Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Philip Larkin – Toads

Many people (and many students) seem to expend considerable energy in attempting to use their wits to drive off the need to work. This provokes the ire of others (often teachers) who consider it character forming and good for them and I-had-to-do-it so-why-shouldn’t-you?

The ability to work hard and get on with difficult and onerous tasks is a terribly important life skill and I expend a fair bit of my energy in convincing children to pull their fingers out, wind their necks in and get on with it.

But what of worksheets? Surely the ‘umble worksheet is harmless enough? We’ve all used them: a sheet of paper with a series of exercises for students to get on with while we sharpen our pencils, slurp down our cooling coffee and catch up on our marking. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, let’s make an important distinction. A worksheet is not just an instruction written on a piece of paper. It’s a series of activities designed to give students work to do. The goal is to keep them busy and is not primarily concerned with whether they learn anything. My particular bête noir is the downloaded worksheet. I hate these with an unreasoning passion and have seen some truly awful lesson based on nonsense from Teachit or other similar sites.

I entered into a discussion recently about the merits (or otherwise) of the worksheet. I took the view that they’re a bad thing and was eventually confronted with the question “What part of the word ‘work’ don’t you understand?”

Now, being an English teacher, and a fairly loquacious one at that, I’m fairly sure I understand the entirety of the word; particularly the way ‘work’ and ‘learning’ are distinct concepts. But just in case I did a spot of digging. There’s an exhaustive list at dictionary.com but, restricting myself to just nouns, here’s what the word means:

1. exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil.
2. something on which exertion or labour is expended; a task or undertaking: The students finished their work in class
3. productive or operative activity.
4. employment, as in some form of industry, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood: to look for work.
5. materials, things, etc., on which one is working or is to work.
6. the result of exertion, labor, or activity; a deed or performance.

I think we can safely dismiss the other meanings as not pertinent to a discussion of worksheets.

So, which of these meanings suggest that worksheets are worthwhile? Let’s tackle them one at a time:

1. exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something – As I’ve said, I’m certainly not against students having to exert themselves. In fact, I think encouraging hard work is crucial to their success. My issue with the worksheet is that it is, more often than not, the very definition of low expectations. Filling is a worksheet is easy. Composing extended written answers is hard. I’ll warrant that few students sit back after completing their worksheets with anything like a sense of accomplishment. But I could be wrong.
2. something on which exertion or labour is expended – Yup. This certainly defines a worksheet. But the benefit? The point? Simply working for it’s own sake cannot be a reasonable expectation for students. Filling in worksheets is bland, meaningless busywork and everyone deserves better.
3. productive or operative activity – the worksheet is only productive in that it keeps students occupied and that they produce an untidy series of scrawls which are promptly binned. The key word here is ‘activity’; it’s no good making students active without any kind of end. The business of students is learning, not being active and not working. Activity and work are merely means to an end.
4. employment, as in some form of industry, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood – there’s a can of worms right there. Work implies livelihood and whilst we could argue that class work and worksheets might result (eventually) in some sort of job, the problem with requiring someone to work is that it’s an agreement that normally results in some sort of quid pro quo. You’re not doing it for nowt, so why should they? Obviously I don’t suggest we should be paying them, but we ought to make it worth their while. What’s the point of that worksheet? Is it learning? No? Well, bin it before they fill it in and cut out the middle man.
5. materials, things, etc., on which one is working or is to work. Hmm. Quite.
the result of exertion, labor, or activity; a deed or performance – a that’s another problem with worksheets: there’s precious little to show for them.

Now, I suppose there must be well thought out, thought provoking worksheets that have a significant impact on learning but, quite frankly, if you’re going to invest all that effort into creating such an artefact you really should be spending your time more productively. I’d urge all those teachers slaving away at creating resources to spend more of their time marking books. This has much more impact on kids’ learning and, incidentally, generally makes them work a damn sight harder too.

Filling in worksheets is a waste of students’ time, creating worksheets is a waste of teachers’ time and copying worksheets is a waste of paper! The ultimate condemnation of the worksheet is where it ends up: the bin.

Maybe you disagree? Feel free to defend the merits of the worksheet below.

Alternatively, you could just complete this wordsearch:

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