Brutalist worksheets

Have you ever seen something that made you wonder whether it’s sole purpose was to make you feel small or insignificant? I don’t mean this in feelgood sort of humbling way like you might ponder a mountain’s majesty or an ocean’s depth. I mean, the way you feel uneasy when looking at a decades old worksheet from a resource 20 to 25 years past its pedogogical prime – where thought and creativity were never part of its iterations. I’m talking about copy after copy of soul sucking work pages given to students only to be regurgitated upon with rote facts and little, if any, critical thought. Let’s call them Brutalist worksheets because, like the architecture, they make the learner to feel small, and powerless, and the learning devoid of inspiration.

Over the years, I have found a number of Brutalist offerings left behind in the photo-copiers, and they make me shudder a bit to think that they were destined for students’ desks and to inevitable irrelevance shortly thereafter. I’d like to say this is a long distant memory, but it is still happening in 2020.

20 years into 21st Century learning and brutalist worksheets are still being shared. But first a bit about Brutalism.

Minds On

In the creative world of architecture there are several styles that have pervaded through history. We have remnants of the Victorian, Mid-Century Modern, Art Deco, and Modernist eras that occupy much of the past century and its edifices. There is another that cannot be overlooked because of it’s austere, raw, and imposing nature, Brutalism.

Brutalism, but this is a blog for teachers? Why are we having an architecture lesson? Why not? After all, design is design and the way that we construct, craft, curate, and create content for our students matters. It is inconceivable to think it can be done without consideration of the learners we are teaching or without differentiation.

Imagine a stark and unwelcoming piece of paper that seems as if it’s sole intention is to crush your spirit. Next, think of a page full of Math calculation questions that you have been handed, and are now expected to complete before the 2 or 3 minute timer goes off. Think of a different, but equally oppressive Math sheet with instructions, but no guiding example or room to show your thinking? Think of a double-sided sheet of French -er, ir, and -re verbs to conjugate. Brutal and absolutely intended as rote busy work to keep students from being their best.

I was visting a school a few years back and came across a teacher with a stack of photocopies at least 1500 pages or more in total. I asked if this was for a whole school letter to which they replied that it was for their classroom followed by, “You have to keep ’em busy somehow.” I walked away very sad at that moment and have tried to hang on to that interaction as a reminder of what not to do.

Brutalism in our profession has no business in any of our classroom resources. In fact, we need to seriously consider the function and purpose of everything we are printing for students. It starts by cleaning out the cabinets and binders that contain outdated worksheets. I know it means having to start fresh for some, but imagine the potential for deeper learning rather than a time filler destined for the recycle bin? Perhaps doing this over the course of the year will make it less daunting. With so many digital tools at our fingertips now, creating and updating content is easier than those Xerox days of yore.

Our shift to digital learning has allowed many of us to curate constructive content with links that are informative and interactive. There are also environmental and financial benefits from avoiding copy after copy too. With a suite of apps and productivity tools. Teachers can create these spaces from a trove of templates and fellow educators who are willing to share. No need for TPT here.*

Start with the incredible digital resources being shared from your school board and from a cohort of amazing educators via Twitter. I know that PeelDSB, TDSB, DurhamDSB, and YRDSB have provided many excellent resources to their staff, and am sure there are more boards out there doing the same for theirs. If you want to start your own, you can always check out Ditch that Textbook, MathigonShukes and Giff, TV Ontario, and TED Ed for ideas. If you have a favourite, please share in the comments below.

All that I ask is that you resist the urge to hit the copy button without considering the content you intend to share with students. Will it make them feel insignificant and under-inspired? Then you might have a brutalist worksheet in your hands and it might be time to go back to the drawing board to design something inviting and engaging to students as modern learners.

* I always think of toilet paper when I see TPT. Sorry, not sorry.

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Updated: December 9, 2020 — 10:00 am

The Author

Will Gourley

P/J lead learner and SERT at Adrienne Clarkson PS in the YRDSB. Focused on disruptive, and divergent modern learning. Member of the global TED-Ed(Club) movement, 1 of 110 TED Ed Innovative Educators, and Global Math Project Ambassador. Twitter @willgourley Proudly blogging here and at https://escheweducationalist.wordpress.com/

2 Comments

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  1. Paul McGuire says:

    I would add all the incredible material produced by Discovery Education – you have to pay for this service, but the digital resources, especially for science are incredible. You can get a look at some of their resources at https://www.discoveryeducation.com

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