set MCQs. Instead of written assessments, make good use of self-marking multiple-choice questions (MCQs) such as those available in the TCC Secondary Question Banks and Diagnostic Questions’ Project Quantum. Primary teachers can get ChatGPT to create theirs. Good quality self-marked quizzes can provide sufficient data for most purposes. Supplement this with quality in-lesson formative assessment and you should not need to mark a book again! Our course on Diagnostic Questions CP412 may help Secondary teachers.

8) Use digital exercise books. Using OneNote or Google Classroom instead of exercise books means that student notes don’t get lost, you can live-mark in lesson or critique work on the board quickly without a visualiser, and mark digitally (if you must!). Teams now allows you to set Python notebooks as assignments, or you can mark Cornell Notes flipped homework for a whole class in about ten minutes!

Communications

9) Tame the email menace! Email is quick and easy to use, and therefore it gets used for everything. Untamed, email use spirals out of control and important messages get drowned out by the noise. As subject leader, I always sent a “weekly update” email containing everything my team needed to know and held a fortnightly team meeting with an agenda that all could add to. We used Teams for everything else and barely sent an email. I wrote a blog with much more advice here.

Behaviour

10) Run centralised detentions. When it comes to behaviour sanctions, their certainty and immediacy are more important than their severity (see advice from Tom Bennett). If a pupil knows they will definitely be kept after school they will be less likely to risk bad choices. Better behaviour means more progress for the learners and less work for the teacher. If your school doesn’t run detentions centrally, work out a schedule in co-operation with other, nearby subject leaders. I also recommend the NCCE course “CP468 Behaviour for learning in a computing environment.”

Summary

Computing leaders are uniquely positioned to use technology to reduce workload, not just in their own department but – through setting an example and sharing best practice – across the school. We have powerful technology in our classrooms and more skill than most to make the most of it. Make use of these top tips and the suggested NCCE resources, and you too can make a big difference in your school!


About the author

Alan Harrison (@MrAHarrisonCS) is a National Specialist in Secondary Computing Leadership at the National Centre for Computing Education.