Worksheets-Friend of Foe?

I use worksheets. There. I said it.

It seems like worksheets have gotten a bad name. They must appear to parents and educators as a soulless, uninspired way to teach. Any idiot can throw a piece of paper at a student- that doesn't take training. And what does that say about our students? Are we just training them to be obedient drones, quietly filling in bubbles without any sass? Where is the critical thinking?

Some of these things are not worth the paper they're printed on. With computer tutorials and Ipads, wastes of paper like the example above are becoming a thing of the past. Already, my three year daughter can trace all the letters of the alphabet and write her name-a precursor to writing. 

I don't think this means that worksheet are arcane, antiquated approaches, but they're certainly being phased out for digital approaches. Take the example below: 

For my math class, I used this challenge activity for a math lab investigation. Working in pairs, students modelled perfect squares and used this worksheet to document their investigation by writing equations and sharing their findings in a whole class setting afterwards. Of course they could do it on an Ipad, or on a piece of butcher paper, but in this case, I wanted each student to have a record for referral. Perhaps this is more inspired than doing 20 "drill for skill" type worksheets, but it's in the same ballpark, isn't it? 

Worksheets are not the lesson. I think when parents see a worksheet, they think the whole period was spend doing them. I usually spend no more than one third to 50% of a class lesson using a worksheet; using them to assess "as" learning. We usually start by debriefing homework, a math chat or lab followed by some independent practice. The expectation is that students have some time for meaningful practice, and that they shouldn't feel compelled to finish all of it. After 30 minutes of practice, we move on to other things.

Worksheets are the entry point of scaffolding. Alot of worksheets look like pretty entry level recall and knowledge, and usually they are. But I would argue that for math, some of those foundations are necessary in order to gain some deeper level understanding down the line. Proponents of inquiry based/connected math approaches would say that students should start with the deeper understanding first and then they'll have a better understanding of the surface level questions. Either way, most teachers I've worked with prefer a mix of both. I like the mix of questions below:

Worksheets can be differentiated for readiness. Our math program has tiered resources which I think are great. More advanced students can choose more challenging material and struggling students can choose to do more entry level assignments. My teaching partner identifies "anchor" problems from the traditional textbook which he uses to challenge different groups of students. If you're thinking of subscribing to a math program, see if such resources exist.

With a little twist, worksheets become graphic organizers. Graphic organizers seem to be coveted by teachers, and they're a distant relative of worksheets. Strange huh? I think what proponents of graphic organizers would argue is that they're more creative and allow students to construct their own meaning. In the case below, I transformed a supplemental worksheet into a graphic organizer on our science lesson "States of matter"

There is much variation on the quality and use of worksheets. We must be careful of dismissing them completely and replacing them with video tutorials and Ipad apps because that seems to be "cutting edge". Students do respond well to these digital interfaces, but I think there is still an absence of evidence supporting whether or not these digital interfaces are clearly superior and lead to an overwhelming increase in student achievement.

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