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I recently finished reading George Courous’ book The Innovator’s Mindset and enjoyed his storytelling as well as many thought provoking moments. One in particular stands out, and I wanted to explore it more in this blog post. He wrote:

If worksheets were handed out as professional learning, some teachers would be bored to tears, yet in many cases, we do the same thing to our students. That type of learning is not about what is better for kids but what is easy or because it’s the way it has always been done.

 
When I read this, I thought, “He is so right!!” I loved how thinking about it this way made it easy to realize that this would be absolutely unacceptable to do with teachers, yet is common practice to do with students.

He explains that this “type of learning is not about what is better for kids” and then provides two potential explanations:

  • We use them because it’s easy to teach that way
  • We use them because it’s the way we’ve been doing it for years

I often mention that I’m shocked that I wasn’t fired in my first few years of teaching. While I tried hard and loved my students dearly, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I used many worksheets with them, especially those kinds that have the riddles you can solve by answering problems.

In retrospect, I didn’t use them because I thought they were the best way to teach students, but rather because I didn’t know any better ways. I was overwhelmed. I worked from 6 am to 6 pm every school day and a bunch on the weekends. It was simply easier to do it this way.

I used them because that’s what I remembered doing when I was in school. I was following the status quo, and continuing to do it the way it had always been done because I was most familiar with it.
 

Conclusion
Perhaps a good way to think about Courous’ metaphor is to think about everything we do in education and whether a similar version in professional development would be well received. If it wouldn’t, maybe it’s a time for us to step back and reconsider the possibility that the topic could be taught differently.

What do you think? Were there any other parts from his book you enjoyed? Do you see this metaphor applying elsewhere? Please let me know in the comments below.


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8 Comments

  1. I am an independent learner and an introvert and would LOVE it if we had worksheets at PD. Reading and writing are the best ways for me to learn, and my type of learner is ignored in today’s school environment.

    • Thank you for that. I agree. I’m constantly trying to reach all types of learners in my classroom, but I often feel like I personally, when I was 11 years old, would not have enjoyed my classroom as it is today.

    • I have been to a multitude of professional development sessions where they attempted to use stations and group work with little direct instruction. I , and most of my peers in our session did not feel this approach works well . Many pd sessions were so poorly run with the instructor trying to model the newer modes of instruction. Little was gained and there was no true expectation of mastery of anything presented.
      Worksheets have their place when accompanied by solid direct instruction. Grouping can be utilized as well when the task is paper and pencil. This article is another misleading attempt to erode public education by pointing out the worst use of a viable instructional tool to essentially put such tools on an educational blacklist. What is gained by those instigating this change is personal notoriety, profit from selling new materials such change warrants, power and control. Don’t buy the lie. Trust your instincts. You know what works.

    • As Mary said below, I think it really matters what kinds of worksheets we’re using. I think it also matters if it’s only worksheets.

      Two other questions I have include:
      – Just because we enjoy worksheets (specifically in math), does it mean that we’re learning as much as we should from them?
      – What other options are available to meet peoples’ needs (including introverts), that are more beneficial than worksheets.

      • To go along with this, how do we justify spending sooooo much money on math series that are basically just that- a book of worksheets? Of course teachers are going to use them because it’s easy! Everything is right there for you.
        Of course some series are better than others but I’ve yet to find one that is more conceptual than procedural and isn’t a book of worksheets. ‍♀️

        • In full disclosure, I’m an author for the high school HMH math textbooks.

          That being said, it’s been interesting to see how things get made. For example, publishers see strong demand from teachers for books that have attributes (like significant amounts of practice problems) and if they DON’T have that, they may be less likely to be adopted.

          As a result, publishers publish books that tend to look like books people are familiar with and have come to expect.

          This cycle makes it hard to push the needle.

  2. I think the definition of a worksheet really makes a difference. Given a piece of paper and told to sit quietly and do it? Probably not good teaching. But it sounds to me as though you are saying that worksheets have no place in instruction at all, including as practice. I’ve put together units for students to differentiate what they work on (sort of like a self-paced unit). We try to come up with at least 20 things for the “Knowledge level” [basic practice], many of which are worksheets/assignments from the book. We also work hard to come up with activities, explorations, etc…and no one does them. Usually the kid who does it feels sort of bad for me because I’m trying to sell my activity…but they all want to do some practice problems. And then when I ask for feedback, the same kids tell me “there were too many worksheets” but they chose that despite lots of options that I would consider better & more interesting.

    If a PD were entirely worksheets, I would wonder why I was there. But if you showed me a worksheet that led students through an entirely independent investigation of exponent properties (recent T3 session) that would be great–there is still teacher support but the worksheet aspect actually made it STRONGER than if I did more of the talking.

    • Good point about the definition of a worksheet. I’m thinking of a paper with 40 procedural math problems on it. The investigation you described below is not what I would consider a worksheet.

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