Death by worksheets?
It’s certainly what a group of students recently told me was happening in their classrooms!
Since joining a huge number of social media based teacher groups, especially on Facebook. A couple of types of groups seem to have a heavy focus on worksheets; ‘sales’ sites and ‘requests for help’ sites.
What is this all about in the 21st Century?
What do worksheets offer and what are their limitations? Let’s consider worksheets and their capacity to address some learning key goals:
Developing higher order thinking skills
The fact is that, almost always, worksheets can really only be used in one way. Worksheets call on convergent thinking skills. Not only do they not challenge divergent, critical or creative thinking, they can lead children to think that there is only a single correct way to undertake the process/skill required.
The truth is that worksheets require little, if any, higher-order thinking and as this is a key outcome of all modern curriculums across the world, worksheets don’t cut it.
A common argument for using a worksheet is that it is a useful way to have students practice a skill. Possibly it is this thinking that the student group mentioned in my opening are victims of!
I remember endless spirit duplicator (mmm, still love that smell!) and Gestetna copies of multiple mathematics computations, practice sheets galore. Are you old enough to remember these technologies too, or are you from the photocopier era?
Mind numbing repetition is what I recall.
Actually, if a student understands a process already, wouldn’t it be more powerful to have him or her create their own problems, find ‘not-examples’ or create a how-to video to explain the process?
If a student is shaky on the skill being practised, isn't there a huge risk that they will practice incorrectly? Or perhaps just learn the steps by rote without understanding the process? How then does transfer happen? How skilled is the student in applying the skill in problem solving or in new contexts?
Worksheets just don’t cut it.
Fine motor skill development
I’ve heard early years teachers claim that they use worksheets for developing fine motor and handwriting skills.
Part of me wants to cry! There are so many brilliant, fun and engaging, play based ways for students to develop fine motor skills. Why use mind numbing photocopiable sheets of paper? Other than it being easy, I’m struggling to see why.
Assessment of skills
Another common reason given for using worksheets, is to assess student learning.
A key point to consider here, is that just because a student has completed a worksheet, doesn’t mean that we really know that they understand a concept or that they can read and follow the instructions.
Market research (copying in other terms) is rife and many students are adept at it, it is a survival skill.
Surely there are more effective demonstrations of learning, than filling in gaps on a worksheet. Have you seen our formative assessment strategies posts? Lots of ideas there.
Learning, resilience and ‘grit’
Students in every classroom, in every learning area are at different levels of skill. This is an immutable truth of teaching. Our challenge too!
No-one can convince me that a worksheet addresses the myriad of variation in learner skills, concept development or levels of knowledge acquisition in our classrooms. Some are going to find it easy, others will be excessively challenged, some bored, some engaged, some reinforced by success and some challenged by failure.
I have had teachers tell me that they photocopy 6 different worksheets, at different levels, to differentiate appropriately. I ask how they think the child with the ‘easy worksheets’ feels about this 'differentiation'? What about all of the other challenges listed in this post?
How do worksheet users address issues of ‘guessing’? Do the worksheets support executive function development? Thinking skills? Problem solving? Learner engagement?
Dr. Sue Grossman says, “In any group of young children asked to do a paper-pencil task, some will succeed and some will be less successful. The successful children may truly comprehend the task or may simply have guessed correctly. The less successful ones often learn to think of themselves as failures, and ultimately may give up on school and on themselves. These children may react to the stress created by fear of giving the wrong answers by acting out their frustrations and becoming behaviour problems, or by withdrawing and becoming reclusive.” How do worksheets help us to develop growth mindsets? Can they?
If you are using worksheets, what impact are they having on learners' well being, motivtion and mindset?
Internationally, teachers are under huge political pressure to improve literacy and numeracy results. Worksheets can be seen as a way of showing curriculum coverage and addressing accountability requirements.
BUT, as I’ve outlined, they won’t stimulate learning and concept development, they won’t require higher order thinking skills and they aren’t very effective. We need to support teachers to learn how to teach without them if we are to raise standards! The facts are that content coverage and worksheets won't improve anything.
Internally, teachers tell me that they are under pressure to use worksheets, ‘to prepare for the next stage of schooling’.
We aren’t preparing for funerals in preschool, but we will all have experience of them. We cannot protect students from poor teaching and learning experiences in the years ahead by using them ourselves! We have to resist the downward pressure to pump through content, and stand up (in teams hopefully) and teach developmentally and pedagogically, inappropriately.
Reporting to parents
Given the challenges worksheets present, as inaccurate assessment of learning, what are we actually telling parents when we send them home as evidence of learning?
If we are asking children to use low level thinking skills, offering poor opportunities to rehearse and demonstrate skills and presenting ineffective assessment tasks with worksheets, what can we reasonably expect parents to learn, about their child’s learning and our teaching, when their child’s worksheet arrives home?
Aren’t we reinforcing parents’ own poor quality learning experiences as ‘evidence’ of our (in)competence in the 21st century?
Don’t we have a responsibility to help parents understand the sophistication required to demonstrate the complex skills their children will need, to be successful in the as yet, unknown future they face?
What students say
Worksheet-based learning dampens enthusiasm for learning.
My little group said, ‘Boring!’, ‘Repetitive’, ‘We all do the same thing’, and ‘If I never saw another worksheet I’d be happy’.
‘There are so many better ways to use my time and help me learn!’
This group loved the idea of ‘evidencing their own learning’ and were excited by the idea of being responsible for demonstrating their knowledge and skills.
Food for thought!
Lets commit to giving up worksheets - a mini revolution!
Reference: Sue Grossman, Ph.D: The Worksheet Dilemma.