Beyond the aesthetic II : the practical implementation of workbook design, delivery, discourse

As a school, we have taken an institutional shift towards using workbooks to act as our core classroom materials. Whilst it could never have been predicted, this was an absolute Godsend during the Autumn term, as it enabled us to not only support students working when at home self isolating, but it also reduced workload tremendously for when staff needed to do the same. Whilst workbooks can never replace having a subject expert in the classroom, the implementation of workbooks has enabled us to shift our attention in its fullest form to equipping ourselves with the subject knowledge required to teach, but also to come together to discuss the more micro-level aspects of planning collaboratively that sometimes get overlooked due to the tight time constraints in schools.

After writing about the key principles of workbooks when planning curriculum last year which can be found here, I did promise that I would provide a follow up which outlined the practical aspects of implementation. I thought it might be useful to outline some considerations that faculties might need to make when undertaking such an endeavour. Making the shift to an entirely workbook-led approach within the classroom is a change that, like any change, must be plotted out as an ongoing piece of work- we don’t simply decide to ‘do’ workbooks and begin chopping segments of an overview up, shoe horning them into the page of a workbook. Like any change, the speed, utilisation, and ongoing professional development that supports this work must be front loaded as much as curating the workbook itself (I write about this in more detail here). Hopefully, sharing some of that journey- the anticipated plotting out of this implementation, how it worked as a collaborative piece of work and what the process of evaluation and refinement might look like will be beneficial to those looking to make such a step. I write in the very fortunate position to work within a wonderful team of collaborative, reflective subject experts, which has enabled us to now be at this point, but do touch upon next steps and takeaways later on that might be relevant if workbooks are not currently part of your faculty or whole-school trajectory.


Our workbooks were created collaboratively during lockdown- and I use the term collaboratively, because whilst a Zoom call or exchange of emails will never replicate the essential, respectfully honest and useful feedback needed to move any departmental planning forward, we attempted to work beyond any challenges nevertheless. There were several informal, but also more structured mechanisms in place to support this work, and also to ensure that this was an undertaking that felt fulfilling, as opposed to just another thing.

We created a collaborative document of all of the workbooks which needed to be created, the assessments for the unit including a multiple choice test to act as a bookend for the unit itself, the accompanying knowledge organiser, exemplar material for the unit until we could secure student examples over the course of this year, and finally, an introductory lecture to open the unit and give students the ‘headlines’ of the unit itself (very much looking forward to carrying these out to a whole cohort in the hall in the Autumn term, as was originally planned!). Staff opted for the unit that they would like to work on, which was intended to ensure that staff worked with as aspect of the curriculum that they felt familiar with or interested to develop further. This document also acted as a peer support process: teachers then also signed up to peer review a unit for someone, essentially acting as a point of support but moreover, to be a sounding board when that teacher may encounter planning block! This provided an opportunity for teachers to assign themselves to units where they felt they could provide expertise, or work with other members of the team to share best practice as we worked.

During this period, CPD sessions were provided to support with the planning process. Teachers could opt to attend- they just ran at the same time regardless. This series took teachers through the process of planning itself, taking a knowledge-led approach and equipping teachers not only with the finished article of a workbook, but that this originated from researching around the text, before then identifying the knowledge that would be crucial to student understanding of this point in their curriculum journey. This might be drilling down to the vocabulary that students would need to access the text, but also aid them in future, or the enquiry questions that would enable students to probe at the wider thematic issues being explored within that text or collection of texts. Additionally, this allowed teachers to make a clear identification of what students would bring with them in regards to knowledge, and how they might use this knowledge at a later point in the curriculum. The sequence used for this series of CPD (although I would argue, would be more effective if departments had the luxury of time to do this at a rate that fit their context and ability to work collaboratively):

Beginning the planning process: This explored the importance of researching the text or genre, historical placement and drawing together the core knowledge that would be essential for students to enable teachers to establish what would be necessary to study;

Knowledge: an outline of finalising the previous stage of the planning process, through firming up enquiry questions, core knowledge and crucial vocabulary that will aid students both in that moment of study, but also at a later point;

Content: considerations when mapping out the sequence of learning for the unit itself, including a fortnightly opportunity for students to practice the application of knowledge, a fortnightly opportunity for feedback, but also rumination around gradual introduction of knowledge through the activation of prior knowledge, or how responsive retrieval would play a part within the execution of the workbook itself. This session also touched upon the importance for modelled examples incorporated before students write, and how we might plan to ensure teachers had time to do so.

Assessment: a session which looked at the principles of multiple choice questions in English to act as bookends for the units themselves, but also looking at formative assessment- where did we plan to check for understanding? How had we considered cognitive load in the amount of new information given to students before we ensure they understand it, and what questions would be best placed to do so?

Connections: a session to draw together the completion of the planning process before making a start on the creation of the workbook itself, which set to triangulate the lines of enquiry, core knowledge, vocabulary and chosen sequence to then, in a rather cyclical manner, consider wider implications of these choices within the curriculum as a whole. This session considered a ‘no surprises’ approach to ensure that knowledge triangulated between the knowledge organiser, workbook and lecture, helping students to be able to make connections between one episode of learning to the next, but also ‘useful now, and later:’ students should be able to see how what they have studied before is relevant to the current point, and then take knowledge gained from the current point to aid them in their later study- which we can orchestrate through a set of explicitly linked curriculum materials.

Workbook design: a final session that used workbook standards of ‘cohesive, active, valued,’ for an outline of the more practical, yet also pedagogical aspects of the workbook itself: cohesion in sequence, with a high regard for the familiar- responsive retrieval, line numbered texts for us to read in chorus; a reduction of the activity and a renewed emphasis upon the text so that the core knowledge remains, but the teacher chooses how to deliver it. Drawing from Oli Caviglioli’s principles of design in dual coding, sharing thoughts on cognitive load when making design choices, so that the workbook demands an active participant in the student. Everything they need is at their finger tips for reference, but it demands thinking from them to truly actualise it. Finally, that the workbook holds value in substance, to both student and teacher: the student has everything they require in one place to aid learning- integral vocabulary, a timeline to place the text of study, modelled exemplars either undertaken live with the teacher or prepared as part of the workbook preparation itself.

(You can find streamlined versions of these sessions here).

This meant, before embarking upon the creation of the workbook itself, individual teachers mapped out the following:

  • a knowledge grid of the core knowledge to be learned by the students over the course of the unit
  • key vocabulary for the unit, consisting of a list of tier two and three vocabulary which should not feel burdensome for the student to learn
  • the assessment for the unit – an extended piece and MCQ
  • a series of enquiry questions, avoiding use of examination language (subject, not spec) and tied to key concepts that the curriculum hangs upon (more on this here)

The overviews also provided an explicit link between one point to the next for teachers, to focus on what will be ‘useful now, and later:’

This provided a sense of sequence from one unit to the next, ensuring that across the curriculum, we continued to consider the subject not the specification of an exam, making conceptual links from one point of study to the next. I also anticipate that when we review the curriculum as a whole, that this inclusion of connections will prove particularly useful to ensure we return to keeping a check on the ‘threads’ of our curriculum offer.


Once back in school, we have utilised the workbooks created in teaching of all key stages and as mentioned, this has been particularly useful for setting cover, providing students isolating with work, but also for us to put the curriculum materials to work after being created by teachers who are used to being in the classroom as they plan, and without that luxury, planning in isolation without opportunity of deliberate practice. Selection of questions to pose; choices of what the chunk and why; even modelling responses were all to some degree a dress rehearsal in the absence of the classroom itself- but we led with this knowledge in mind, knowing that these workbooks were to be simply the starting block of an ongoing piece of work that would be ever-evolving. We would need to be in the classroom to see where to slow, where to scaffold, where to take the temperature. In short, the workbook needed the students before we could even begin to work out what was next.

Faculty time has been, on the whole, handed over to ongoing professional development, interleaved with teachers planning in cluster groups for the week ahead. Inspired by Claire Hill, we adopted ‘the week ahead,’ and with the support of Key Stage Leads, the Head of English has facilitated for groups of teachers the opportunity to participate in discourse around a micro-level of planning for their classes.

(Prompt sheet can be found here).

What’s next?

After two full terms, we are now in a position to begin reviewing the workbooks and this process is almost more important that the work we undertook earlier in the year. I would argue that some of the stumbling blocks that we encountered this term- of any term with anything created for the first time, irrespective of COVID-19- were an inevitable part of the process for us to continually improve the quality of what we do and deliver. Nothing will provide a better indication of a workbook’s effectiveness than, well, using it in the classroom, and using curriculum materials was always going to be an integral part of the process of evaluation and development: it is the best litmus test we have as teachers, and we can only predict so much of an outcome up to that point. A workbook will never be first-time perfect- they evolve alongside the progression of the teacher’s knowledge, or even the the wider world- the non-fiction we choose to explore to enrich a text may be reviewed depending on current affairs, for example.

We will also collate working exemplars by students for each unit, to provide an insight into the way the assessments adequately prepare students as part of a wider review of the assessment model of our curriculum.

As a whole school, we will be dedicating the last two days of our academic year to subject development, for faculties to review and refine the curriculum, but we now have the advantage of having annotated, amended workbooks to help to guide this work, along with our knowledge gained over the last eighteen months of how to design effectively for the subject. As our ongoing professional development will take place to equip teachers with apt subject knowledge to aid their delivery of the curriculum, it also needs to ensure that we continue to think about how the workbook seeks to serve the subject: pedagogical practice and specificity to subject cannot exist in isolation of one another, and so our understanding of extraneous cognitive load in regards to the design, chunking as a strategy to simplify the complex, the formation of questions at key moments to continue to make real-time decisions for where to take students next- all of these will continue to remind us of the workbook as the supportive framework for the expert teacher, as a mechanism that frees us to shift our focus to the discourse.

Key takeaways:

  • Plot out the implementation through possibly one year group as a smaller trial, before scaling up;
  • Establish common language through pedagogical considerations and the design itself- the uniformity of workbooks is more than whole-school branding: it aids the students to feel a sense of familiarity with your subject. What will aid them to do so?
  • Ensure that the workbook serves the subject, not the subject shoehorned to the workbook;
  • Consider how your ongoing subject-level professional development will support this work;
  • Finally, consider how you will incorporate time for ongoing review and refinement, so as to ensure a sense of evolution not only to the workbooks, but the subject curriculum and materials used to deliver this.

For a series of working examples, you can find my Tempest, Origins of Literature and History of Rhetoric materials here:

And some other working examples including An Inspector Calls here:

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