Death by Handout

Earlier this week, during a twitter discussion on differentiation, I posted the following:

“Extension task for stronger learners? Have a worksheet. Less able learners? Have a worksheet.”

We were discussing mixed level classes and differentiation but the sentiment is one which I have been teased about in the past, most recently one Monday morning when I was “caught” photocopying from a coursebook.

I don’t have an aversion to materials, pre-written handouts, copies from books and the rest. I have even been known to use them, on several occasions. There are some very good resources out there, after all. But I do have to criticisms.

The first is the use of handouts as a tool for differentiating. This is problematic for one very simple reason, of course, and that is preparation time. Even simply adapting a handout for different learners is time consuming, and we don’t always have time to prepare extensively differentiated resources like this. The other aspect here is that the upshot of this kind of differentiation is that end up replacing teaching and learning with throwing handouts at people, and the lesson becoming fragmented and workshoppy. This kind of thing sacrifices valuable person to person interaction, peer feedback, discussion and so on, all of which can throw up new considerations and ideas, even for the teacher. It’s also often unnecessary to throw handouts at people, when you could simply follow up work aimed at the less able learners in the class with orally given wider, more challenging tasks for the more able learners. These generally require no time to prepare, apart from thinking time.

It is, of course, possible to use the same handout, depending what it is, across learners at a range of levels. For example, a matching activity could have the definitions removed for the top end of the class, the definitions reduced to hints for the middle, and have clear definitions in learner friendly language for the bottom end of the group. The thing I really like about this is that it keeps the whole class focussed on the same thing, and at the end of it all you can get the “less able” learners to compare their answers with the stronger learners, which gives them a bit of a confidence boost because they have the right answers.

The second issue I have is maximising resources. For me, a piece of paper for every learner with a single photograph on is pointless unless at the end of the lesson it is covered with notes and ideas (for example a biography of that person). If it is looked at, talked about for five minutes and then forgotten then the time spent putting the picture on the paper, the time and the paper used in printing and copying is wasted. It would save everyone hassle, in fact, if you just took the requisite number of sheets out of the copier and threw them straight in the bin: cut out the middle man, so to speak. For me, a handout should be extensively used in the class, or be a reference for learners later on (even if they never look at it again).

The third and final resources gripe I have is when people plan lessons back to front. They start with a general aim, hunt out some vaguely appropriate resources, devise some learning outcomes related to those resources and then plan a lesson using those resources. Planning a lesson should start with specific objectives, which give rise to the activities, for which you then go and find or develop resources. If the activity has to modified extensively, or the outcomes rewritten, then the resources are wrong for the job. I will hold my hands up here and say that I have broken this rule, which is hypocritical of me, largely due to time, or just knowing that there is a suitable published resource out there, but it’s what I aim towards, successfully, most of the time.

I have to admit there’s probably a little bit of purtitanical masochism here, in that I also think following things like a course book page makes me lazy. Give me a room of learners and a two page spread of a course book and I can generally pop out a half decent lesson without even reading the resources beforehand. It’s real one-hand behind your back with a blindfold stuff, mainly because the resources have been well designed, reviewed, and tested. For me, using a course book is the hangover-missed-train-rushed-into-the-office-with-no-plan lesson.

But also half the time, you can do a lot with very little, which is why I object to thinking about the resources rather than the lesson and the learning. You often don’t need all that much stuff. A single recording or a newspaper article can be the springboard for a whole two and a half hour session. Post it notes, pens and a bit of flip chart paper can be extremely rich if you couple it with some good ideas. It’s not about dogme, or some environmental mission, it’s about the learning. If the learners have something they can refer to later, if the learners are doing something useful with the handout, if it suits the outcomes of the lesson, then absolutely use it. But don’t just lob them at learners in the hope that somewhere along the way they’ll pick up some English, and don’t let the resources tail wag the lesson dog.

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