During my career of 13 years as an educator of high school social studies, there have been many changes that I have seen: everything from new student resources, textbooks, updated and entirely new curriculum, the shift from using a traditional whiteboard to a digital one, new apps, Google Meets, the need to consider students' social-emotional well-being, to buzzwords that come and go and far more between. Change, as the ancient stoics will tell you, is natural and to be embraced.
Part of being a professional in any career is keeping up to date on best practices and modifying or improving methods to become better at what we do. This, I believe, is a central point to becoming and effective educator. Many new ideas or changes in methods have been successful or have, at least, improved upon the situation from which they have arisen. This often involves a new perspective around some issue in education or modifying what is in place to make it work better for students, teachers, families and other stakeholders of education. Pursuing these goals are to be encouraged wherever possible.
Recently, I noticed a hashtag being used on twitter that has been around for the last number of years and it struck me as odd. #DownWithWorkSheets has a straight forward message to it: stop using this traditional form of student activity. The argument from some educators is that worksheets are stale, unproductive, do not encourage critical thinking or creativity, and are not effective means to teach students the curriculum. This has also been equated with "busywork", a term associated with any activity used in a classroom to fill time and has no educational value.
I agree fully that busywork is to be avoided and what happens in the classroom should be of value - whether this is helping students to master learning outcomes, improve upon previous understandings, to foster a positive learning environment, or to benefit their social, emotional, mental, and physical health. These goals go hand-in-hand with teaching at any level and busywork, as a time-wasting exercise, is not conducive to achieving these aims.
I do, however, take issue with referring to worksheets as busywork by definition. While there are "bad" worksheets that do not achieve learning goals, as a professional I trust my colleagues to develop or use materials for their classrooms that meet the goals they are trying to achieve, and this includes worksheets - if this is what they choose to employ. I do my best to develop materials that meet the goals established for my courses and classroom, and worksheets are a part of this. I use other materials (video, music, art, graphics, data sheets, discussion, debate, etc.) to help students learn and I provide choice in the types of products students wish to use to demonstrate this learning (posters, lyrics, videos, essays, magazine articles, organizers, oral products or performance, etc.). Worksheets are to be included in this list.
Worksheets should not be the only way students learn or show their learning. That said, they can be developed to be one of several effective means to achieve these goals. Sometimes "practice-and-drill" methods (one use of worksheets) help reinforce student understanding of foundational knowledge that will aid them in future critical and creative thinking endeavors. Other times, questions or prompts on worksheets can be used to help students consider a topic or issue in a new way, or through multiple perspectives. Skills can be developed through these means that are of greater value than the paper written on.
Clearly, some work is involved in creating worksheets that are effective. When developing worksheets, I ask myself questions like those below to help me produce something of educational worth for students to use:
For me, a worksheet should not be a list of definitions written out by students, but a series of tasks that help students delve deeper into a topic or source of information. Sometimes this includes some foundational factual knowledge, but what is most important is how students use this knowledge to more deeply understand the issue, its subtleties and complexities. While they do this, are students able to employ skills and competencies that will benefit them beyond the activity, the class, the subject, and school and, as a whole, help them become informed, engaged, and contributing members of society? This is the big picture of social studies education that should always be in the mind of the educator, no matter the lesson being planned or the activity being developed.
Can worksheets play an effective and valuable role in social studies education? I believe the answer to this question is yes. When well-formed and rigorously developed, they can be one of a variety of activities that teachers can use to promote learning in their classes.
Stephen Rowe is an educator and teacher of high school social studies at Gander Collegiate, in Newfoundland and Labrador. His areas of greatest interest in the social studies are ancient/medieval history, politics, and demography.