A Year Without Worksheets
Each year ushers in resolutions – some bold, others timid, many chucked in ensuing weeks. This January we propose the following experiment. Amid all of the technologies, ideas, and resources currently available to teachers, we would like to live “A Year Without Worksheets.”
Nationwide, public districts and private administrations purchase “programs” to form the foundation of their math, reading, and language curricula. These off-the-shelf programs typically include a core textbook and supplementary worksheets. Some programs augment the formula with web resources or custom videos, but at their base, they rely on regimented worksheets to guide teachers and students through prescripted problems.
Worksheets are not inherently poor teaching tools. They allow children to practice skills in standardized, structured formats. Worksheets theoretically draw from outside experts and take the onus off of the teacher to create customized lesson materials.
These perceived “benefits,” however, actually constitute the negative influences of worksheets in the classroom. Photocopied, bulk handouts push a “one size fits all” model of teaching, where every child, silently at her desk, dutifully mimics the regimen of her tutor. Worksheets represent a delivery-based model of instruction, where the teacher provides the pattern and the student conforms to the mold. “Good” worksheets do exist, inviting geographic analysis or document-based writing and including supporting images and informed designs. “Bad” worksheets, however, draw their inspiration from a commoditized view of student learning.
Substandard worksheets ask nothing of the educator. They demand nothing more from a scholar than to manipulate a photocopier and pass out paper. They turn a teacher into a porter, not a professional. An over-reliance on simple worksheets obstructs creativity and collaboration. It refuses unique learning styles, and it denies differentiation and inspiration. On purpose, poorly designed worksheets relegate learners to workers. They dampen motivation and offer no outlet to the poets, astronomers, and dreamers among our children. Every modern educational theory champions music, play, dynamism, interaction, projects, technology, public-speaking, and problem-solving. Uniform worksheets allow none of these. They promote homogeneous learning for a heterogeneous America.
The basic philosophy of factory worksheets suggests that a consistent curriculum is important for educational quality, because teachers can’t be trusted to devise lessons. It imagines teachers as ill-motivated to invent exceptional materials and stimulating seminars. Yet even the prairie matron in her one-room schoolhouse would never suggest passing out identical, dull lessons to her cottage of diverse pupils.
Realistically, we’re not giving up on worksheets. We still value individual rehearsal and independent investigation. Many enriching, valuable worksheetscan challenge the mind and reinforce core learning. But wouldn’t it be nice if we really could eschew photocopied learning all together? Wouldn’t it be liberating to jettison the piles of paper and unshackle ourselves from the Xerox machine, to join our students in freeing, hands-on, experiential learning?
What we’re hoping for, really, is moderation in worksheets. We can’t avoid printouts, but we do promise to think extra hard about every handout we distribute. In our resolution, we will take pains to include helpful illustrations, catchy layouts, and educational methodology into each worksheet we craft. Ultimately, it’s not the worksheet that’s the problem. It’s the stultifying design and the over-dependence that we’re trying to dispel.
There are many ways to incorporate the positive aspects of worksheets – such as primary documents, mathematical practice, and grammar exercises – into hand-made, interactive, exciting lessons that utilize easily available technologies or old-fashioned circle times. For the record, the periodic table is not a worksheet. A paragraph response to a colonial diary is not a worksheet. An x/y coordinate graph or a hand-drawn menu in French is not a worksheet. Worksheets are those formulaic texts that measure learning by time quietly spent. They are the fill-in-the-blank chore of the “Do Now” and the crutch of delayed retirement.
For these reasons and more, we are proposing a year without worksheets. We are going to emphasize a year of personal teaching, original materials, innovative lessons, and imaginative activities. We will no doubt falter, in falling back on a Bill of Rights handout or a Census chart, and we will likely slip in a sheet or two for homework. But we will try, in bucking carbon-copied shortcuts, to hone in on layered, dynamic, self-pioneered worksheets that excite students with pictures and appeal. We will hopefully force ourselves to avoid the bluffing that comes with 30 minutes of “silent work at one’s desk.”
We invite you to join us in our initiative to design information for teaching that is not routine. If you have suggestions or ideas about how to make this worksheet-free dream a reality, please let us know. We anticipate needing as much help as possible to teach “A Year Without Worksheets.” Add your thoughts to your tweets about the topic. Use the hastag #AYWW.
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