The History of Worksheets

Dear Reader,

As I began to review some of the Charlotte Mason-inspired curricula out there I was struck by just how ubiquitous worksheets have become. This got me thinking about the history of worksheets. When were they invented? Why are they used? How have they become to central to modern education?

A few Google searches later, I have learned a little, but not much. The first thing we need to think about is what technology is necessary for worksheets. I know in this day and age of chrome books in the classroom, worksheets seem pretty anti-technological, but they could not exist without certain other inventions: a lot of paper, cheaply made; good, cheap and reliable writing utensils; and a way to make lots of cheap copies of the same document. From Study.com’s “History of Technology in the Classroom” by Laura Gray, I have learned that while pencils became mass-produced around 1900, we didn’t get mimeograph machines till the 1940s. 

Other than the fact that we could, from the mid-1900s on, make worksheets (and whatever we can do, we tend to like to do), I don’t know why worksheets began. A little logic and some anecdotal web-evidence, however, will give us some possible reasons why they are used today:

  • Worksheets are easy to produce and use.  
  • Worksheets produce a paper trail that justifies to parents and administrators that education is happening.
  • Worksheets are easy to send home.
  • Worksheets help parents understand what is being learned (because educational practices change and how mom and dad learned math of spelling might not be how junior is being taught). 
  • Worksheets give the illusion of education. There is no guarantee that if I put the right answer in a blank today that I know the subject matter behind that factoid or that I will even be able to do the same thing tomorrow, btui worksheets give the illusion (at least) that something is being learned.
  • Worksheets provide an immediate sense of accomplishment and completion. While they may often be dull, some kids love worksheets. I have to confess I find them satisfying myself at times (and I am also the sort that likes filling out forms, most of the time).
  • In large classrooms, worksheets allow the teacher to keep tabs on each student’s progress in a quick, simple way to make sure that what has been taught is being learned. 

So what then are the downsides of worksheets?

  • Worksheets provide the illusion of learning but do not necessarily equate to actual learning.
  • Worksheets are most often shallow. They do not allow one to go into depth on a subject or demonstrate deep levels of learning.
  • Worksheets can be overwhelming. Anecdotal sources show that even kindergartners come home with 10+ worksheets a night as homework and this is in addition to worksheets which take up a lot of classroom time.
  • Worksheets are sedentary. Kids are often not innately sedentary. 
  • Worksheets often (though not always) require a degree of hand-eye coordination and writing ability which may stymie education. That is, a child may know the material btu have trouble reproducing it on paper (as this requires other skills that may not have developed). 
  • Worksheets are in essence rote learning. 
  • Worksheets are often used as “busywork.”
  • Worksheets don’t work. In “(Intellectual) Death by Worksheets in Today’s Schools” (Psychology Today, Spet. 12, 2018), Sephen Camarata argues that the decline in educational levels in America corresponds to the increase in homework and worksheets. 

The upshot of this, for us homeschool parents, is that we need to recognize the limitations of worksheets. With every sheet you place before your child, you should be asking yourself, what is my child going to get from this? There are times worksheets are helpful (math, for instance, lends itself well to sheets of practice problems). Most of us have been raised on worksheets ourselves (remember that purple ink? and the smell?) so we don’t question the method. We need to. Worksheets can be useful tools but they do not equal education.

Nebby

One response to this post.

  1. […] Because each child is a unique individual and because education is ultimately the work of God in his life, even when presented with the same materials, we should not expect every child to glean the same knowledge.  (Synthesizing Ideas; see also The History of Worksheets) […]

    Reply

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