Worksheets: BAD. Technology: GOOD. An Analysis.

borrowing-worksheet1I was skimming through my twitter feed the other day and saw a tweet that stopped me dead in my tracks. I can’t quote it verbatim now, but it said something like this:

Worksheets allow teachers to pretend that they’re teaching and learners to pretend that they’re learning.

I was blown away. To me it read a bit like this: “Worksheets, BAD. Grunt, grunt.” Given, there are only 140 characters in a tweet, but this just seemed so…well, so black and white.  Then I realized that I’ve been seeing so many black and white statements in education and ed tech for a while now. Testing: BAD. Technology: GOOD. Common Core State Standards: BAD. Project-Based Learning: GOOD. It’s kind of wild, really. I mean, none of these things is all good or all bad. But you would sure think so based on a lot of the blog posts, tweets and conference talks out there. Where’s the nuance?

I’ve been thinking about it since reading that tweet and it occurs to me that what these black and white positions seem to share is that they’re very structural. In other words, they focus on the structure of an educational solution. What does it look like, what are its features, how is it implemented. What are the components of the solution? In other words, this structuralism is focused on the WHAT. And how the pieces of the WHAT relate to one another.

So here’s the problem with that: there’s no focus on the WHY.  Presumably all of these educational solutions are trying to accomplish something. When we examine the WHY we are taking a functional approach. What’s the learning goal? The educational solution should be derived from the problem it’s trying to solve in the learner’s skill repertoire. So when you design the educational solution, using a functional approach, you keep iterating the solution until it solves the problem.

Why does this distinction matter? Well, because the approach that we take, as educators, determines whether or not that much maligned worksheet deserves its reputation. If you give kids a worksheet, they complete it, you grade it and that’s that….well, that’s a structuralist approach and you shouldn’t expect much.  But if you design a worksheet taking a functionalist approach, that’s a different matter….you’re designing the worksheet with the end goal in mind. What should the learners be able to produce on that worksheet?  And if they don’t, you keep redesigning it until your instruction on that page produces the performance that is your goal.

To say that a worksheet is bad or that technology is good or any other absolute position misses the point. The point is that regardless of the delivery mode and regardless of whether or not it’s a high tech solution, the value is in the interaction between the learner and the educational materials and in what skill competencies those interactions produce. Great instructional design can produce amazing outcomes, regardless of the delivery system.  So let’s give the worksheet a break.  It’s about function, not form.


About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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2 Responses to Worksheets: BAD. Technology: GOOD. An Analysis.

  1. JJ says:

    Good points made. Worksheet have their uses-I carefully design mine to meet specific learning objectives and I strive to make them fun for the children. Our school was inspected recently and another teacher received negative comments about using worksheets which I felt was unfair, I agree with the article that it depends on how it fits into the lesson and whether it assists the learning objective.

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for commenting, JJ. I think that digital lessons can be just as terrible as a lower tech method if they’re not designed properly. I’d rather have good instruction delivered in a low-tech method than awful instruction that is high tech. It’s too bad the inspectors in your school couldn’t see beyond the medium!

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