The worksheet problem.

This popped up on my twitter feed this morning:

While I have to applaud the idea that we’ve moved away from the idea that worksheets are magic pills of learning, sweeping generalisations of any sort are usually less than helpful. As a teacher in Hong Kong, I’m one of the first to argue for a reduction in the amount of busywork and wasted time – and worksheets often waste time in two directions: students’ time in working on something less than beneficial to them, and teachers’ time in marking and responding to short questions that would be more effectively done by a machine. It’s easy to forget in all of this that targeted practice work on discrete skill areas is still useful in many areas.

The key here is targeted. When we design any lesson material, we need to focus on what is going to be learned, and how it is going to be learned. My classes tend to avoid using photocopied worksheets as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t use them where appropriate, and it also doesn’t mean that other work that is done sometimes fits the worksheet paradigm – it’s just not photocopied and handed out as a worksheet. In fact, I’ve found that using short practice sheets online has been a great learning tool for my learners.

A couple of years ago I started development of a web app that manages this process in my school: learners log into the system, which monitors things like English levels, and they are served a focused reading comprehension worksheet which is tailored to their level. The system marks and gives feedback on the spot, which is important, and I’ve also added the ability to give hints or change the question wording on recurrent errors: if a user makes a mistake three times, the system helps them right away, through pictures of the text with the key words or answer highlighted, or a hint to the page with answer or some similar method. Just another way that the use of computers for learning and teaching is really improving the way that we work.

We’ve found this system to be a great help to our learners, yet I’d still argue that it was a worksheet. So maybe instead of the #NoWorkSheetChallenge, we should focus on the #BetterWorkSheetChallenge, and possibly a #BetterWork challenge in all our teaching?


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