In 2016, educational author and academic Robert Pondiscio declared that ‘90% of English teachers found their lesson content by googling – sometimes desperately – the night before.’
This struck a chord. At times, I’ve been this teacher and many fellow practitioners can no doubt identify. While we’re at it, we should acknowledge that the reference to the night before is mostly true – sometimes this desperate search comes just before class in that well-known five step lesson plan (the last five steps before entering the classroom). More truthfully, it even happens during the lesson sometimes.
In and of itself, leaning on teaching materials found on the web is not all bad. Sometimes it is the only option.
Reality aside, when we live this hand to mouth existence for long enough, an uncomfortable truth emerges.
Many online resources are just like the temporary energy spike from a naughty treat. We feel the initial coursing high of excitement and energy, but also the inevitable crash later on.
This cycle, repeated day after day, week after week and term after term, becomes a hedonic treadmill of educational short cuts which erode the quality of teaching and learning – but not always in a positive way.
We’ve all known teachers who provide huge booklets designed for much older students to younger ones to ‘work their way through’. We know teachers who share hundreds of electronic files for students, (including complex whole units of work) ripped from websites with barely a cursory scan of the content to see if it resides in the same ballpark as their own context or learning intentions.
We all know teachers who boast about the ease and value of these resources and how it saves so much time for the them.
I want to believe, and mostly do believe, that teachers who do this have student interest at their core, but something else tells me it is often more about convenience, assurance and efficiency for them.
While you may question the accuracy of that finding by Pondiscio, there is no doubt an inherent truth inside.
Supporting evidence exists in photocopy rooms, student folders and document trays around the globe.
So why do we do it?
The motivation to seek and use online teaching resources seems as varied and diverse as our profession.
Sometimes it is about crowd control.
Most teachers have occasions when we need something to keep desperate, ratty students at bay. Any activity is good activity, and idle hands are the devil’s work.
In more compliant settings, where volume equals rigour, having a lot to do is a powerful classroom management strategy. These readymade lessons and materials act as a barricade for teachers to gain breathing space while students make their way through something that looks, at least from the outside, like good learning.
Busyness is a widespread proxy for productivity in the world, not just in education, but it is a bad one for deep learning. The belief that doing something is better than doing nothing doesn’t hold up if the students don’t understand why they are learning or what they are learning.
Another driving force is the eternal obstacle for teachers – time. People who work in schools know that the wide slabs of time that non-teachers envy and joke about are often filled with administrivia, compliance and other activities peripheral to teaching.
Teachers wear so many hats in a day we become virtual hat stands; wandering classrooms and hallways as first responders, counsellors and troubleshooters. We are sounding boards, socialisers and and arbiters of proper behaviour. We rack up difficult conversations like influencers rack up likes on social media.
Cram and wedge assessment, differentiation and actual teaching into what is left of most days, little time remains to create and shape the resources we use to bridge the gap between learner and learning. There is only so much time to spend on satisfying the hungry mouths of responsibility, duty and compliance.
Of course, there are other factors at play, leading us to seek the quick fix wisdom of the crowd because maybe we don’t believe we know enough or have enough experience. This is, in one sense, buying fish rather than learning how to cast a line.
When you get down to it, another powerful motivation for googling online materials is about travelling the path of least resistance, which is very human. Why make it harder on yourself than you need to?
Adding in the usual human responsibilities and demands of life, it is easy to understand the attraction of the quick and easy hit of online resources. Reducing drag by finding paths of least resistance is sometimes all we can do to get through a day or week.
As real as these factors are in driving teachers to use online resources, we must not lose sight of the real goal – to maximise student learning with quality instruction and materials that help them move ahead.
We must resist the temptation of choosing easy over good. We must choose courage and professionalism over comfort. We must demand more of the materials we use to bring learning to our classrooms.
Making time to develop high quality materials for our contexts should be a priority in any school. They are the bedrock of student learning and growth, so making time for it and taking things off teacher plates must be a priority of leadership in schools.