“Another piece of paper?”

At the later end of last week, the unthinkable happened. At the end of a level lesson this week, I was beginning to gather together my spare copies of the various handouts from the lesson, as there is a fairly quick turnaround to the next class, and one of the students said: “is that another worksheet?” I had to smile, but for those of you who know me will realise that underneath I was aghast. My goodness, I thought, even the students have noticed that there have been a lot of handouts this lesson. Truth be told: there were a lot of handouts: more than I usually use, but it’s hard to cover something like a range of text types with a large group of students without killing some significant volumes of tree. There will be some tech bore thinking I could have scanned it all and had students look at it on their phones, but really, I can’t be bothered to explain how barriers to doing things this way would render any benefit negligible. 

The lesson needed a lot of handouts, and despite beliefs to the contrary, regular readers will recognise that I’m not opposed to using handouts per se, but to using handouts when you don’t need them, or indeed using any resource that you don’t need.

Earlier in the week, I’d taught two contrasting lessons. The first was a two hour lesson on adjectives and comparatives, with some speaking and writing, based on a single handout of images and an interactive whiteboard which allowed me to show said images on  a large screen and write on them. The following lesson was listening,  drawn more or less verbatim from the splendid ESOL Nexus site. This lesson depended very much on most students having 2-3 sheets of paper, plus another one between two. The lesson worked based on the printouts and while I did slim it down a bit, the resources were the source text for many of the activities, and therefore needed to be there.

All three lessons worked out well. Personally, I liked the one-handout lesson more, because the lesson provided a reassuring element of structure (generate adjectives – elicit/present form – check understanding of form – provide practice of the form) but at the same time left lots of room for student personalisation – the adjectives were student driven, and the open nature of the later practice meant that I could slip in a little bit of extra stretch in terms of language complexity (how to say when things are the same – as ….. as, and not the same not as ….. as). But this is just me, nothing else. The lessons generated similar amounts of language and skills development, and neither was better innately because of the presence or absence of resources, but were better or worse because of the lesson structure and design.

Resource selection, design and development take up huge amounts of time, for all teachers. Technology is sometimes a help (my page of house photos, for example, would have taken several hours or even weeks of collecting photographs, or the text types, in an actrivity downloaded from the internet, meaning I didn’t have to source and design an appropriate text. Indeed, this ease of access to, and ability to create resources is probably the single biggest benefit of technology in education, at least in terms of the actual job of making people learn.

But the best resources in the world are useless without a decent lesson. You can toss off hours designing or finding resources, be they paper or digital, but if the lesson doesn’t work then you might as well have spent the time on Facebook. Whether resources work or fail is too easily the fault of the teacher using them badly, not the materials themselves. There’s no “right” quantity of materials: the learning in the lesson is what counts and the resources you make or choose must benefit that. 

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