Beyond the aesthetic

As many teachers seem to be moving towards the utilisation of workbooks within the classroom, I thought it might be useful to distill my thinking further around workbooks and how the way in which I design workbooks seeks to serve the subject, teacher and student as effectively as possible.

Whilst the initial creation of the workbook is labour intensive, workbooks should act as an object of longevity: they stand to provide a framework that meets the needs of the subject in a way that is faithful to the discipline itself. To unpack this further, we cannot force designs or delivery upon subjects through a blanket, one-size-fits-all ideology and hope for the best: the enactment of one subject has entirely different requirements around exposition and the way in which knowledge is organised, sequenced, considered to the next subject, so on that note, I write with as an English teacher first and foremost. However, some of the underpinning principles of workbook design outlined intend to inform and provoke thinking outside of my own subject specialism.  

Workbooks can provide the teacher with a framework that is robust enough to acknowledge the essential, but loose enough to not confine or restrict delivery . They should not act to replace the knowledge of the teacher- in fact, quite the opposite- the workbook acts as a workload-reduction methodology that then enables the teacher to develop a rich, empowering level of subject knowledge instead of tinkering over animations, or formatting PowerPoint slides. Quite simply, it provides a gateway for the teacher to rid themselves of the role of administrator, trawler of search engines, photocopier extraordinaire, so that they can be, well, a teacher. This does emphasise the need for thoughtful design that transcends the aesthetic- it must hold value to the original purpose with which the designer sought it to attend.

Additionally, they serve to reduce workload not only by making way for subject enrichment, but also to aid collaborative planning and discussion within a team: imagine the incredible discussions that could take place as staff come together, workbook in hand and prepare for teaching that week? Plotting out possible misconceptions through insights from members of staff who have encountered the text before, or sharing how an explanation might look for a particularly complex step or process serves not only to benefit the student, but also the expertise of the teacher. And so whilst this blog lingers over the deliberation and design of a workbook, we can also consider how the value of the workbook isn’t merely how it looks on the page, but as part of a process outside the classroom as well as within it.

Workbooks should aim to fulfill three key principles:

                                                        Cohesion  |  Action  |  Value

Cohesion

For the teacher, the workbook acts as a template rather than a confinement to their teaching. It outlines a clear, foundational sequence that should serve as a framework to the richer, purposeful experience within the classroom. In the words of Meyer, ‘it gives you what you want, when you want it, rather than everything you could want, even when you don’t.’ It doesn’t try to do all, but instead seeks to do what must be done.

There is a feeling of familiarity for the teacher, because each key moment of introduction of new knowledge provides the teacher with the opportunity of exposition; each exposition is followed by the opportunity to ascertain misconception; each opportunity to ascertain misconception is followed by the opportunity to correct such misconceptions. Furthermore, the creator has sufficient knowledge of the text or content that they have already worked hard to anticipate these misconceptions within their design, and to any expert of the text, the key moments, these non-negotiable moments are highlighted to students through the careful plotting out that weaves its way thorough the workbook as a whole.

There is a sensation of ‘flow’ where, as Oliver Caviglioli describes it, of ‘Architecture meet[ing] behaviourism’: the architecture of the workbook acts as a reflection to the nature of the way in which it will be taught. In fact, the design doesn’t intend to provide shocks, or curve balls, but uses the habitual to avoid any distraction from the knowledge of the subject itself. Tasks are not gimmicked or gamified, but solid outlines that demonstrate a regard for the subject and the journey essential to understanding it. Each episode resembles, in format and sequence, the last episode- because the teacher’s delivery is what will encompass the meaning of the content itself. Students learn through a steady balance of expert-led enquiry and independent articulation and practice. 

This familiarity moves further still , as students experience a sense of recollection: with each episode of learning, they are prompted to remember where they may have seen language of this nature, or the presentation of an overarching thematic link between this moment, and a prior moment in a text; they are encouraged to identify the connections between what is being taught now, and what has come before. Far from one-off vocabulary and busy ‘doing, not thinking’ tasks that seek a maverick, haphazard approach to learning, the cohesion that exists within the workbook means it is impossible for learning to happen by chance, as all knowledge intended to be taught has been deliberated in its worth to contribute to the key moments, its connection between what has come before and what is to come next, and most importantly, where the student will have the time to handle what has been taught for themselves.

Active

The workbook doesn’t seek to replace the teacher or encourage passivity in a student; in fact, I would argue quite the opposite. In effective workbook creation, the success of even the very best workbook is heavily reliant upon the expertise of the teacher, both subject-knowledge and understanding of how the student will most effectively actualise the content for themselves.  For the student, there should be an expectation from the workbook that they engage, read, annotate, respond, interpret and in an informed way, hypothesise their way through a unit workbook. Each stage requests them to draw from prior learning, pull through knowledge taught previously to make connections with the present, wrangle with questions posed, emulate what has been modelled, before then, independently, attempting to practice themselves. Effective workbooks refuse to accept passengers!

Equally, for the teacher, there is no such thing as a ‘print and run’ workbook when executed well. Instead, the workbook is a central feature in subject-specific CPD, or weekly meetings with colleagues, and annotated with questions, scripting, further reading to prepare the delivery that will do it justice. Far from the lazy option that some may have rendered it in the past, the workbook acts as a starting point so that teachers can spend time developing as academics and specialists of the subject itself.

Valued

If the workbook is to play such a central place within our curriculum, we must present it as such. This process is achieved through both design and delivery. John Franklin stated ‘simplicity to the extreme is elegance,’ and when curating a workbook, it is fundamental that we don’t seek to fill pages with busy work, but consider the leading principles of what should be learned, considered and known. Chopping out and pasting in content from a range of sources can sometimes endanger this goal of simplicity, but also removes the path that we originally carved out through a unit of learning. Enquiry questions are a vital part of this process, because as well as providing the previously mentioned and necessary cohesion to learning, they drive us to achieve the equally necessary clarity to ensure that we avoid filling pages with stuff that perhaps lacks the required substance of the subject. This simplicity also increases the value of the workbook to the student- it reduces cognitive load, avoids the potential of distraction through teaching too much, too soon, or too late, and instead provides a clear model that holds a high regard for what is to be taught.

Workbooks must hold value through our enactment in the classroom. Working alongside an exercise book, alongside multiple resources, tattered as one of two or three booklets in action for that lesson, it becomes perplexing to understand- to both the student and the teacher- what the purpose of the workbook is. If the workbook is the central holding place for exposition, exemplar or feedback for improvement, its value becomes implicitly realised as a natural consequence.

Finally, and this is possibly a blog for another time, it is worth consideration as to how the workbooks you use are evaluated and developed at subject level, to ensure that they still do justice to the knowledge required by students.  We should be mindful as to when and how we revisit the workbook to provide time and scope for discussion around the way in which the workbook needs to evolve alongside the inevitable evolution of the subject.

Some key points to consider:

  • Where is there a sense of triangulation between the core knowledge required to teach the unit, the workbook itself and the unit overview which will inform delivery?
  • Where is there a sense of familiarity for students- ‘this is how it looks in English’- and how was this standard agreed?
  • Where can students experience familiarity through workbook completion?
  • How does the preparation and use of the workbook itself demand active participation from the student- annotation, questions, recall, notes on teacher models, writing practice, feedback?
  • Do your workbooks outline a demand to be valued by both student and teacher? For the student- all in one place, and for the teacher- part of subject-specific development?

If this was useful, you might like my and Claire Hill’s soon-to-be-released publication, Symbiosis. It’s available to pre-order here:https://www.amazon.co.uk/Symbiosis-Curriculum-Classroom-Kat-Howard/dp/1913622088

For working examples of workbooks, please see the resources section of this site. https://saysmiss.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/the-tempest-workbook-final-1-2.pdf is possibly an ideal starting point.

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