It depends, of course, on what you mean by “work”. If you want something that you can put together (or download) without thinking too hard, that might keep a few pupils in your classroom occupied for a few minutes, that might (if you provide different worksheets for different groups) provide some uncritical evidence of differentiation, then worksheets might do the job. But if your classroom is about learning and progress and celebrating difference then forget worksheets. Below I've listed nine reasons why I think this. Throughout, ask yourself why you wanted to become a teacher.
- Worksheets make lessons task-oriented rather than learning-oriented. In a worksheet-dependent lesson, the objective for the lesson becomes be able to complete the worksheet rather than understand how to… or be able to explain the reasons for… or I can evaluate a range of… Planning can be difficult, but reaching for a default worksheet to slot into a lesson will pull you away from thinking about what you want pupils to learn, away from thinking about what you want pupils to understand or be able to do at the end of your lesson that they couldn’t do at the start.
- They emphasise quantity rather than quality as a measure of success. How many have you done? becomes the key question rather than How well do you understand this? Worksheets encourage superficiality.
- Worksheets are intrinsically unchallenging. Pupils either can or can’t do the tasks required to complete the worksheet. If pupils can, they’ll finish quickly or be unchallenged or both. If they can’t, they can’t: they’ll spend the allotted time completing the tasks incorrectly or they will disengage. Perhaps you’ve created a worksheet in which the task is more open-ended, or encourages a collaborative approach (see Reason 6) to complete set tasks – that’s great, but ask yourself if you really need a worksheet to do this.
- Worksheets create glass ceilings. Once the worksheet is complete, that’s it: the pupil can go no further. This is true for your most and your least able pupil: the tasks on a worksheet are finite. You might have included extension activities, but these too are finite. Perhaps you’ve created a worksheet in which the task is more open-ended or which invites pupils to devise their own extension activities – that’s great, but ask yourself if you couldn’t build this sense of pupil ownership into the culture of your classroom.
- They invite uniformity. If you want to create a generation of robotic clones, then stick to worksheets. But if you became a teacher because you wanted to inspire creativity, celebrate difference, foster independence, then bin the worksheets. Or recycle them (see Reason 9). Teachers’ Standard 2 requires you to “encourage pupils to take a responsible and conscientious attitude to their own work”. I can see how a pupil might conscientiously complete a worksheet, but does a worksheet really invite a pupil to take responsibility?
- Worksheets discourage collaboration. Six pupils, each with a worksheet, sitting at the same table are unlikely to collaborate – they may even have been told not to. Teachers often refer to this gathering of pupils as a “group”, but when they’ve each got a worksheet this is a group only in a mathematical sense, grouped together like so many apples or bananas. The challenges and opportunities of working as a group will hardly come into it: they don’t need to deal with group dynamics (there aren’t any), to devise a way to pool their resources (they’re often told not to), to motivate or engage one another or take responsibility for anything other than the completion of the worksheet in front of them. (Is this really what you want Teachers’ Standard 2 to be about?) And what happened to social constructivism? All that stuff that Vygotsky spouted about “problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”? Perhaps you’ve created a worksheet that has collaborative activity built in (perhaps a single sheet which a group share) – that’s great, in fact I’d suggest that’s no longer a worksheet but something different (a challenge, a task, a problem).
- They prevent pupils from devising their own ways of recording their understanding or for presenting their findings. Worksheets are often about filling in boxes: the teacher provides the question or the grid or the table, the pupil writes the answer or fills in the box. This prepares pupils to complete questionnaires and respond to surveys. Get pupils to devise their own ways to present their understanding – this will reveal lots about what they understand – and if you’re concerned that pupils won’t be able to devise ways by themselves, that’s what modeling is for. After all, if you don’t give them a chance to devise their own methods, how are they going to become independent, problem-solving communicators?
- They create more work for teachers. You have to design, print, photocopy, and distribute worksheets. Then you have to collect them in and stick them in pupils’ books – unless you’ve got the pupils to stick them into their books as part of the lesson (Learning objective: I can stick a worksheet into my book).
- Worksheets waste paper. Why photocopy something which pupils then stick to another sheet?