7 Ideas for Replacing Worksheets with Wonder

7 Ideas for Replacing Worksheets with Wonder Photo credit: Genocide Intervention Network via Flickr, CCL 2013.

Is “worksheet” a bad word in today’s educational climate? Or have worksheets gotten a bad rap?

Keep in mind that not all worksheets are created equal.

The important question is this: what is the student really being asked to do?

  • Organize ideas and words to use later in Writing Workshop? Good!
  • Record data from a hands-on science experiment? Good!
  • Fill in a long list of rote problems that require lower-level recall? Not so good.
  • Color in the cute clip art if they finish early? Yikes! Really not good.

Perhaps the question is not whether we should use worksheets in our teaching. Perhaps the vital question is this: am I engaging my students in the most authentic, real-world, interesting learning experience possible at this time?

Sometimes a worksheet provides an important scaffold for students as they construct their understanding. Just recently I created my own “worksheet” where I asked students to organize their thinking and plans prior to beginning a painting project. It was an important step and forced them to settle on a specific idea. Other times we need the “paper” record of a child’s work to document their understanding (or lack thereof.)

However, too often worksheets become the curriculum instead of a carefully selected tool used to support the curriculum.

In her recent interview, Chrissy Greenman raised the issue of worksheets when I asked her which weak teaching practices she would like to see eliminated from our schools. Her answer?  Reliance on worksheets.

Chrissy said, “It’s about student engagement. When I hear my kids talking about their memories from the year; all the stuff they talk about is the interesting, fun stuff we’ve done- and the arts based stuff. It’s never a worksheet! They remember Jitter Juice from the beginning of the year, our Gingerbread unit, doing Reader’s Theater with Eric Carle stories, creating Dr. Seuss art, etc. That’s what sticks!  I know sometimes a worksheet is necessary, but when kids sit and do worksheets all day; what kind of learning environment is that? It’s not authentic. The children have no ownership- it’s just something they have to do for the teacher. It’s not memorable or interesting. I’ve moved away from worksheets and embraced more arts-based lessons this year. The difference in student engagement is amazing! When I get out the art materials they are so focused and excited! In fact, when my students are absent and parents ask me to send the work home, I have to tell them, “Sorry! There is nothing to send home! I’ll have to catch them up in class. They missed learning experiences, not worksheets.

In the spirit of proposing a solution to the worksheet conundrum, here are seven ideas for replacing worksheets with Wonder Teaching!

1- Is the worksheet the heart of the lesson, or is it simply a tool for capturing thinking?  If your lesson plan is designed around a period of direct instruction followed by a block of time during which the students complete worksheets, it is likely that your kids are not fully engaged or thinking in deep and meaningful ways. How could you change the dynamic? Could you engage the children in real-world problem solving? Could they work in cooperative groups? Could they create a product instead of filling in blanks? See how you can shake it up.

Roots image via Wonder Teacher2- Does the worksheet ask children to draw/ label something? (Such as the parts of a plant?) Why not let them draw instead? They are far more likely to remember the parts of a plant if they draw them rather than labeling a piece of clip art.

3- Is the worksheet full of rote math problems and facts? I know these kinds of pages are necessary sometimes. However, could you balance that with math games and stations? They are so much more more engaging and give the children opportunities to practice the same skills. This product on Teachers Pay Teachers is very helpful for learning how to set up and run math stations.

4- Does the worksheet ask children to answer comprehension questions from a story? Try using more meaningful ways to determine comprehension. Some choices include reading conferences with the teachers (see the The Daily Five and The CAFE Book for more info. on how to make this work), creating products such as story maps that display setting, characters, problem, solution, “acting” out story  events and elements, etc.

5- Does the worksheet ask children to recall and list factual information about social studies or science? Brainstorm other ways children can show what they know. Can they make a poster? Create a painting or drawing with labels? How about a drama structure such as pantomime or tableau? Could they work in groups to write short skits that share the facts in a creative way? There are so many possibilities!

6- Could the worksheet be replaced by technology? These days, all students should have access to materials like computers and iPads. Technology engages this generation like never before, and they need the skills for 21st Century work! Check out this post by Katie King (who writes a terrific blog over at Queen of the First Grade Jungle) to get an idea of what I mean.

7- Is there a real-world experience that could replace the worksheet? Instead of completing a worksheet about the life cycle of a frog, could kids actually go outside and catch tadpoles in a pond? Could they keep a few in the classroom and observe them each day in a science journal, noting the way they change and grow? How amazing! Instead of doing worksheets on money, could the children play games using real money? Could you set up a class store (like Cassie’s shoe store) that gives them an authentic opportunity for application?

Students engaged in real world learning

I suppose this is the heart of Wonder Teacher: equipping teachers to engage students in deep and meaningful learning experiences through creative methods. Stay tuned- I have so many ideas for you that I wonder how I’ll ever share them all!

In the meantime, examine your practice with a gentle spirit. Look over your “worksheets” for this week. Which ones are valuable and worth keeping? Which ones could be replaced with something a little more WONDERful? If you can trade out even one lackluster worksheet, you are on the right track!

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Comments

  1. Love!

  2. What a fantastic article, with plenty of practical ideas. I love that quote from Chrissy Greenman “They missed learning experiences, not worksheets.” Perfect response! I think your website/blog is brilliant, Susan. Your ideas really resonate with me and my teaching philosophy. Keep up the fabulous work! From Emilie (elementary teacher from Australia)

    • Hi Emilie- Thanks so much for your encouraging comment! I am ridiculously excited to have a comment from Australia. Visiting your country is one of my dreams. Hopefully one day! :-)

  3. Prafull Mehta says:

    Hi Susan,
    It is truly wonderful idea and works well with MYP ways of teaching. Students develop thinking and doing something creative.
    In monoculture school – students need to feel up their binder and parents are judging their child (and teacher) by the thickness of the binder. I use worksheet as homework – practice at home what they have learned in class.

    • I know what you mean! Sometimes parents want the worksheets because they don’t realize there is a better way. It often takes time and parent education for them to understand that other teaching methods can be more effective. I agree that worksheets often work well for homework. Best wishes to you!

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