17 Nov 2017

In Defense of Worksheets

Yes, you read the title right. I’ve spent my career berating worksheets in blogs and tweets, pleading with teachers to move away from “drill-and-kill practices” and toward authentic learning experiences. But like most things in life, the worksheet rebuke isn’t as black and white as we might think. It’s easy to dismiss a practice outright. It’s harder to carefully evaluate a practice—identifying what is genuinely effective, innovating what’s not.

First of all, we have to define “worksheet.” We cannot simply ban anything that is reproducible. Certain constructs can occupy space on a page, be copied and distributed to students, and provide visual and verbal platforms upon which learning can thrive.

Here are some examples of what I consider excellent worksheets: 
  • Graphic organizers: At any grade level and with any content area, visual representations of ideas help us focus our thinking and make connections. From Venn Diagrams to flow charts, graphic organizers can and should be used often to solidify thinking and to communicate ideas. They also build a sense of visual literacy, an increasingly vital skill in today’s workplace.
  • Prompts: It can be a story starter, a critical thinking prompt, or a position statement. It can be an image, text, or both. A short prompt, with lots of white space around it, is powerful. The prompt provides focus and makes sure students are addressing the skill and/or concept you want them to, but the white space gives them the freedom to process and apply the learning authentically.
  • Writing Frames: Frames are more controversial and certainly the easiest construct of these to abuse, but when utilized properly, they can do wonders for an emergent learner or a struggling student. Frames can be as tight as a page from MadLibs, or as loose as a one-word paragraph starter (First, Next, Then, Last… or I claim…, My evidence is…, My reasoning is…). Success breeds success, and sometimes a frame is the most tangible way to lead a student to success. The key is to remember that frames are scaffolds and that scaffolds are meant to be taken away once the foundation is in place.

But what about fully-populated worksheets with pre-determined content that the mass of students across the continent are expected to fill out in the exact same way? Can these ever be useful? What if you are obligated to use your curriculum’s reproducibles? Though not ideal, I still think worksheets, in the hands of an innovative teacher, can create engaging and authentic learning opportunities.

Here are a few ideas:
  • Weave a Story: Whether it’s a sheet of math problems or vocabulary matches, don’t have students simply answer the questions. Have them create a series of word problems from math facts or a story from vocabulary words. This gives them an opportunity to find their own connection to the material as they apply the learning.
  • Connect the Dots: For each section of the worksheet, challenge students to connect the learning to something they are studying in another content area. After addition and subtraction problems, students may connect that to the days in the butterfly life cycle. After multiplication and division problems, they may explain the math behind the Electoral College in a presidential election.
  • Make it visual: Have students translate their learning from the worksheet into a visual format. If it’s a sheet of spelling words, visually group them by like characteristics. If it’s a list of historical facts, place them on a visual timeline. If it’s data from an investigation, turn it into an infographic that provides an interpretation of the data. Graphics clarify thinking and solidify learning. The Smart Graphics feature in Microsoft Word offers a wealth of possibilities.

So, worksheets in and of themselves are not evil. They are a tools, just like iPads or textbooks. It’s how the teacher wields the tool to produce learning that matters. An activity where students are genuinely enlightened by an experience will always trump a worksheet, but in the real world, sometimes you need to pass out a piece of paper—sometimes you have to pass out a specific piece of paper. So, in those times, challenge yourself to find the experience in the worksheet. Make the worksheet your tool; don’t let the worksheet make a tool out of you.

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