Why I love using booklets in my lessons

Something wonderful, and sadly not common enough, happened this weekend on edutwitter, dear reader – a topic was discussed where people disagreed and it generated more light than heat. The topic? The use of booklets in class. I have written quite a few tweets in quite a few threads about it, but I thought collating my rationale and approach in a holistic and structured way might help.

It started with an article by Mark Enser called ‘Why I avoid using booklets in my lessons’, which I saw via one of his tweets, where he said:

“Happy to accept I might be wrong on this but I just don’t understand the rising use of booklets in class. 

I would be interested to hear how people use them in a way that overcomes my concerns.”

Well, Mark, since you’ve asked, here’s my take on ‘Why I love using booklets in my lessons’.

1. The principles

As the dialogue on Twitter proceeded, it became clear from those with whom I interacted that there was a lot of agreement on the principles that governed how we approach our teaching. For the sake of clarity, let me very briefly outline where I am approaching this from.

  1. I believe in a knowledge rich curriculum and pedagogy that supports our pupils as we challenge them to think deeply about the content we are delivering.
  1. I am a huge fan of generative learning tasks (“Generative learning is a theory that involves the active integration of new ideas with the learner’s existing schemata. The main idea of generative learning is that, in order to learn with understanding, a learner has to construct meaning actively.” [Osborne and Wittrock, 1983]). In fact, when I read Mark and Zoe’s book on this topic, it was the first time I had read a rationale for the approach that I have gravitated towards throughout my three decades of teaching. My classroom is a meaning-making environment, where pupils engage in a series of active thinking tasks. After all, ‘Memory is the residue of thought’, is it not?
  1. Teaching must be responsive to the ways in which pupils are making that meaning. Meaning-making is not a neat, linear process. Pupils can make mistakes in schema building that I must spot – preferably as they emerge – and address. Schema building needs to be consolidated; as pupils start to make meaning, the connections they make can be shaky. I need to build in tasks that give them a chance to strengthen their nascent understanding. 

As a geography teacher, my subject is one that allows for responsiveness of content. Events happen around the world all the time that are relevant to what I may be teaching at that moment. To be able to bring in material on real events as they happen in real time can be a powerful way of helping my pupils engage with geographical content.

I suspect, knowing many of the people I have been interacting with on Twitter about this, that there would be broad agreement between us about the above.

And yet, some are clearly advocates of booklets to help achieve this, whilst some take very much the opposite view.

Let me say this, then: getting the principles that govern our decisions right is of first order importance; the procedures we then use to implement those principles are of second order importance

Or, as Zoe Enser said in one of her tweets, ‘A good teacher will always make the best use of what they have anyway.’

2. The problems

In light of the above, when I read Mark’s article, my initial reaction was that it sounded very much like what happens in my lessons. He says:

At the moment, when I teach a lesson, I am constantly chopping and changing it. I might discover partway through a lesson that pupils are not as secure at doing something as I thought they were and so I decide to change the planned activity to give them another chance to practise. It could be that a class discussion reveals a new line of thinking about the topic and I want to adapt an upcoming task so that pupils refer to and build on these ideas. 

Ditto. That’s very much what goes on in my classroom. Mark’s worry was that, given that this is his approach, booklets could end up curtailing that. ‘My concern is that if everything is prepared in a booklet, months in advance, how locked in will I be to these plans?’, he asks. A valid thing to be concerned about indeed. In fact, with his usual excellent turn of phrase, he encapsulates the core concern succinctly: ‘Will these booklets not end up becoming, rather than supporting, the curriculum I want to teach?

Short answer? They could. And probably, in some cases they do. What Mark has identified is a possible, but not inevitable, outcome of using booklets. 

He goes on to ask very important questions about learning as a process.

But what about learning? Just because the booklet has been taught and completed doesn’t mean that the learning has occurred. We need to be able to respond to what we are seeing in front of us and adapt as we go. This ability to respond and adapt is what makes teachers highly skilled professionals. We can’t, or at least shouldn’t, simply be working through our plans regardless. 

I am in complete agreement with every single word in that quote. Every single word. Again, used badly, booklets could fall foul of this. An approach that is merely ‘fill in the blanks and underline the key words’ probably will. But this is not how I use my booklets.

How then do I implement them?

3. The procedures

First, a brief story about how I got into booklets about 20 years ago. Starting teaching in the 90s meant the coolest piece of edtech you had in your classroom was the iconic OHP. I loved the craft of making OHP acetates, working many hours in the evening designing and crafting these works of art (geography is a very visual subject). But, as we got our first computers into the classroom around the time was introduced, it seemed to me that a new opportunity presented itself to transition from OHPs to booklets. Combined with the fact that, at that stage, no textbooks existed for the spec I teach (CCEA) and the copies of Waugh’s opus magnus, although excellent, were not tailored enough to the exact requirements of the NI spec. 

And so, my first booklets were born. 

They have evolved a lot since then, as has my use of them and use of other subject specific technologies such as the powerful tool that is GIS digital mapping. But they allow me to achieve what I want to in light of the above principles in a way that supports my pupils, scaffolds their development, and equips them with content that gives them confidence as they revise for their exams. Let me try to outline who they do that.

One slight caveat, just as I would say Mark’s critique is not an inevitable outworking of using booklets, what follows below is not the only way of doing what I’m trying to do. My goal here is not to convince you to switch to booklets if you don’t use them; it’s simply to explain my own rationale for why I do.

i. The structure

I am a fan of schema theory – a huge fan. I invest a lot of time with my pupils in connecting the various elements of learning and consolidating their schemas. This includes in class recap and drilling of core content, application tasks to give them an opportunity to think deeply and broadly about the new content and lots of checking for understanding. 

My GCSE booklets help with this organising process by ensuring the learning content I want my students to pick up is highly structured and organised. At the start, we begin with a copy of the relevant section of the spec, so that pupils can always check the big picture. This is supplemented with graphic organisers we co-construct on the way through. Each sub-section has clear headings, copies of the specific subsection of the spec, and is laid out in a clear way. 

Pupils end up with highly organised and clear notes, with nothing missing because they were off, or out of sequence because they missed a lesson. They provide a basis for the pupils’ independent work that I can be confident of.

ii. I can manage the spotlight of attention well on any given page

Cognitive Load Theory says some very helpful things about managing extraneous load when getting our pupils to consider new content.

Through the formatting choices I make on the pages, I am in charge of making sure the main things appear to be the main things for the pupils. Core concepts can be identified explicitly and presented in a way that pupils can clearly see when looking through them on their own.

They notice what I need them to notice.

iii. Organisation – knowledge pages and tasks pages

I tend to break my GCSE booklets into two main sections. The first deals with the new content I am covering. It will have the text I need them to have, plus the kinds of resources we use a lot in geography. These will have sections for the pupils to complete or interact with, but don’t by any means represent the totality of what we do in a lesson. 

The second section consists of exam style questions just after the content, where the pupils get a chance to both consolidate their learning and practice that all important exam technique. A technique I quite like to use when doing these questions is to give the pupils a post-it note and, say, three minutes to make notes on the previous few pages of content. When they do the questions, they can use the post-it as a prompt, but not refer back to the previous pages. This requires them to think about the content on the previous pages, select information they think is key, or factual information they will need to know, or parts of those pages they feel they don’t yet know quite so well. ‘If you’re not thinking, you’re probably not learning,’ is a phrase they hear me repeat a lot in class. Through doing this, I explicitly model to them how they might manage their own revision and learning at home. 

iv. Retrieval practice built in

I like some of the core ideas behind the Cornell note making system, especially the columns for questions for later retrieval. When I first came across this idea a few years ago, I tried to get my pupils to use it – with varying success. I found that they found it hard to formulate good and relevant questions. 

So my booklets now have columns at the side that include retrieval questions. The notes have built in flash cards. A lot of lessons start with my getting pupils to use those retrieval questions (either in their jotters or in a pair questioning scenario). I don’t need to prepare anything new for this task – the questions are already there. And I am able to explicitly model to the pupils how they should be using questions like this in their own learning and revision at home. 

v. The booklets are a living scheme of work

We design the booklets collaboratively in our department and the digital copies we all share have supplementary pages incorporated throughout that act as living schemes of work. We share teaching ideas, further resources, exemplar answers to exam style questions that the pupils can assess and much more. It saves time as I don’t need to produce a separate scheme of work.

And how are these resources used then in the delivery of content?

i. It frees up time for generative and responsive tasks in class

Just because you don’t use booklets doesn’t mean that pupils spend lots of time copying down material in class. But, unless we are doing writing practice, there is actually relatively little writing in my classes. I ask questions – a lot of questions. There could be a huge blog in itself about how I do that, but suffice to say that this stage that many of the methods outlined in Walkthrus are ones that I use and have used for decades. My teaching is very much a dialogic process, engaging with resources and ideas, checking for understanding, building connections with prior knowledge, applying the new knowledge to new contexts.

In short, we talk a lot as it helps me make sure my pupils are thinking a lot – and I want to know what they are thinking. And knowing the notes are there in the booklets gives me confidence to be able to invest huge quantities of time to this.

ii. The booklets are the floor not the ceiling

One of the concerns with booklets that emerges from Mark’s statement ‘will the booklets not end up becoming, rather than supporting, the curriculum I want to teach?’ is that booklets become determinative and restrictive. They can become that, of course; just as classrooms without booklets can become places where lots of copying down from the board takes place. 

That’s why the principles at the start are the first order importance. They govern the pedagogical decisions we make in class about how we will use the resource that is the booklet, alongside all the other resources we have. Booklets contain the non-negotiable foundational, the core of what the pupils need to know. But, in terms of the hinterland of the curriculum, as Tom Sherrington puts it, the ‘ essential context to support the overall narrative of our core curriculum, rather than additional clutter’, there is ample scope to go beyond what is in the booklets to make those all important excursions to the hinterland.

iii. The other resources I used can allow me to adapt to pupil learning and up to date events

There is a dual combo often seen at the front of my classroom – my flip chart and a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) map. Digital and analogue, side by side. I love using GIS in my classes as it is a flexible, non-linear (opposite to how PowerPoints can be restrictively linear) and up-to-date tool for delivering the geographical content I want to cover. These GIS maps are used very generatively and responsively (see this for an example of how I do that) and the flip chart uses the benefits of the external memory field to capture the core points we discover together in such a way as to aid schema construction. 

Resources like these can, of course, bring in up to date examples. We’ve been doing a lot about the volcanic eruption in La Palma using GIS resources over the past couple of weeks, for example. When teaching weather systems to my GCSE class these past two weeks, we’ve been going on to websites that show satellite imagery of clouds and rain to apply the theory to the complexity of the real world. I used digital jotters (see below) with my pupils when doing this to allow them to annotate the images we were looking at to enable me to diagnose how well they were able to apply their learning of the content in our booklets. 

iv. I use jotters – and more recently digital jotters – to do additional writing tasks in class

When organising thinking in the early stages, the process can be a bit messy. Pupils need the chance to think, attempt connections, realise those that aren’t quite right, and focus on those that are. I have loved the recent work by Oliver Caviglioli on the external memory field and the importance of supporting the cognitive load of thinking by using writing/notes/diagrams.

I use pupil jotters to this end, getting them to write down in a ‘low stakes’ way their thinking (some of them don’t want to, as they see it, ‘mess up’ their booklets by doing this kind of thing!). That provisional thinking can then feed in to what they do write in their booklets.

During remote teaching, when some pupils were in school and some at home, I developed the use of Google Slides to act as a digital jotter, enabling pupils in class and those self-isolating at home to be able to join in the jotter tasks irrespective of their location.

For me, that has become a real covid keeper, a method I use a lot in my classes. The way in which it enhances my real-time monitoring of the pupils’ work compared to the use of ‘analogue’ jotters is very useful. You can find out more about how I use digital jotters here.

4. The progression

One final point to make. As we move from GCSE to A Level, the nature of the booklets changes. We have a very open BYOD policy in school and so our 6th form pupils get digital templates for their booklets, scaffolded to support them, but that require them to put in some significant work outside of class to complete their own notes. We encourage them to go well beyond the baseline scaffolding, incorporating the tasks we do in class alongside wider reading/research they are expected to engage in. 

This allows the notes to evolve more organically in response to what we do in class and events in the world around us, and helps transition them towards the kinds of unscaffolded work that waits for them at university. 

This blog is not a polemical attempt to convert anyone to booklets. As I said at the start, in many ways the are the second order issue. Get the first order principles right, and then use whatever procedures enable you to do those as effectively as you can. For me, for the past two decades, booklets have been just that.

One thought on “Why I love using booklets in my lessons

  1. Nice post Alistair! I’m with you on this one. I love a good, well-constructed booklet. Does not mean that you can’t supplement things with online and extra learning resources. ‘It’s the floor, not the ceiling’.


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