Thinking Teaching Creating

Thoughts, Tips, Ideas, and Projects from a Creative Teacher Mama

Worksheets – A Necessary Evil?

First of all, I think I need to define the term “worksheet” for the purposes of this discussion.  A worksheet is not necessarily every paper that has been copied for your students to complete.  In my mind, the term worksheet specifically means a paper or set of papers, regardless of the size of the paper in question, that asks students to do work to which there is only one correct answer, and typically does not utilize higher level thinking skills.  Many task cards are really just repackaged worksheets.  The Everyday Math Journals my school bought for years are nothing more than books of worksheets, at least for the books I used.  (They may have improved since then.)

Worksheet has become an ugly term in education, and I can understand why.  They’re often boring, and a fair amount of time, they don’t give much information to the teacher about what a child is capable of.  In a time where school funding is cut significantly each year, administration begs teachers to use fewer copies, so task cards were invented.  Instead of running off 25 copies of a worksheet, teachers are breaking their worksheets into one or two tasks and laminating them to use as task cards.

That being said, I’m guilty of using both worksheets and task cards.  However, I’m starting to think that perhaps there is a place for them, or at least certain types of them, where they can be valuable practice for students and helpful for teachers.  I need a new word for the papers that are copied for students, but aren’t mind-numbing tasks that don’t really help anyone.  The problem is, once a word for them has been coined, everyone will begin to use that word to describe every paper they ever copy for their class to justify its educational value.  I’m not interested in just rebranding worksheets, but rather I want to differentiate between a traditional worksheet and a page that has more valuable information about how a student thinks and what s/he understands.

I don’t really consider a paper a worksheet if it features some of the following criteria:

  • It uses higher level thinking skills, and is more of a guide for students to not forget to include certain things.
  • Anything that requires students to explain their thinking, especially if there aren’t a large number of low-level questions preceding the explanation.
  • Thinking maps/graphic organizers
  • Skills are used naturally, rather than forcing them

That being said, in order for a student to get to the point where they can do higher level thinking on a topic or skill, they do need to have a basic handle of the skill or concept, don’t they?  If you can’t actually add 24 + 93, how can I expect you to explain your strategy?  I would venture to say that perhaps traditional worksheets can be helpful, at least when introducing a new topic to students and a limited number of low-level thinking questions are asked to ensure basic understanding prior to moving on.  I think that a lot of teachers who don’t use worksheets still do this, but they do it in other ways.  Some examples of performing the task of making sure all of your students have gotten the basic concept are: students answering questions with clickers/polling apps, each student solves a problem on a dry erase board and shows it, exit slips, and I’m sure there are more.  These are all things that can replace worksheets, but the same concept of giving students a few low-level questions to answer on new material is there, and that is a good teaching practice.

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