In the 1970s, when I started teaching, classrooms were awash with card system approaches to learning, or the dog-eared textbooks which were piled on the bookshelves. We had SRA (Science Research Associates) cards for English and spelling, SMP (Scottish Maths Project) cards for maths, as well as Alpha and Beta maths and Fletcher maths which took over at one stage. R J Unstead had captured the history curriculum and geography was a pile of atlases.
However, there was a catch. In order to “keep up”, the children had to complete a specific box in a specific term, which meant that those children who found learning maths or English harder towards the second half of the term, if they, or the teacher had not kept an eye on their progress, would have to put extra effort into the diminishing time and, I remember distinctly, one colleague was sending home multiple cards each night to be completed.
There was an amount of work to be covered, in a specific time frame, by all children, who had to show a level of “mastery”, in order to move on. It put extreme pressure on those children who found learning more challenging and, as a result, were in danger of switching off certain subjects. To avoid that, I took a different view to some colleagues and, using the cards in a more discriminating fashion, created a more interactive approach, with much use of concrete apparatus, modelling and conceptualisation underpinning their activities, followed up with selected cards, rather than all of them, chosen to be appropriate to need. The children and I were therefore under less pressure and they actually enjoyed the experience. Those for whom maths, especially, was easy, were taken faster through the process, on an individual and group basis. It was useful, pre-photocopier, to have ready-made cards, as the alternative was hand written and laminated cards.
Yet, it is personalised approaches that would ultimately give these children the chance to keep up. If their needs are known and appropriate strategies adopted, they have a chance. My evidence for saying this is the significant number of inner London, and other schools, in challenging circumstances, that achieve by outcome-based decision-making; children make progress through fine-tuned challenges that ensure steps are appropriate and secure before moving on.
There are current exhortations to bring back text books, by Nick Gibb, schools’ minister. My reservations about a return to textbooks is based on the use made of them by less secure colleagues, who often use them indiscriminately, thinking that they, in themselves, provided all that the children needed. Often out of date, the information was written badly, illustrations were poor, so children could easily get the wrong impression. There was a lot of copying from the books, so interaction with information was low order and activity completion was paramount. The loneliness of the long distance textbook, could, for some, become a reality.
Readability levels of textbooks, or other text material can be a significant barrier to learners accessing the information. In undertaking a post-grad diploma in language and reading, I focused on readability of text material. I found that there was often a mismatch between the reading levels of the children and the material that they were being given. If this is not addressed, the learner will not extract what they need from the available resource. Another post looks at Readability issues.
With in-classroom ICT being more or less universal, the range of available information to support learning is extensive, through picture or video sources, maps that allow you to “fly” over countries and zoom down almost to ground level. Good, selective use of source and resource materials can significantly enhance learning. A well-stocked library can be a great boon to support research skills development as well as supporting reading and vocabulary development.
A feature of many topics, which enhanced research and knowledge gathering, was an open A-Z wall, where children could add their own researches to support the developing topic, as well as the results of in-lesson researches.
The ubiquitous availability of the photocopier has been a mixed blessing for teaching. It can be used to share appropriate information extracts, in a form that supports learning. However, it can also be used to provide essentially a blank sheet with a title, or a couple of ruled lines, something that children could do for themselves. In many classrooms, the work-card system of the 1970s has been replaced by worksheets, which may again make teachers’ lives easier but don’t always add value to learning. Equally, the need to stick these worksheets into an exercise book increases workload and wastes paper.
Like all systems, worksheets, work-cards and textbooks have to be selected with care, if they are to have a positive impact on learning. Select with children in mind.