A Chemical Orthodoxy

Booklets: how I use them

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Booklets have been a massive gamechanger for me. They’ve vastly reduced my workload, improved the quality of my students’ output, helped me think more deeply about my subject and improved my pedagogical content knowledge. I now have booklets for the whole of GCSE chemistry, and in this post I am going to detail how I use them in the classroom. At the bottom of the entry I have some FAQs about booklets too. The post will mostly draw on chemistry examples, but I hope even for non-chemists there’s something useful in there.

My booklets can all be found here. You can read about why booklets are awesome here and here. For me, the main advantages are:

Each of these advantages will either emerge from the guide below or the FAQs at the end. Remember that there are lots of people out there doing cool things with booklets and explicit instruction, this is just the way that I do it.

Step 1: change your thinking from “lessons” –> “learning”

Booklets aren’t just a change in the way you view what you are doing in the lesson, but for me they have changed the way I view time itself. I don’t think of learning as something that takes place in a lesson, but over time. There is a certain volume of content that my students need to learn, and let’s say for example my current unit will take around four weeks. As with sentences, paragraphs and essays, that content will have to be punctuated, but punctuated not with full stops, commas and paragraphs but with explanation, practice, review and retrieval. The bell also acts as punctuation, but it is undesirable punctuation. Explanation, practice, review and retrieval are all punctuations that lend themselves to learning and consolidation, based as they are in theories of learning. The bell is not. The bell is based on the school day and how much time has passed. Those two variables are not relevant to learning.

What that means is that I don’t force plenaries into my lessons or make many decisions based on the bell. Obviously it’s there and has an effect on me, but broadly the sequence in which I teach (explanation, practice, review and retrieval) continue one leading onto the next.

Step 2: Know your booklet

A good booklet should be structured carefully according to a deliberate sequence. Material should be broken into manageable chunks and put in an order that makes sense and prevents your students from having work to do based on material they have not been taught or to have to make too many cognitive jumps at once.

Obvious example: when teaching fractional distillation, you want to do properties of hydrocarbons first (i.e., not the spec order). That’s because you can’t understand how the distillation works unless you are clear on boiling points.

Less obvious example: when teaching structure and bonding, the usual order is to do simple molecular first and then giant covalent. I felt that one of the concepts in giant covalent makes simple molecular easier to understand. Add to this the fact that there are fewer concepts in giant covalent, and you end up swapping your order around.

Step 3: Print

Print a class set of booklets, with a few spare. One for yourself, and one for the inevitable students who forget theirs one lesson. The booklets won’t go to waste, as you can give them to select students in six months’ time to use as revision. More on economies of booklets and what I do if a student forgets theirs in the FAQs.

Step 4: Enter the dragon

Students get their booklets, and the unit begins. I remind them that if they lose their booklets they will need to buy or print their own ones (yes, yes, obvious exceptions where necessary). I then tell them that if they take the booklet seriously they will do very well indeed. We then get started. I’ll either introduce the topic or in some booklets there is a “recap task” that goes at the start. This is a primer: it helps students retrieve prior knowledge that will be helpful in this unit:

Step 5: Hold back

As you’ll see below, my default at this point is to start moving round the classroom. But this is a retrieval problem, and it’s one I expect them all to be able to do. So I sit back and watch. At this point, there are three types of students:

  1. The ones who get stuck straight in and are recalling previous material unprompted. They need no intervention.
  2. Those who are struggling a bit but leafing back in their books to try and find the old material. I might point them to where they could look.
  3. Those who daydream. They get cajoled politely.

Step 6: Extension?

I want all my students to complete all the standard questions. I do build in some “challenge” questions that I do not expect all students to complete. So if some students are a bit quicker, they can move on to those while the rest finish the standard ones.

In addition, most of the booklets have an “extra questions” section which is just random questions plucked from the Roulette, so if anyone finishes they can just do those.

There’s a lot of stuff to know in chemistry GCSE, so retrieval practice on the hundreds of things we have learnt is good for everyone. Much better than nonsense extension activities like “write a letter to the local mayor explaining why the aluminium extraction electrolysis plant down the road needs to be made more efficient”

Step 7: Review

Once all students have completed the standard questions, it’s time to go over them. I do insist at this point that students get out a different coloured pen. I would be lying if I denied that this was in part motivated by wanting to satisfy our feedback policy, but actually it has the following advantages:

  1. I make students hold up their red pen. This stops them working, which is a good thing. I want them to be involved in the review, not moving on to the challenge or extra questions.
  2. Dead easy for me to see if they are at least attempting to review their work properly. A page of black scribbles and crossing out makes it hard for me to know what’s going on, and I need to waste valuable time trying to figure that out.
  3. If they do happen to come back to this work at any point in the future, they can feel greater confidence in its accuracy and helpfulness.

I pick students to give me their answers based on sampling. I target the questions to students who I think may have struggled or whatever and try and get a few responses to each question. I’ll try and pick up on nuance of language, misconceptions, omissions etc. If I want to get a better flavour for whole class understanding (remember this is all still “old” material) I’ll ask them to put their hands up if they got question 1 correct, 2 correct etc. If I think there are widespread problems I’ll stop and we’ll go back to that and spend however long we need on it. No point moving forward if the groundwork isn’t laid right.

Step 8: New material!

Once I’m happy that prior knowledge is strong enough, it’s time to teach something new. Broadly, this will involve diagrams, scientific models, concrete examples, a bit of hinterland or worked examples. A lot of these are replicated in the booklets. If you take the diagram below for example:

I’ll explain this on the board, and draw out this exact diagram, but slowly. I’ll then ask students to look at it in their booklets and read through the labels. I’ll then explain it again, but without drawing the diagram from scratch. That means students have had it explained to them three times with slightly different emphases each time. First time is the most detailed and narrative oriented, second time gives them a chance to think and match up what I said with what’s in front of them, and third time is a bit quicker, just summarising the main points. I’ll almost always try and squeeze a diagram of some sort into my explanations. Where there are more wordy explanations, I will occasionally ask one student to read aloud, but I’ve not particularly got my technique for keeping everyone focussed during this. Maybe something to work on, I know it’s probably quite important.

Step 9: Guided practice –> Independent practice

The goal, always, is for my students to be able to do what I can do. But they can’t do that straight off the bat. At first they will need quite a bit of support as they begin to work. As time goes on and they gain proficiency, I can start to pull back support (called fading):

I shall call it “THE BRIDGE OF LEARNING!” A gazillion Twitter likes here I come…

How do you actually do faded support then? There are a many, many ways – the ones that I use most of the time are below:

Here is a whole table explaining the different parts of a Life Cycle Analysis, along with teacher annotations on model responses. Students use this table to help them answer a very similar problem to the model one, then ones that have more variation.
This might not be clear if you are a non-chemist, but the first question uses quite a lot of support, the second one (Q37) starts to pull away some of that support (i.e. no table or blanks), third question requires students to balance the equation themselves and doesnt give an answer in the “show that ” format etc.

Also worth circulating and going to your students who have historically struggled the most first: they may need additional in-class support.

Step 10: Independent practice – shed loads of it

I think across my booklets there are something like 3500 questions. That’s a lot of questions, and a lot of practice. I want my students to spend the bulk of the lesson working independently of support at challenging but appropriate material. I want them to have to do lots of thinking, and the vast number of questions helps with that. Obviously I wander around the classroom taking sneaky peaks at student work, but if I’ve done step 9 correctly I rarely need to intervene.

Step 11: oops – the bell went. What a shame.

Normally the bell goes while students are involved in step 10. I’ll tell them to finish the question set they are on by the next lesson.

Step 12: review

If the bell went whilst they were working, then this happens at the start of the next lesson. it doesn’t really matter: step 12 happens when all the students have finished a particular question set (with speedy ones moving on to the extra questions). I use the same strategies as I did in step 7, then just move straight on to Step 8: New material!

Step 13: make links explicit

Throughout the course, I try to show students how the material they are learning now is related to material they have covered previously. Sometimes this is pretty obvious, like how learning about ionic bonding leads onto ionic structure. Other times it’s less obvious, like how a bond enthalpy calculation can be used to demonstrate the difference between complete and incomplete combustion. When students have just learnt a new topic I don’t want to throw too many old topics at them because it can be confusing, but it is an important feature of the work as they become more proficient. A lot of the question sets therefore increase in complexity both in terms of fading support on new material, but also in terms of relating it to old material. At the end of each unit I have a “summary problem” which really forces students to hop around the various units we have learnt across the course.

This problem weaves together a whole load of topics, including ones from different branches of chemistry. Interestingly, unless you’d seen it before I doubt you could actually tell which topic it is from.

Step 14: feedback to self

I always have a pad of post-its on my desk. If during a lesson I notice there is a problem in a booklet – something that is missing, or needs re-ordering, or an out-and-out error – I jot it down on the pad and then go and fix it after the lesson. The booklets are dynamic, and I’m changing them all the time.

That roughly covers what I get up to in my classroom. It’s pretty straightforward, with the main lesson focuses being: explain, practice, review, retrieve – all on a permanent cycle with one leading on to the next. The booklets are built around that cycle and it works pretty damn well.

FAQs

In this section I’ve mushed together a lot of the questions that I got asked on Twitter about booklets. I think I’ve covered everything but if I’m missing anything just let me know.

Question 1: How do you differentiate/how do bottom sets cope/what about students with SEND?

My school has a higher than average number of students with SEND, we’re quite proud of that. We also have a specialist autism provision in-house, and this year I taught both of our bottom set year 11 classes. I say that only because I want to limit the opportunity people might have to dismiss what I am about to say: booklets work absolutely fine for bottom sets. In fact, students who are used to being patronised with card sorts or “engaging” activities and have become habituated to not becoming particularly proficient at anything positively relish the opportunity to be given high quality work and to actually feel competent at something. The booklets help with that.

Sure, with some classes I have to go more slowly. Sure, once we’ve decided which tier paper different students/classes are doing I use different booklets. But in principle, there is no reason whatsoever that your SEND or “low prior attaining” students shouldn’t respond to booklets.

Within class, I “differentiate” by support. So different students get different amounts of support. I know which of my students are likely to need a bit more help (based on my knowledge of that child, not based on prior data) so I make sure to give them more support. And that’s pretty much it. No one’s complained so far.

Question 2: that’s a “daunting” amount of text!

As a carry over from the previous question a few people raised that there was a “daunting” amount of text. Let’s be clear: the way you deal with students who are not used to reading extensive, challenging texts is not by giving them fewer extensive, challenging texts. As above, treat them like they can do it, support them till the point where they can, and you may be surprised at what can be achieved.

Question 3: do they not disempower teachers?

For some reason in teaching we have this weird fetish for teachers planning all their own stuff from scratch. Here’s my take: teaching requires careful thought and planning in advance. But it does not necessitate you doing that without help at all. If someone gave me an amazing biology or physics booklet, I would study it carefully before the lesson, get a feel for its rhythm and instructional punctuation, be grateful for it’s pre-empting of student difficulty and misconceptions and then just use the damn thing. Being “disempowered” is a social construct, and it’s only disempowering because we say it is. Me? I feel much more empowered and self fulfilled when I have a class full of students who have just smashed their way through some really demanding work. The need to add to that feeling “and they did it because of my planning!” is pure ego.

Put it like this as a kind of thought experiment: if someone gave you a magic device that meant your students were guaranteed to learn everything you wanted them to learn, would you not use it?

Booklets aren’t that magical device. They are a tool, an incredibly powerful one, but a tool just the same. They are a part of what’s helped make my teaching effective over the last couple of years.

Additionally, as I said right at the top, using a booklet doesn’t turn a teacher into some kind of thoughtless deliverer of dry content to empty-vessel-students. The booklet frees you up to do more stuff in the class, it enables you to really zoom in your focus on explanation, clarity, feedback and support for the weakest students. Booklets aren’t professionally constraining: they are pedagogically liberating.

Question 4: does it lead to classrooms free of teacher innovation? Does it stifle a teacher’s ability to respond to their students?

Not really, no. And I’m not sure why it would. If you are running a department, give your team my booklets and force them to stick to it like a script: you’re using them wrong. As should be clear throughout this blog and the FAQs, they don’t replace teachers. You still need to be a thoughtful and reflective practitioner. The booklet isn’t everything. You are still going to be doing lessons where you aren’t using them (like practicals or whatever). Don’t think of them as a horrible straitjacket that stifles teacher freedom – as above, quite the opposite.

Question 5: what about students who forget/lose their booklets/don’t do homework?

This is a bit difficult to answer without knowing your school or its context. In my context, if a student forgets their booklet, I give them a spare copy (to be returned at the end) and give them a C1. If they forget it again, they get a C2 (which is a straight detention). Once I’ve given out a few of these they tend to get the hint and mysteriously manage to remember their booklets each lesson. If they lose it, they have to print another one (I will give them a soft copy) or pay me 50p for a new one. If they don’t, they get a C2 every lesson. Same applies for homework. I’ve found that with new classes I give out a ton of C1 and C2s but as time goes on that number massively reduces.

Obviously there will be exceptions, and as per question 1 in my context I have some students who need to be adjusted for on account of serious organisational difficulties. In those specific cases we find a reasonable workaround (I’m not a monster), but these are a very small minority.

Question 6: do they have exercise books too?

Yes. My students get a booklet, but answer the overwhelming majority of questions in an exercise book. It’s cheaper that way…

Question 7: what are the costs involved?

Depends on your budget. A lot of people have said their department has been told they can’t print them as they don’t have the budget. I can’t really respond to that without seeing your departmental budget, but here are a few things to think about:

  1. They will improve your results. If your SLT or Business manager won’t give you a couple of hundred quid for that you should probably move schools. Or call Lord Agnew. Or both.
  2. It means you won’t need to buy textbooks or replace them due to wear and tear, because you will rarely use them.
  3. You’ve probably got something in your budget that you are paying for that you really don’t need (ICT platforms, internet subscriptions, mega expensive practicals that only get done once a year on science week). If you can’t find anything like that, you should call Lord Agnew. But if you can, ditch that thing and ring fence the money for booklets.
  4. Just go over your budget and see what happens. I reckon you’ll be ok. “Oh sorry, yeah I didn’t realise. I just printed them all at the beginning of the year in one go for all my classes.. Won’t happen again, I promise!” If your results go up, your sorted. And if they don’t? Go back to discovery learning, I guess.
  5. A well built format saves paper in the long run. You don’t need to print worksheets, and they should be built to avoid white space and cram on as much information as possible.
  6. Lowers the chance of the accidental print-a-class-copy of the wrong thing as you only print once for the entire unit, as opposed to several times throughout.

Question 8: workload – don’t they take ages to make?

Yes, they do. My booklets took me just north of eighteen months. But, they are now done. I haven’t had to spend serious time planning resources this year at all, which is a massive time saving. And Ruth has a load of physics ones, and Adam has a load of biology ones. Just use those.

Question 9: How long should they take to write?

A long time. A really long time. Were talking hours and hours per booklet. If you are bashing them out really quickly, unless you are a superhero, it’s likely that you aren’t going deep enough or setting enough questions. Really take your time over them, and there are a bunch of people online (myself included) who will have a look at yours and help you beef them up if you want.

Question 10: aren’t they just glorified textbooks?

I wouldn’t say there’s much that’s “glorified” about an A4 black and white booklet printed on recycled paper with a dodgy staple in the top left and that annoying photocopier line a third down the page that no one can seem to fix, but broadly, yes. They fulfill the function that a textbook is supposed to fulfill. It just happens that I haven’t found a textbook that covers my course and does all the same things my booklets do. Here’s a challenge: if you can find one send one to me. I’d love to see it, but I’m fairly confident that it doesn’t exist.

Question 11: what would happen if you taught something and you realised they didn’t get it?

I’d teach it again. I’d use a different explanation, model or diagram or whatever. I might need to think about the prior knowledge required and go back and spend some time on that. But this isn’t a booklet problem, this is a general teaching problem. A booklet is not a script: it’s a guide.

Question 12: “How do you strive to tackle passivity in the classroom with them? I think detractors would see textbooks as the ultimate disengagement.”

I have not experienced this myself. The booklets lead to students getting good at science, and that leads to them relishing the challenge and opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishments. In class, I use standard techniques to keep focus like cold call, no opt-out etc. But they work in a different motivational paradigm from the usual play a game/card sort/discovery learning/Harry Potter chemistry approaches to engagement and motivation. More here.

Question 13: With a completed, externally resources booklet, how much ‘tweaking’ should a school do to fit it to their students?

No idea. I personally think my booklets are well-sequenced and don’t need a lot of tweaking. But if someone wanted to that would obviously be fine – though there are many ways to sequence incorrectly, there isn’t only one way to sequence correctly.

Question 14: How do you feel about putting the answers to the booklets in the back of the booklets so students can check and get immediate feedback? Too prone to abuse and students simply copying answers?

Great question, and no obvious answer. I think both ways have advantages and disadvantages. My booklets don’t have answers because I haven’t had the energy to write them all yet. Ruth’s ones do have answers. I prefer to just have them work through a problem set and then do a review pretty soon after. I don’t want them making lots of mistakes but I circulate as they start doing a problem set to mitigate against that and will pause the class and explain something again if necessary. For some calculation questions I will give them the correct answer and expect them to do the working to get to it. This also helps prevent embedding mistakes.

Question 15: Do you model good practice in highlighting and annotating? Or do you leave that out entirely?

This is not a strong area of my practice, and definitely something I would like to do more of and get better at.

Question 16: How do you approach required practicals within the scheme?

I do practicals separately. I have a booklet which I give students as an accompaniment, but it isn’t all quite integrated yet.

Question 17: Do booklets make teachers lazy?

If you conceive the job of the teacher to resource lessons, then if you give them resources, you’ve done their job for them. In that sense, yes – it could make people lazy. But if you view the job of the teacher to think deeply about their lessons, their exposition, how learning builds on itself, how to structure and support practice and how to give brilliant feedback then the booklet won’t make them lazy: it’ll make them significantly more effective.

Question 18: How do/should students take notes?

I don’t have a good answer to this question, that was posed by Matt on Twitter:

I am no expert in the research behind note taking: and there is a lot of it. My meagre understanding is that the method that is best is the one that forces students to actively think and process what you have told them. That’s why writing by hand is better than typing: many students can type as fast as people can speak which means that they can essentially write a transcript. When going by hand you are forced to summarise what the instructor is saying, meaning that you are thinking about it and processing it. It’s worth noting that the research is normally conducted in university lectures, which are a totally different style as the lecturer won’t be using techniques to ensure that students are processing (normally). So if the general principle is for students to be actively processing, we can suggest a number of routes:

It’s also worth noting that the questions which students move onto are a way of forcing them to process. So in short, I don’t know. As long as you are making them think, you’re probably doing a good job.

See follow-up blog here on how to use a text-rich booklet

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