(intellectual) Death by Worksheets in Today’s Schools

School has started and my email inbox is already full of messages from parents struggling to help their children meet the classwork and homework demands teachers are placing on them—and their children—in Kindergarten! Increasing numbers of worksheets and ever-increasing homework is one of the most discouraging trends in recent education “fads.” For those without children in kindergarten or first grade, it may come as a shock to learn that these five, six, and seven-year-olds are often expected to complete numerous worksheets both in class and at home. Further, when a student doesn’t finish a worksheet in class, this work is often piled on top of the already extensive homework which includes—you guessed it—worksheets.

One presumes that because completing worksheets has now become the center piece of primary education in the US that this instructional activity is directly associated with improvements in learning—and in achievement—in subjects such as math, science, and reading. But the data on US achievement scores as compared to the rest of the world indicates otherwise. Ironically, as more and more worksheets are pushed in earlier and earlier grades, and the more rote, boring homework is forced on developing minds, student outcomes in the US decline further. A recent report from the Pew Center for Research indicated “after years of growth, math proficiency of US students dips.[1]” And this decline is noteworthy because US achievement scores in fourth grade and eighth grade were already dismal: Only 34% of fourth graders and 27% of 8th graders were rated as proficient in math in 2011 and this declined to 33% for 4th graders and 25% for 8th graders in 2015 (the most recent year these data are available).

There is no way to put a positive spin these outcomes: Currently, more than two thirds of fourth-graders and three in four of eighth graders are not proficient in math! This ranks 38th in the world, behind not only many Asian (e.g., Taiwan and Singapore), Western European (e.g., Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) and Scandinavian countries (Finland, Denmark & Sweden), but far below countries with emerging economies and far less per pupil expenditures such as Macao and Vietnam.

Sadly, the results are not limited to mathematics. The US is currently ranked 24th in the world for science and reading, once again falling behind most Asian, European, and Asian countries, including Macao, Estonia, Slovenia and Poland. Once again, the per pupil education costs in most of these countries are far lower than the US, but with much better outcomes.[2]   

It is noteworthy that these declines have coincided with increases in the amount of homework and worksheets in schools at ever younger ages—even Kindergarteners are now expected to complete worksheets from the minute they walk into the first day of school.

This is sheer madness from a developmental perspective: Many five-year olds are just starting to be able to write letters and many do not have the hand coordination write legibly and rapidly. But even if these children could write, does it make sense to use worksheets and rote learning as a primary means for teaching concepts?

Whatever happened to innovative and engaging instruction that nurtured every child’s natural curiosity and love of learning new things when they entered Kindergarten? Instead, primary grades—including Kindergarten—now resemble worksheet “factories” wherein children laboring at their desks in drudgery reminiscent of the orphanage described in Charles Dickens’ classic book Oliver. The truth is that most worksheets are boring, repetitive and include a rather shallow level of information, and in fact are a very poor method of instruction. Especially when this rote practice is not augmented by “real world” lessons that foster thinking and problem solving. Worse, forcing young children to complete worksheets before their minds are ready for the information in that format and before their hands are ready to write is unreasonable and wrong-headed and potentially destroys their inherent enthusiasm for education and learning.

I started Kindergarten when I was four years old and, although I could read, I was not sufficiently coordinated to write. I was very fortunate indeed to have a wonderful teacher who read stories, presented science in the form of child friendly “learn by doing” natural experiments and an overarching, genuine enthusiasm for nurturing our natural curiosity. We never did any worksheets and “homework” consisted of plenty of free time and fresh air and an occasional assignment to collect leaves, rocks, different fabrics or photos to bring to class to discuss. I can honestly say that this “right start” has fostered a love of learning that is in no way diminished even to this day.

But what if I walked into Kindergarten class today? I would immediately be expected to sit in a desk and start filling in endless and monotonous paperwork (worksheets). My kindergarten didn’t even have desks, we sat on the floor on a carpet when the teacher read (or told) stories, but most of the time was spent moving about the classroom to various learning stations she had thoughtfully constructed. Although there is still some of that kind of teaching available today, sadly in most schools there is a primary emphasis on filling out worksheets.  Worse, Kindergarteners are expected to do homework with—you guessed it—worksheets nearly every night. Looking back, there is no way I could have done that in Kindergarten—I was simply too immature. My guess, based on the emails I have been receiving in recent years from parents whose children are struggling to handle the work(sheet) load, is that I would have been identified as having some kind of disability such as ADHD and put on medication or some other form of remedial education so I would comply with the endless, decade long worksheet assembly line.

Moreover, parents should be extensively involved their child’s education. A skilled teacher will encourage questions about what they are teaching, why they are teaching particular lessons, and how these lessons are being taught. Families shouldn’t hesitate to ask every child’s teacher about any worksheet and homework assignments. Parents are entitled to reasonable answers as to what is being assigned and what teachers expect a student to learn so that parents can be an active partner in their child’s education—and to requests changes in the assignments if they are not reasonable.

One could argue that Kindergartens in the US should become “worksheet free zones” with a focus on nurturing their developing minds and ensuring a lifelong love of reading and learning and that worksheets should be used very judiciously and with a focused purpose only after a child matures and developed the reasoning skills and solid knowledge base that support later achievement—and test taking ability.  

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internation… accessed 9/9/2018

[2] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmd.asp accessed 9/9/2018

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