Worksheetless in Gaza

‘Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.’ (John Milton, 1671)

My title this week is inspired by Milton’s most quoted line from his play, Samson Agonistes.  Poor Samson, through his physical blindness, eventually comes to find an inner, spiritual sight which reveals to him his true purpose as a martyr.

Long pedalled as the ‘holy grail’ in teaching the worksheet has come to represent the perfect tool for settling a class quickly, controlling behaviour and giving students a vehicle for work outside the classroom.  It has become the basis for sharing, collaborating and disseminating good practice and many have made a good deal of extra money by selling their worksheets online and gained credibility among their work peers, citing them as evidence of their contribution to departmental resources. Many teachers feel naked if they enter the classroom without the warmth of a newly copied wad of worksheets under their arm and feel at a loss to know how to teach any other way.

That said, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that if I was going to fulfil my goal of only working normal working hours then my time spent making and/or searching for worksheets online had to be reduced and that, despite feeling blinded, naked and afraid I would spend this week ‘worksheetless in Gaza’ hoping that I would find a deeper, spiritual fulfilment and understanding of what is true pedagogy.

Here are a couple of examples of worksheetless lessons this week:

A yr 8 science class (bottom set) on the pros and cons of selective breeding.  They drew a picture of their ideal dog and labelled two features. They then had to write a few sentences on why selective breeding was a good thing and why it was bad.  They used a textbook to research this.  I asked them to draft a letter to the kennel club outlining what regulations they believed should be put in place to protect pedigree dogs and give evidence to back their ideas.  All students were engaged in the task and bronze and silver lesson objectives were met (my version of all, most, some).

A yr 12 Psychology class on conformity to social roles:  I showed them a video clip of Zimbardo’s prison experiment (1973) and photos (online) from the Abu Ghraib scandal (2004). I then posed the question ‘Bad apples or bad barrel?’ http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/bad-apples-or-bad-barrels-zimbardo-on-the-lucifer-effect#.WCThJfmLTIU and asked them to provide evidence to back their argument.  They were engaged and active and came up with many points using key terms and citing research.  There was so much richness and insight in what they discussed that I am now convinced that ‘pose a question and let them go’ is much better for developing their understanding of a topic.  I tested this later with an essay question in which most of the group achieved on or above their target grades. However a similar approach fell flat today as, being Friday last period, the tendency to engage was much lower and students tended to ‘drift’ off into discussions about the weekend and what they might be doing.  Therefore, the timing of these lessons is particularly important.

Furthermore, the show and not tell idea did not work with a bottom set yr 7 class who had to explore the dangers of drugs. I asked them to produce a leaflet for the general public on the benefits and dangers of drinking alcohol.  I asked the class what information should appear in the leaflet and they all managed to come up with the idea that they should explain that alcohol calms you down and helps you relax and that too much could be toxic, causing sickness, memory loss and liver failure!  But none of them could produce a leaflet using the key terms discussed and not a single one could understand the concept of safe limits and reproduce that on their leaflet.

My conclusions are, therefore, that worksheets are not necessary for students who can think, reason and argue and that they actually impede such students who thrive on a ‘show’ and not tell approach.  However for bottom set classes, they provide a much needed framework for ‘getting something in their books’ and helping them to focus. I would even go as far as to offer a word search at the beginning of such lessons just to settle them into class and help them to focus.

I think that, on the whole, I have achieved what I set out to this week. I have not been to the photocopier once and I have possibly saved three hours searching for the ‘perfect worksheet’ to put on that now largely redundant machine.  I have not yet achieved the inner spiritual epiphany that Samson enjoyed but I am determined to keep trying this approach to see how I can improve it to benefit both me and my students.

Next week I’m going to focus on the bottom sets and try to find a way to engage them while helping them to learn ‘something’ and get some evidence in their books that learning has taken place.

I have only worked one evening this week, Thursday for an hour and a half, and will spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon writing powerpoints for health and social care and psychology. Progress; but still much to do.

Jobs done:

  • All lessons taught
  • Two tests given, marked, returned with feedback and ‘close the gap’ done
  • Half an hour spent trying to contact parents of two boys given a detention. The boys did not turn up
  • Half of my yr 13 reports written (deadline today)
  • Targets stuck into one set of year 7 books
  • Trip forms handed in
  • One UCAS reference written
  • NQT mentee meeting held

Pending:

  • Powerpoints for 5 Psychology lessons and 3 Health and Social Care lessons to be written this weekend.

Jobs not done:

  • Parents of boys who missed detention not re-contacted (could not spare the time)
  • Target stickers yet to be stuck into two sets of yr 7 and one set of yr 8 books
  • Other half of yr 13 reports not written (due to system failure)
  • Data not looked up and added to seating plans for all yr 7 and yr 8 sciences classes

 

Until next week!

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