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What’s wrong with worksheets

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Recently I had a heated discussion with colleagues about the word “worksheet”. They argued that these were linked to textbook activities that are boring, mechanical and invariably worksheets are mindless exercises in mathematics. I argued that my colleagues were referring to “textbook” tasks, or something like that. I didn’t win the argument. I didn’t convince them that worksheets could be wonderful examples of activities for our students. I now try to avoid using the term “worksheet” throughout our Maths Matters Resources website, just in case the term is misunderstood in any way.

But the heart of this conversation was really that in primary mathematics we should be providing our students with worthwhile activities, full of interest, maths language, challenge and real-life relevance. What you call these in your classroom doesn’t really matter. A rose by any other name still smells as sweet. So what is it about an activity that makes it effective in primary mathematics?

An activity should be relevant to the needs and interests of your students. It should encourage them to think together with a partner, to use language to explain and explore, to try out and compare different strategies. When a challenge has more than one solution however, the problem for us as teachers is that it becomes more difficult to “mark”, to evaluate, especially if we have more than 30 students in our class and they are working on a variety of activities with a variety of possible solutions. Textbook examples often have just one expected answer, so we know if it is correct or incorrect. But does ‘easy to mark’ mean ‘effective to practise and explore”? Invariably “no”. Simple answer-driven tasks do not generally encourage effective mathematical thinking or sharing of strategies.

I face the same problem when creating activities for Maths Matters Resources. As you will have noticed I try to focus on activities where students have to talk, think, compare, evaluate and explain their thinking, preferably within a real-life context. And I know that as busy teachers you want me to provide “easy to mark” solutions so you can get on with something else in your classroom. In just about all of my recent activities, I try to do this. This can mean providing a few examples of strategic thinking, or ways to solve a particular problem. For example, I provide sample definitions for you in Grades F/1/2 What 3D Object am I PICTURE CARDS ACMMG022 ACMMG043, or an example of responses to a mental warm-up in Grades 3/4  What do I know AREA Mental Warmups F123456. In Grades 5/6/7 Little Town Shopping Centre POSITION Activities (9 pages) ACMMG113, I provide plenty of checklists where your students can cross reference possible data to select a matching correct solution. Phew. It was incredibly complicated to do all this but hopefully they help to make your classroom management a little easier.

So just stop and take a big breath next time you are tempted to hand out a “worksheet” to your class. It may be easy to copy and mark but the quality of learning can never match the challenge of a stimulating, open-ended problem to solve in pairs or small groups. We want Australians of the future who can think for themselves, tackle challenges head-on, work co-operatively to achieve a common goal.