‘Look what I’ve prepared for you today!’
It’s the day before a lesson and the materials writing muse suddenly strikes. You have a ‘great idea’ for the lesson and start preparing some materials. The following day, you walk into the class with a warm glow that says, “hey students, look what I’ve prepared for you today.” Exercise 1 goes well but exercise 2 stutters because you hadn’t anticipated that there would be more than one answer to some of the questions. By exercise 3 and 4, you realise your materials aren’t working quite as well as you expected, and the students are starting to look lost. You hurry onto exercises 5 and 6 and the lesson picks up towards the end. Will you use this same material again in future lessons? Well maybe, but the middle part needs a rethink.
Piloting your own material
The verb ‘to pilot’ has three meanings, but here’s the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary definition that we’re interested in from the perspective of materials writers:
|pilot verb 3 pilot something to test a new product, idea, etc. with a few people or in a small area before it is introduced everywhere|
Teachers who write their own materials naturally pilot their materials when they use them, but – as we can see from the definition – piloting requires more than just ‘using’ them. It’s about testing them; it’s about genuinely self-reflecting on what worked, what didn’t work, and being able to identify why. The definition also says ‘with a few people’ so it means trying out the same materials more than once and with more than one class.
Asking others to pilot your materials
In reality, when I take my own materials into a lesson for the first time and I find something that doesn’t work, I can usually work around the problem and adapt it to ensure the lesson ‘works’ for the students; after all, the students are the first priority. So for a true test of the new material, I really need to hand it over to a different teacher to try out. There are different ways to approach this. The classic situation is when a colleague rushes into the teacher’s room in a panic and complaining they don’t have a lesson ready for today. You can become their best friend by saying, “Hey, don’t worry, here’s something I used with my class the other day. Why don’t you try using it with yours?”
If your colleague uses the material, it should be on the condition that they will give you feedback. And by feedback, not a comment like “Yeah, thanks, it worked fine.” (Or worse still, pointedly saying nothing at all!) You really need them to spell out what worked well and what might need changing and developing. Ideally, if you have a colleague who also likes writing their own materials, then set up a ‘buddy’ system where you both write, share and give feedback to each other on your materials.
Like the long-haul pilot who flies to more distant parts of the world, you might be a materials writer who writes for national or global publishers. In which case, you won’t be able to self-test everything you write. A kind of ‘mental piloting’ probably takes place at your desk as you visualise how the materials will work in practice. (See also ‘A is for Answer Key’.) Once you hand over the materials to the publisher, parts of the materials might be sent off to teachers you have never met, working with students in context you have never experienced, to be reviewed and possibly tested in a real lesson.
An impression rather than a science
Whatever method of piloting you are using, and whatever the results are from piloting, it’s rarely an exact science. As with all things in teaching, there are so many different variables at work, on any one day, in any one lesson. Sometimes it tells you when something is just ‘wrong’ but more often it’s about gaining an impression of the materials; whether they will work with most teachers, in most lessons, most of the time.
How do you pilot and test your materials? What are you experiences (positive or negative) of sharing your materials with others? Tell us in the comments below.
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