- Worksheets do not teach. Worksheets (the question-answer or paper pencil type activity) are just busy work, or as one author so eloquently stated, “They’re easy. They’re painless. They require little lesson planning.”
- Worksheets do not encourage students to learn. If a worksheet is too easy, the student learns nothing and becomes bored. If the student does not know the material covered by the worksheet, the student is either practicing mistakes or becoming more and more frustrated until eventually giving up. Frustration over a worksheet can actually reduce a student’s motivation for learning. A simple set of directions at the top of the page is not the same as teaching a concept.
- Worksheets do not lead to long-term meaningful learning. A student achieves meaningful learning when information is completely understood. That is not the same as mere memorization. Worksheets do not promote meaningful learning. “The mere accomplishment of the worksheet task does not signify the child’s ability to read or comprehend.” Even when a student can complete a worksheet correctly, it still doesn’t guarantee that the student has learned the concept being taught.
- Worksheets only test rote memory. Worksheets do not encourage critical thinking or creativity, and they do not connect with real life experiences. “Rote memory allows for memorization of base information, but it doesn’t put that information into any sort of context. The lack of context for complex subjects mean that the student has not learned anything about what they are studying.”
As one 20-year teacher said, “Our goal as professional educators should be lessons that encourage divergent thinking [complex, higher order analysis, critical thinking], not convergent thinking [just learning facts or memorizing].
So, Why Do We Have So Many Worksheets?
Because they’re easy to use and require very little effort. Let’s be honest. With the mere click of a button, you can find hundreds and thousands of worksheets. There are worksheets on almost every topic. There are worksheets for every age level.
Is that what we want for our students?
I certainly do not, and I will go one step further. Worksheets have also contributed to academic failure, especially reading failure. Remember, the Nation’s Report Card reported that reading scores in 2019 were worse than scores in 2017. That means that more students were struggling or failing in reading in 2019 than in 2017. [see my 10-31-19 blog post] As we continue to explore the 20 reasons why those scores were lower in 2019, I contend that the overuse of worksheets in the classroom is one of those reasons.
Another way of stating the problem:
“Imagine you’re taking a test in history class. To prepare, you look at your notes and re-read your textbook. You take the exam and get a decent score. Great! But what happens if you take that same exam without revision in 6 months? A year? You’ll likely get a much lower score. That’s because you didn’t really learn that material. You memorized it for a single purpose and have since forgotten.
"Retaining information can be a struggle, and not just over long periods of time as described above. You can be taught something and forget it almost immediately if it doesn’t sink in. Hands-on learning is proven to be more effective at helping students grasp what they’re taught.”
What is hands-on learning? Hands-on learning is a teaching method that directly involves the student by actively encouraging the student to “learn-by-doing.” Hands-on learning is better than the “hands-off” learning approach.
- “Hands-off” means to give students a problem, and they must figure out how to work out the solution to that problem without help.
- “Hands-on” incorporates the principles of what’s being taught (usually by a teacher but not through lecture) with participation in activities that teach and reinforce the principles being taught.
Hands-on-Learning Encourages Application to the Real-World
For example, I use hands-on learning in all of my reading programs. At the Reading Orienteering Club, information is taught at every single workstation. Every workstation teaches:
(1) information on a theme—for example, the history of spaceflight, (2) a counseling principal—for example, how to work together as a cooperative team, not a competitive one, and (3) vowel clustering—whichever vowel sound is being studied for that day. I call these: “Start with Teamwork, Follow the Word Clues, Take Action, and Are You Ready for a Challenge?” Each section provides information to be taught in an intrinsically motivating, hands-on way. Students must not only learn the concept being taught, but they must also learn to follow step-by-step directions to complete a hands-on project, and at the end they must come together as a cooperative group to present a group program on the concept that was taught—usually a make-believe TV puppet show. Completing a hands-on project (puppet) or make-believe TV show gives students an intrinsically motivating sense of achievement. Success really is contagious, and learning can be fun. Hands-on learning is also a more effective way to teach: “Hands-on learning is proven to be more effective at helping students grasp what they’re taught. There’s no shortage of studies that show hands-on learning has a significant impact:”
“One study compared test scores of 8th graders who were lectured about water quality with students who built a water purification device. The students who went through active learning saw much higher test scores and improvement rates.”
- “Another study found that students who didn’t engage in hands-on learning were 1.5 times more likely to fail a course than students who did.”
- “Hands-on learning better engages both sides of the brain.”
- “Listening and analyzing processes occur in the left hemisphere, but visual and spatial processes are handled on the right. By combining multiple styles of learning, the brain forms stronger overall connections and is able to store more relevant information.”
- “Brain scans also show increased activity in sensory and motor-related areas of the brain when thinking about concepts they had hands-on experience with. Being able to touch and see something is simply more powerful than only reading about it.”
Can We Use Hands-On Teaching with Online Instruction or Social Distancing?
I believe we can, but with the schools closed and the on-line teaching reports from this spring showing dismal results, we certainly need to improve. To be fair, some teachers and schools have been successful this spring, but, then, to be truthful, some have not.
In a 2020 special report on education during the coronavirus lockdown, Class Tag reported:
“68.8% of teachers relied on worksheets and/or prepared written study packets”
“49.9% did not use any form of live video streaming or had any plans to”
“only 12.7% said that they would use a live video lesson or streaming [in the future].”
The response from parent groups is not much better.
When the survey responses from parents with a household income of less than $25,000 a year were compared with households of $100,000 a year, the effectiveness of online remote learning this spring was very different. For example:
- “Parents from low-income homes are ten times more likely to say their kids are doing little or no remote learning (once a week or less) (38% vs. 3.7%)”
- “Kids from low-income homes are three times more likely not to have consistent access to a device (32% vs 10%) and five times more likely to go to a school not offering distance learning materials or activities at all (11% vs 2%).”
- “Parents from low income homes are twice as likely to say remote learning is going poorly or very poorly (36% vs. 18%) and are more likely to say their kid’s work is mostly or entirely busy work (35% vs. 19%).”
Hands-on teaching techniques were not being used in the school districts surveyed by these studies. Worksheets, even the cut and paste type worksheets, are not a hands-on teaching technique.
We do know that creative hands-on teaching has been used successfully in the classroom. Many studies clearly show that hands-on teaching techniques have made “a significant impact:”
My reading clinics have proven this as well. See the research data in my latest book: Afterschool Programming and Intrinsic Motivation (2019).
The question is, can hands-on teaching techniques be used in a classroom that is practicing social distancing? Or with on-line education?
Let’s look at the classroom first, but before we answer that question, let us take a look at what classrooms may be like in the fall if schools reopen. The Los Angeles County schools published a document outlining a plan for safely reopening their schools following the necessity of social distancing. This is only one example, but it was the only published plan that I could locate. I’m sure more will become available soon. They decided:
- They would need to abandon the long-held traditions of playtime, socialization, and hands-on support.
- This would in effect mean no science labs, no team sports, no recess, and no group work.
- They were not at all sure how they would keep kindergartners or other young students 6 feet apart.
- They also weren’t sure how to get students to wear masks all day. And how do you keep students from “fiddling with or taking the mask off.” Another question, was what to do if a child comes to school without a mask or refuses to wear a mask?
- It was decided that students would remain in the classroom for lunch and eat at their desks—which are, naturally, spaced 6 feet apart.
- All desks must be 6 feet apart and facing the same direction, no groups or desks facing each other or pushed together, no table time, or carpet areas.
- Hallway traffic would be designated as only one-way at certain intervals in order to avoid contact.
- Class sizes must be cut. Maybe some students could come to school in the morning and then others in the afternoon. The question of what to do with students only attending school for half the day was never resolved.
- Classroom libraries and books would be impossible to sanitize each day and therefore must be packed away.
- School library time would be closed for the same reason.
- The school would have to purchase each student’s personal equipment—masks, crayons, pencils, paper, or whatever is needed for that age level.
The report made going back to school in the fall sound rather bleak. On May 20, 2020, USA Today reported that 60% of K-12 parents surveyed said that they did not plan to send their children back to public school in the fall. Most said that they would be looking into “at-home learning options.” Even 20% of teachers surveyed said that they do not plan to return to the classroom in the fall, not under the present conditions.
Hands-on learning does not seem to have much chance. I’m not sure learning of any kind will have much of a chance.
The Los Angeles group even admitted that “the diminishing of play, lunch table chatter, and personal contact could hurt students if such measures continue in the long term.”
I foresee a mountain of worksheets, with teachers saying, "what else am I to do?" Keep in mind that worksheets can be just as easily assigned through a student’s personal school computer as they can by passing out a piece of paper. As one teacher said, “They thought they had taken worksheets away when they limited copier paper, but then, they gave each student a computer. It’s even easier now.”
Learning is doomed if worksheets prevail. Yet, I do see the problems.
As a matter of fact, my Reading Orienteering Club after-school program will remain closed in the fall because I do not think it is safe for children to come back into a classroom group program. Furthermore, my program would also not be as effective without hands-on learning. Therefore, I am looking for other options. I’m working this summer to develop an on-line program.
What about online instruction? Is it possible to use hands-on teaching techniques with on-line instruction?
Some teachers are saying that, with online instruction, we do not have any option other than to use worksheets, but remember, children do not learn from worksheets.
Are worksheets the only option for online instruction?
I say, no. Let me offer an example.
If ever there was a time that we as teachers, parents, and psychologists need to teach kindness, thinking of the needs of others, equality, being nonjudgmental, justice for everyone, saying nice words about others instead of name calling, it is now. We need to find a positive, forward-thinking educational lesson, and there is one just waiting to be taught. It’s an event that can easily be taught through online education. It’s an event that can be taught without worksheets. It can even utilize hands-on learning techniques. It’s an event that’s free. It’s an event that can teach reading, spelling, writing, history, science, and even math. It’s an event that will forever be part of the history of 2020, and today’s students are living participants of this historical event. The event that I speak of is the launch that took place on May 30, 2020 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Yes, this one historical event can give you a weeks’ worth of lessons on cooperation, being kind, helpful, saying thank you, and giving others credit instead of trying to claim the glory for yourself. These are lessons that we should be teaching right alongside reading, writing, and math.
Let’s start with reading.
- You’ll want to view the historic launch of May 30, 2020.
- Next, add some background material for older readers. I selected this site because it is well written and fun to read. Children and teens will be encouraged to read and learn. The reporter actually checked the facts. Note, that it was written before the failed May 27th scrubbed mission, but it takes this into account. This allows you to explain some of the complexities of space flight.
- I then have my older students be the reporter. They write their own TV report on the launch. They may even want to rewatch the video. They may write a short paragraph or a longer report-- depending on their age. At this point you have supplied visual information from the video, written information to be read, writing practice, and a check on comprehension and accuracy of facts. You accomplished reading writing and comprehension without one single worksheet. You may even be able to work spelling and vocabulary into the lesson as well.
- You can extend the hands-on techniques by videotaping the student’s TV report. The student can practice reading the TV report which is the best way to improve fluency, and you can edit the written TV report which allows you to teach grammatical sentence structure. So far, you have taught history, a bit of science if you go into details on the rocket, reading, writing, comprehension, and reading fluency.
- If you are working with only younger children, add a video summary of your own. Then, have children make the Falcon 9 rocket sitting on the launch pad. It’s simple:
- Wrap a sheet of white paper around a paper towel tube, empty water bottle, or even tissue holders. If you are using 3 tissue holders, you will need to tape or glue them together before adding the paper.
- Wad a piece of aluminum foil into a round ball, preferably a clean piece ready for recycling.
- Place a thick circle of glue in the middle of a sheet of white copier paper. Place foil in the middle of the glue. Shape paper around the foil to make the rounded nose cone. [see picture at top of page]
- Glue rounded nose cone on top of the paper towel tube rocket.
- Add streamers for fire. Even the youngest children can replay the launch countdown.
I also include a pop-up version, but pop-ups take more space, patterns, and explanation than this blog post allows. The student’s pop-up book also covers each stage from launch to recovery. This picture illustrates the return of the Falcon 9 to earth.
Another site breaks the teaching material into age groups. if you are not sure what is appropriate for the age of your student, this site does it for you. Yes, it’s hands-on.
Depending where your interest or lesson is going, this site tells how to build a satellite or a rover that actually moves. Think of the science and history you can teach. Yes, we really can teach without worksheets.
There are hands-on resources that are easily accessible about earth, the atmosphere, climate, or even how we can improve the air we breathe. There is also a Junior Ranger program celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program. Everything is right at your fingertips. There’s even a wonderful interactive site about climate and weather.
Maybe you are not as excited about outer space as I am. If your interest does not lie in outer space, here are a few sources you might check out as well:
Part 2 of my suggestions for free education resource materials
If you are able to get outside and go for a hike, this is a wonderful guide on what to do while you’re practicing social distancing and soaking up a little sunshine.
There are more virtual tours. Check these out.
- Some are repeats but look at the “Lion King” and “National Parks.” These are totally new and very exciting.
- This salt mine is certainly interesting. You can have students write a story pretending they are visiting in the salt mine. Be creative. It can be a mystery or an adventure story. You can teach writing and sentence construction as easily with fiction as you can with nonfiction.
- Do a tour of the states. Pick one location and research it. Then write up a travel report.
- Don’t forget volcanoes, you can teach science, history, and language arts by exploring volcanoes.
- BrainPOP offers an excellent lesson on birds.
- If you have not explored the live stream presentations from Monticello, I highly recommend them, especially the ones featuring the actor speaking for Thomas Jefferson.
There’s lots to explore, and many ways to teach using hands on learning. Use Schoology as I recommended in my last blog post It’s free. This will make it easy for children to link onto the websites that you want them to use.
Regardless whether we send children back to school to sit 6 feet apart and work individually on their school computers or teach children from home, we can incorporate hands-on learning. We do not need to resort to worksheets. We can also use hands-on teaching techniques with on-line learning. Our children deserve the best that we can give them.