The Problem with Worksheets

You never want to get on a plane where the pilot learned to fly from worksheets. ~ Todd Whitaker

I was teaching a class recently, and I noticed a common theme…as much as teachers have heard that worksheets are not appropriate they just seem to have a hard time letting go of them. I think the problem is that perhaps deep down they still believe that worksheets have some value to children, or that if they aren’t using worksheets then they aren’t really teaching. That could just not be further from the truth.

So what’s wrong with worksheets?

  • Worksheets often have a “right” answer. Which means that they also have a wrong answer. However, the wrong answer doesn’t allow children to use trial and error to learn from it. Instead, the wrong answers on a worksheet lead children to believe that there is no value in risk-taking because only the right answers are valued. Seeing a lot of wrong answers can also reduce a child’s belief in her/his ability.
  • Similarly, worksheets can only be used in one way. This means that children aren’t using higher order thinking skills like they would if they were playing with concrete materials.
  • Children are concrete learners, which means they need concrete objects in order to learn a new concept. Worksheets are abstract, and are therefore incapable of teaching this type of learner. This is what makes them developmentally inappropriate.
  • Since worksheets can’t teach children of such a young age, that means the only thing they can do is present, or test, a concept that children already know. And if children already know it, then why are we wasting our time on it?
  • Worksheets are task-oriented activities rather then learning activities. When completing a worksheet, the goal becomes to finish the worksheet rather than learn the task at hand.
  • They don’t allow children to work together or collaborate on a project. At an age where social skills are of the utmost importance and are still forming, the activities in our classrooms should promote collaboration, not discourage it.
  • Worksheets do not allow for creativity, divergent thinking, or the opportunity to display learning in different ways.
  • Most often, all of the children in the class are working on the same worksheet. This goes against common logic, because we know that not all children will be at the same level of development.
  • Worksheets waste valuable time, focus on teaching only rote skills (Volante, 2004).
  • Overly academic approaches may offer short term success, such as children being able to recite alphabet letters or rote count, but this comes at a cost. Children from overly academic schools may not have engaged in the higher-order thinking activities that help them understand why things are the way they are. They don’t have a firm foundation for later success. They also have less time for social skills development and often show higher levels of test anxiety compared with their peers from play based schools.
  • Any concept portrayed in a worksheet can be taught better in a hands-on, meaningful way.

As Marilyn Adams said, “If they can do the worksheet they don’t need it. If they can’t, it won’t help them.”

Letting go of worksheets creates more time in your classroom to allow children to explore their interests in a meaningful way. And when you allow children to make choices, they become more motivated. Motivate children and you cause a release of dopamine in the brain, which unlike other neurotransmitters is spritzed on the brain causing it to reach larger areas. Motivate children and you increase learning.

There are numerous ways to engage children in meaningful literacy, math, and science concepts without the use of worksheets. What are your favorite play-based activities?

Math Made Fun

Math is one of my favorite areas to plan for in the preschool classroom. Sometimes teachers get so focused on the counting sequence that they forget about the other types of math activities that are just as, or even more, important! Number sense is just one area of math development that should be an important area of focus for preschoolers. Number sense for preschoolers is really a group of related math abilities that are key predictors of children’s math achievement. In essence, they are the skills that children need to work with numbers in a variety of ways. These skills include the ability to:

  • understand quantities, such as knowing how many are in a given group of objects
  • compare quantities of objects using terms such as more, less, equal, larger, and smaller
  • recognize the relationships between individual items and groups of items (i.e., when counting a group of objects, when the child says “3” it means the whole group of three….not just that individual item that was named “3”)
  • understand the symbols that we use to represent quantities (i.e., numerals)
  • order a group of objects (1st, 2nd, 3rd or largest to smallest)
  • add and subtract with concrete objects (i.e., having a group of three bears, adding one to it and understanding that you now have 4 bears)
  • problem solve – such as figuring out how many paintbrushes are needed for the special activity based on the number of children that are seated at the table)

As you can see…these skills go far beyond just being able to recite the counting sequence! What are some specific activities that you can implement in your classroom to promote these skills?

Lily Pad Sensory Table Activity

In this sensory table activity, children have 12 coasters and 12 frogs. As they practice putting one frog on each “lily pad” they are practicing the skill of 1:1 correspondence.

Numerals

Numerals are such an abstract concept for young children. While they may be able to recognize the numeral and name it, they also need to be able to start associated the quantity that the numeral represents with the numeral. Many activities that work with numerals offer no support for helping children understand this association. I like to add “quantity dots” to my numerals so that as children begin to match up the numeral to a quantity they can check their work to ensure that they are choosing the right numeral.

Turtles in the Pond

In this fun activity, children are matching the number of shapes on the turtles back to the numerals on the pond. The turtles have a clothes pin on the back so that they can be clipped to the correct pond. The dots on the numerals help children know if they are choosing the correct numeral.

Sink the Boat

This sensory table activity includes a variety of marbles and boats. Children attempt to predict how many marbles it will take to “sink the boat”. (Not intended for children under age 3).

Ice Cream Math Manipulative

In this math manipulative, children roll the die and then take the corresponding number of ice cream sundaes to put on their tray. Game play continues until both children have filled their trays. Sometimes, children continue rolling the die to remove the ice cream cones from their tray and return them to the basket.

 Teddy Bear Math Manipulative

In this game, children choose a card with dots from the deck and then take the appropriate number of bears to match the card. They can even put the bears right on top of the dots if they are still in the beginning stages of quantification.

Short Path Game

In this short path game, children roll the die and move their game piece to the town. Since this game is designed for younger children, we’ve given each child his own game board to eliminate confusion and conflict.

Long Path Game

For children who are ready for a little more, this long path game gives them a longer path and a shared board. The “bonus spaces” throughout the game allow children to customize the rules of the game.

I also love these activities on using 10 frames and 5 frames from Pre-kpages.com:  https://www.pre-kpages.com/developing-number-sense-in-preschool/

What types of math activities do you plan to encourage number sense?