The Infinite Resource Machine

Last week I was looking for a worksheet on the general term of a linear sequence. A quick search on the usual website turned up some interesting results. Among the various options, there were three resource bundles ranging from £1 to £3 that looked suspiciously similar. Not wanting to buy them merely out of curiosity, I clicked on the preview pages. Two were identical. So, one person at least was profiting from stolen work. This is quite common on resource sharing (and selling) websites. Why? There’s a bit of background to fill you in on first about why these websites are so heavily used. When I attended the first lecture of my teacher training course, the advertised topic was “differentiation.” It amuses me to recall that, since I was training to be a maths teacher, I thought this might be a session on how to teach basic calculus. “Differentiation,” (as a pedagogical practice) was still a new thing in those days. It wasn’t one of those fads that comes and goes in the space of five years, though. Differentiation has stuck around. The theory behind it all sounded perfectly plausible when the lecturer revealed it to us: every student is at a different stage of development in their understanding of a given topic, and the exercises you give them need to reflect their particular needs. Of course, I had not yet taught a lesson, so I was still thinking very much in the abstract. The practical ramifications of this new philosophy only occurred to me when I began observing lessons in school.

During the first lesson I observed there were at least five different worksheets being completed at any one time (the teacher may have been trying to impress). Gone were the rugged textbooks with their bent spines and phallic illustrations from which I had worked throughout my own time in school. Everything was printed on sheets, with colour-coding at the top to identify the right level of challenge. I was struck by how much paper was being used in every lesson. “Where do you get these sheets from?” I asked. “Oh, I like to make them myself, so I know they’re appropriate for the class I’m teaching,” came the suave and terrifying reply. (He was definitely trying to impress).

When I prepared to teach my own lessons, the expectation appeared to be that I would craft my own resources, tailor made to the precise educational requirements of the students I knew. Not only did I have to provide at least three different levels of difficulty, but it had to be appropriate “for that particular class.” In other words, if I didn’t want to justify exactly why I had chosen a specific worksheet, it had to be new. It was both disheartening and impossibly time-consuming. Preparing for a single lesson took hours and the end result was often terrible in comparison to the professional quality of a publishing company’s book. But when I relayed these difficulties to my peers on the PGCE program, there followed a great deal of hilarity. “You’re actually making your own worksheets?!” A friend asked me, all but wiping tears from his eyes, “Why don’t you just use TES?” That was when I discovered what had replaced the humble textbook. It wasn’t teachers up and down the country busily writing their own worksheets for their unique students who were confused in such unique and original ways that an entirely new set of practise questions was called for. Nor was it the “online textbooks,” that have been rolled out with zero impact year after year since the digital revolution began. It was the vast repository of original, copied, edited and reprinted resources that you can find on the Times Education Supplement website. The discovery of this cache of ready-made worksheets was a great relief to me. I have since found other reliable websites as well. Soon I was able to find what I needed for a lesson, put my name on it and print thirty copies, in under ten minutes.

The problem with this approach is that I wasn’t really tailoring my questions to the specific class in front of me. I was merely pretending to (which turned out to be just fine by my observer, actually). In fact, quite often, I was planning my lessons around what resources I could find at the last minute, in such a way that said resources would appear to have been designed for the class and lesson. It’s interesting to look at which worksheets get the most downloads. The ones with dense rows of questions, resembling a page from an old-fashioned textbook, seem particularly popular. Add an answer sheet (like the back page of a textbook has) and you’ve got a hit, top-rated resource. It’s true that Ofsted have changed their tune about textbooks in recent years, but the culture of education is too saturated now with suspicion of those basic, wonderful tools, for them to make a widespread comeback as the staple classroom resource. I’ve had colleagues who photocopied pages from books when they wanted to use them, so they could hand out sheets rather than risk appearing as the kind of teacher who “does textbook lessons.”

It is this environment in which the TES resources website has become so heavily used and, more recently, monetised. Lessons sold at a premium of up to £5 at the top end are often sold with the promise that they won an “outstanding” grade in an observation. Worksheets are always “Differentiated.” Often, though, these resources are also copied. The editability of the worksheets is part of the appeal, but documents sold in easily edited formats like Word or Powerpoint can also be easily re-sold under a different name. Original creators of content have found there is very little they can do when they see someone else selling their work.

All this individual purchasing from teacher’s own pockets, copying, editing and endless photocopying is not done to improve the education of our students. It is done to circumvent the weird taboo that has emerged in teaching around relying on a textbook. Somewhere, in a parallel universe in which that taboo never arose, teachers are wasting a whole lot less time, less paper is being shunted from the copier to the bin, less money is being spent – and students are having almost exactly the same experience.