Defending “The Worksheet”

In this era, “the worksheet” has gotten a pretty bad rap.  The seemingly popular push to go “paperless” doesn’t help the cause.  Are worksheets and paper inherently evil in the 21st-century classroom?

In the ed-tech realm, I sense a little hypocrisy in worksheet trash-talk.  I liken it to the excuses folks make when they blame technology for “distracting students” (your students were already distracted before the iPad showed up… they’re kids… they just passed notes when you weren’t looking… or doodled in their notebooks… or ignored you… but I digress…).  Maybe you’ve heard that worksheets are boring… worksheets don’t engage students… they’re “busy work”… friends shouldn’t let friends hand out worksheets… I think over-generalizations can damage any cause, and that’s why I’m here to defend the worksheet.

To defend it, we have to define it… or perhaps redefine it.  I think this is key to understanding do’s and don’ts of worksheet use.  In the spirit of SAMR, here’s my very simple hierarchy of the worksheet, ThingLink-style.

“Practice” – I think this level of worksheet use is the one that potentially gives all worksheets a bad name.  The worksheet is not evil, but its misuse can be.  Giving repetitious problems in mass quantity is bogus.  This is where phrases like “skill… drill… kill…” originate.  Copy these as-is, assign every problem every day?  Yep, you’re the target of the trash-talk.

“Transformation” – Just because a worksheet begins its purpose as an 8.5″ by 11″ sheet of paper doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.  Start small – take a worksheet of the “Practice” nature, and cut the thing up.  Group students randomly, and give one problem to each group to solve and ultimately present to the class.  Encourage communication, provide a menu of presentation tools (the board, a document camera, a screencast using Explain Everything or Tellagami) and you’ve just transformed a worksheet.  That was easy!

Not only can paper be cut… but it can be folded too! 😉  Ever use “foldables” in your classroom?  Kids love them – they’re great for organized and interactive note-taking, and students take pride in them because they’re more like a product than yet another sheet of lined paper in a notebook.

I don’t think any teacher would poo-poo hands-on learning experiences.  Did you know paper can be cut, manipulated, and sorted?  Can encourage rich mathematical communication?  Can cause students to defend their mathematical point-of-view?

Okay, so I am getting very tongue-in-cheek here, but my point is this – mathematical communication, problem-solving and even hands-on learning can occur from paper worksheets if used correctly.  I like this action research review and the cited research on physical and virtual manipulatives – they both matter (and this teacher’s students seemed to prefer physical manipulatives to virtual ones – see pages 33-34).  Don’t throw the paper out  just yet.  Do your students a favor and transform a worksheet!

Need some ideas?  Explore the ThingLink to see what bloggers are up to in the “worksheet transformation” realm.

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