Open-ended Tasks: Worksheets???

We have begun to have some discussions about multiple entry points.  Given that our classes are not homogeneous, if we really want all students to be engaged and challenged, then it would make sense that students can enter the work at the point where they are comfortable.  Creating multiple entry points requires the teacher to see the big idea which is permeating the lesson and to understand that all work students do, builds on something else they know.  It requires the teacher to know how students evolve in their understanding towards that big idea.

For example, students may come to math with little or no knowledge about solving for the area of a circle.  They may not know pi, radius and diameter.  However, they do know what area is and they do know what circles are.  Students may not come to geography knowing the factors that influence migration, but they have probably all moved, they know about making decisions, they have worked with maps and graphs.

When we are thinking about multiple entry points, it is worth thinking about how we present work to students.  As a teacher, I have spent countless hours scouring teacher workbooks looking for the perfect worksheet or textbook page.  I almost never found one.  Does that mean we should never give out worksheets????

Worksheets are nice because…

…you can prepare them in advance

…they are easy to mark

…kids are generally quiet while working on them

…they can provide good practice of topics learned if I am at the   practice stage

However, there are numerous drawbacks to worksheets as well…

    1. They are  very hard to differentiate.  As a kid either you know it or you don’t.  Most worksheets are not open-ended and do not provide for a  variety of responses.  That is fine for some things but not for others.  If you know all the answers then you are done very quickly without having been challenged.  If you  don’t know the answers then you are simply stuck and probably can’t       resort to what you do know to help you.   Open-ended tasks are much more likely to engage a variety of  levels of learners.
    1. A bundle of pre-photocopied worksheets assumes that you as the teacher already know what the kids will need to practice before they have even begun to learn the topic.  If we are heading       towards formative assessment driving instruction, it is hard to determine in advance how much and what kinds of practice students need.  And the bundle of worksheets suggests  that all of your students will need the same kind of practice.
    1. Often  worksheets provide practice on skills in isolation but not in context.  For example, a worksheet that requires students to put end punctuation rarely transfers to students using end punctuation correctly in their written work.  Students can practice using a formula but will they understand when to use the formula or what to do if they forget the formula?
    1. Many  worksheets can be completed without the student actually having to think  very hard.  Lots of worksheets  require one word answers and, sometimes,  a lot of colouring.  When choosing a worksheet you want to  ensure that deep thinking is required.

When you are determining whether or not to give the worksheet, you may wish to ask:

–          Will I know more about what my students know and don’t know after they complete this worksheet?

–          Is there a more authentic way to get at the same information?

–          Will it be challenging for those students who already “get it”?

–          Will it support the learning of those students who are struggling or will it be “task completed” for them?

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