The Worksheet is Dead… Long live the worksheet…

Last week I posted a One Minute Workflow that showed how to take a traditional worksheet, distribute it to students, have them annotate the document and then export it back out to be submitted within The Hub.

The result of this video was a spirited debate on the role of worksheets in the classroom, which has really challenged my thinking on the topic.  In the digital age with inquiry based learning a driving force for pedagogy, is the worksheet dead?

Worksheets have long gotten a bad rap.  I can remember in teachers college hearing math worksheets referred to as “drill and kill”, being asked during staff meetings to cut down on the amount of photocopying by not using worksheets with students (ironically, the request was to have students copy down the questions they were to answer in their notebook and then answer them beneath) and even thinking myself, “why are we photocopying reams of worksheets that get completed and then stuffed into a binder?”  So should this be a eulogy for the worksheet?

New teaching strategies often emphasize providing the student with choice in their learning.  Inquiry based learning is all about building from the interests of the students and allowing them to ask questions that lead to learning. It would seem, in this structure of learning environment, that the worksheet has no place.  After all, it isn’t generated by the student, isn’t necessarily based on their interests and doesn’t necessarily fit the learning style of all students.  But at the heart of it, what is a worksheet?  At it’s most basic level, it is a sheet where students do work.  The nature of that work changes based on the worksheet itself, but having something that students can complete, that structures or scaffolds their work, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

For example, within an inquiry-based activity, I might want my students to organize their question and learning into a structure that makes it easier to see their progress and for them to reflect on what they’ve learned.  While the final product the student produces to demonstrate their understanding will vary based on the question, their learning style and their interests, this worksheet serves as a framework for both the student and the teacher.  Perhaps, this is the scaffolding that will eventually lead to them organizing their own notes using their own strategy, but the worksheet itself isn’t inherently poor teaching.

Additionally, the idea of “drill and kill” can serve a purpose too.  There are times when you need to practice a skill to make sure you master it.  Doctors practice hundreds of surgeries before being certified; lawyers run mock trials before their bar exam; all of us took driving lessons and practiced the skills prior to attempting our drivers test (hopefully at least!) and I don’t know any sports team that doesn’t practice prior to a game. Practice is an important part of skill mastery.  If I’m learning how to name chemical compounds, conjugate a series of verbs or learn how to factor a polynomial, I need to practice these skills through repetition along with feedback and coaching.  It’s in the absence of this feedback and support that the practice is irrelevant – at that point I could be simply reinforcing bad skills.  But in an environment where I practice my skill and have a teacher provide me with descriptive feedback and suggestions for improvement, that practice should result in improved learning of that skill.  Again, the worksheet type of activity as a strategy for some (not necessarily all) with appropriate supports from the teacher (and the teacher reflecting on the learning the student has demonstrated to scaffold subsequent instruction) can become a powerful tool in the classroom.  After the student has mastered the skill, having them apply it in new situations, make connections to the “real world” and demonstrate their understanding in their own way makes perfect pedagogical sense – and would be the higher order thinking that we expect of our students.  But asking them to build a house without first showing them how the various tools at their disposal work (e.g. the saw, the hammer, the screwdriver) and giving them time to practice using them before starting the project, will not lead to success, but rather frustration and confusion.

Even in our professional practice, we still see “worksheets” although we call them something else; forms, placemats, organizers.  When we want to collect information from a group of people in an organized fashion, potentially directing them on what to consider, so that we can then refer back to it in a meaningful way, we use a rose by another name, but it is still a rose.  There is value sometimes in having things recorded on a piece of paper.

So for me, the worksheet is still a valid tool, although the intended use of it has changed.  It is no longer the tool that all students use at the exact same moment in time, while sitting in rows, quietly completing to then put in their binder without learning if they were reinforcing the right skills and without the teacher knowing if they student truly mastered the skill.  It is now one more tool in the teacher’s toolbox to help them better know their students.  It is a tool for students to potentially practice their skills, have another opportunity to test their understanding, organize their learning or simply jot stuff down for “the next time”.  All of this potential, without having to kill thousands of trees, because we’ve shown you how to make it digital…


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