The other day, I was skimming through some tweets, and I happened to see this one by William Chamberlain: a teacher from Noel, Missouri.
He was having a discussion with a Keely Shannon, a teacher from Florida, and I just had to chime in. You see, if you spoke to me on Monday, I would tell you that I hate worksheets. (And I know that hate is a strong word, and it’s one that I rarely use, but I really felt this passionately against using worksheets.) I speak in the past tense here because as our conversation evolved, my thinking did as well.
The problem is that I have images that come to mind every time that I hear the word “worksheet.”
- It’s a blackline master.
- There is no thinking involved.
- It often involves fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice questions.
- It’s a closed task.
- It’s very low-level work.
- There is no differentiation.
- It’s rarely engaging.
- There’s probably going to be some colouring involved. (As you can probably tell, I taught primary for 11 years, and I have images of the seasonal worksheets with the colour-by-number options or the huge graphs in one of the corners.)
When I read William’s tweet, it was these thoughts that had me replying with a barrage of tweets highlighting my many concerns with worksheets. I still have all of these concerns, and you will never find me photocopying class sets of worksheets, but it was one of William’s final tweets that really had me thinking.
Students need to practice skills. There are many ways to do so. I think that inquiry can allow students to practice skills, but in a meaningful context. As they explore more, read more, and ask more questions, they also learn more. Even in math, a real world problem can have students practising skills, but also thinking and applying what they learned. I did this almost every day last year with my Grade 5’s, and as the year progressed and I learned more from others, I got better at making this happen. Much of what we did last year didn’t require a worksheet for practice, but sometimes it did (or at least for some students).
And then, I think about my students with autism. Every day, I broke down all of their learning into sets of task analysis. This was not a blackline master worksheet, but I guess that it was a worksheet of sorts. It explained, step-by-step, what they had to do. They checked off the steps as they went along. The activities were tailored specifically for them and their needs. There were always elements of choice. Sometimes this work was independent, and sometimes it was for group work, but the worksheet allowed them to take control of their own learning and meet with success. I would use this kind of worksheet again.
I won’t use the fill-in-the-blanks worksheets. I won’t use the colour-by-number ones. For almost all students, I won’t use the worksheets with reams of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and/or division questions spread out on them, but maybe for those few students that need to review these skills, I would give a few to parents — even if only as an option for at-home use. And it’s with this thinking that I realize that using worksheets may not be a clear-cut yes/no problem. Maybe we need to ask these questions instead:
- Why are we using these worksheets?
- How are these worksheets benefitting students?
- Do these worksheets meet the needs of all students? If not, how might this impact on how we use them?
- Do these worksheets address all levels of the achievement chart (something that is important when it comes to the Ontario Curriculum)? If not, how are we ensuring that we address all levels of the achievement chart?
- If we’re not using worksheets, what could we use instead? Why?
Maybe it’s not a matter of just jumping on or jumping off the worksheet bandwagon, but instead, thinking carefully about our choices and realizing that sometimes worksheets might be good for some and not for all, and sometimes, we can just save the paper and explore a different option. I think that it’s also important to remember that not all worksheets are created equally, and our thinking may change depending on the quality of the worksheet and the opportunities for student choice and higher-level thinking. How do you decide when to use worksheets? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks you see in doing so? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hot topic!