Education Opinion

In Defense Of (Gulp) Packets. Worksheets, Too.

By Nancy Flanagan — May 14, 2013 4 min read
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When my son was in high school, his band teacher used “theory packets” as fill-in work for days when he was absent from the classroom or had something other than whole-group instruction on his personal agenda. These packets were the absolute worst kind of make-work: poor copies reproduced (without permission) from an old college-level music theory workbook, disconnected from the learning goals of regular class lessons, pretty much incomprehensible without prior knowledge and excruciatingly dull.

The best thing you could say about them was that they were--sort of--about music. The worst thing? That they soured students on deeper examination of the intriguingly complex natural and mathematical structures lying under the songs that were so fun to play. I’m not saying that high school students shouldn’t learn musical theory--they absolutely should, in ways that would let them use theory as a tool in creating their own tunes, harmonies and rhythms. Mention “theory” to any one of my son’s classmates, however--and they envision sitting around in small groups, furtively copying each others’ meaningless answers just to be done.

The packets, however, were not the problem. It was the lack of instructional purpose behind them, and the rote, fill-in-the-blank/check-the-papers pedagogical approach. Any teenage garage band with a dozen music lessons between them, combined, conducts far more effective auto-didactic theory sessions every time they get together to play. It goes like this: Hey, dude--listen to this chord! Awesome!

I’ve been thinking about packets (and their progenitor, worksheets) and why educators speak of them in the same tone Jerry Seinfeld uses for “Newman.” Are packets what blogger Lisa Nielsen would sneeringly call evidence that teachers are “paper-trained?” Stubbornly unwilling to let go of the paper-based teaching tools in favor of the Exciting Transformative Digital Future? Digital tools may or may not increase actual learning, but they have certainly generated a lot of self-righteous bloggery and more repetitive, 2.0 Twitter chats than you can shake a virtual stick at.

I got some credible learning mileage out of teacher-created packets and worksheets in my teaching career. Sure, I’ve seen useless worksheets and packets--sorry, elementary teachers, most of those “summer math packets” were completed the day before school started again in the fall, and didn’t stimulate regular calculation practice to keep those skills sharp. But--nice try! You can’t begrudge the goal, or criticize teachers for using the tools they have at their disposal.

Every conference or educational gathering I’ve ever attended--even ed-camp “unconferences”--had some paper-based materials, usually in a folder or notebook. Call them adult packets. And every post-conference virtual learning group/listserv I’ve led or participated in has folded. Many don’t even get started, after contact information is collected.

It’s the networking that’s valuable--meeting someone, starting a relationship, stealing their ideas, folding them into new understandings. That happens through multiple communication channels. The difference is that adults assess the utility of printed and digital materials they’re given and decide whether to keep, or jettison.

I think this is what bothers me most--of several bothersome features--in the now-viral “packet boy” video from Duncansville, TX: the automatic assumption that the packet work Jeff Bliss has been given is rote and useless, and he’s a genuine standing-on-the-ramparts hero, calling bravely for the democratic education he deserves.

He might be. But we have no evidence of that, in spite of the fact that we saw it on video, so therefore it must be true. Plus--we have multiple visions of what a high-quality, democratic education even looks like, ranging from a Waiting-for-Superman vision of dumping more “rigorous” content into kids’ heads (which is what packets generally aim to do)--all the way over to a completely independent, course-here/course-there “unbundling” of public resources in “free” digital learning.

While we’re waiting--still waiting, always waiting--for that all-important national conversation about the purpose of a public education, here are a few thoughts on the video:

• The incident is not at all exceptional. This happens in classrooms every day. Sometimes, the kids are right in demanding better of their teachers and schools, and sometimes, the kids are merely mouthy and rude. We don’t have enough information to judge.
Boredom is not the worst thing to happen to kids in high school. In fact, it’s avoiding “boredom” that has given us some pretty content-free teaching strategies. Also--kids are prone to calling work that they don’t understand boring and pointless, taking the onus off their own learning gaps.
We know absolutely nothing about the teacher, other than the fact that she keeps repeating “goodbye” as the kid storms out. Right out of every district’s teacher handbook, by the way--get the disruptive kid out of the classroom ASAP, without engaging in a futile and public verbal battle.
Ascribing meaningful political and pedagogical values to videotaped classroom altercations is a dangerous and stupid game. Teachers used packets and worksheets--not to mention videos--long before NCLB, RTTT, the Common Core, flipped and blended learning, yada yada. Kids have been demanding things--more relevant curriculum, more entertaining instruction, more attention--for just as long.

And so it goes.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.