My friends from college and I used to have a joke about how busy I was all the time.  Well, actually, the joke was more so about how busy I always thought I was.  Plagued with self-imposed work, I routinely found myself carrying around boxes of binders and multiple bags.  There was something about being busy that made me feel purposeful, that made me feel safe.  To a certain degree, not much has changed.  I always find ways to make more work for myself.

I remember this being the case in nascent years of my teaching career, too.  I found myself scatter-brained, trying to keep track of everything, creating much more work for myself along the way.  I would collect pieces of paper, mostly worksheets, homework assignments, and other mementos and place them in a series of colored folders.  I had five for each child, each corresponding to a subject area, amassing to some 130+ folders. As the year went on, the folders fattened while my stamina weaned. I tried to keep up the system, only to find that it wasn’t helping me or my students.

But there was something about it–my initial vision for all the folders, and all of the documentation–that made me feel safe.  It made me feel like I was doing my job by shelling out homework, writing colored marks on it, and logging the numbers in PowerGrade.  But it wasn’t long until I felt the shortcomings of this.

“I just don’t understand it, Mr. France,” a parent said to me in a conference. “He’s scoring so high on his tests, yet look at this work.”

He was referring to the worksheets, and I saw it, too.  His son was consistently scoring in the 80th and 90th percentiles, yet his “grades” were Bs and Cs, his “homework” consistently subpar.  When I dug deeper into my systems, I found that the majority of my grades and my homework were meaningless worksheets that, again, made me feel like I was doing my job. But when I took a good look at my practice, I realized I wasn’t doing anyone any favors–not even myself.  I switched to using proficiency scales, focused my documentation more on authentic writing tasks and formative assessments, and never looked back.

But I came to a similar predicament this year, as I worked on piloting my first math workshop model with kindergarten and first-grade.  I was determined to avoid busy work, to have them read and write about math in a meaningful way, and to embed math content into engaging projects that incorporated their interests.  But it was difficult–much more difficult than it was in the older grades, and it became all the more tempting to put pieces of paper in front of them–pieces of paper with predetermined boxes or traceable lines–that I knew in my heart would only mimic the learning process.

And I wasn’t the only one who was tempted.  The parents in my classroom, albeit patient and trusting with my out-of-the-box technique, were unsure of this approach at times, bringing in work samples from the same types of worksheets I used to use.

It really got me to wondering: What is it about worksheets that makes us feel so safe?

And through some focused reflection, not only on the experiences of this year, but also the ones of years past, some ideas dawned upon me.

Worksheets are concrete.

It’s hard to understand, trust, and believe in something we cannot see.  In fact, the only reason I felt okay stepping off the ledge into a worksheet-less classroom this year was because I believed more in the habits, the play, and the problem-solving than I did anything else.  I saw their effects throughout my teaching career, and from my perspective, they were concrete.  But that’s not the case for everyone.

Worksheets feign a sense of accountability.

Trust has broken down between educators and families in our post-NCLB era, and perhaps even before the NCLB era.  While accountability measures are important, these things also take time.  Too many educators use worksheets as a means to fill this time when building trust, when more could be done with parent communication, parent education, and student advocacy.  Just imagine if you took all of the time that goes into copying, stapling, and grading packets, and turned it into time for feedback on real activities, meaningful projects, and building child independence.

Worksheets give us “evidence” of mastery.

For whatever reason, this evidence-based era in which we’ve found ourselves has implied that we need more evidence of the product than of the process.  I’m a huge proponent of evidence-based decision-making, but this doesn’t have to mean that all evidence has to be paper-based.  Children think in pictures, and they share in their words and their actions more than they do on paper.  Videos, pictures, narratives, and stories of the learning process can provide even more robust evidence than a worksheet ever will.

Lessons Learned

We all have positive intentions, and that’s just where worksheets have come from.  It’s easy to see that many educators believe they’re fulfilling the needs of guided practice and accountability with worksheets. And perhaps the occasional worksheet will provide this quick assessment, give us some evidence, and help us confirm what we already know to be true.

But it’s important to remember that guided practice, evidence-based assessment, and accountability can be achieved by so much more than a worksheet.  It can be achieved through collaborative assessment protocols based on observations of students, it can be enriched by strong relationships and communication with parents, and it can even be refined using technology tools that help us better aggregate, organize, and communicate meaningful student data.

So the next time you consider mass copying a worksheet, ask yourself: What’s the purpose of this?  Is there another, more engaging, more relevant way to fulfill the need?  If so, try something new. It may feel harder at first, but the rewards will be infinite.

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