It was a Saturday morning, and I saw these:

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And shortly after that:

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That question was phrased in a scientific way, which I liked so it got me thinking, “what is the definition of ‘worksheet’ anyway?” I came up with a couple of quick thoughts:

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A few people seemed interested in that (it got retweeted by 32 others), so perhaps I was on to something. And, even if I wasn’t on to something, I found it to be a topic that deserved further consideration. Consider it considered.

Now, there must be some kind of generally accepted preexisting definition or worksheet, right? Google has it covered with:

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Definition 1 is the one of interest. I do not know how Google comes up with their definitions but this one is about as good as any I found elsewhere and is fine, although a bit simplistic, for our purposes.

I have been meaning to do some word research on a different topic using the Google Books Ngram Viewer and this seemed like a good time to learn a little more about it. Below you see a graph of the frequency of occurrence of  the word “worksheet” since it’s earliest appearance (about 1886) in the Google books data set. I tried to embed an interactive graph viewer but couldn’t get it to fit in the space properly.  If you click on the graph it will take you to the proper Ngram page. (If you want to try your own word analysis go to


Google generated plot of frequency of use of the term "worksheet" in books

Frequency of use of the term “worksheet” in books


It looks like “worksheet” in its various forms peaked at around 1995. Hey, we’re on a downward trend! Not so fast. Maybe people just don’t like using the term so much anymore in its computer science context, or perhaps “scratch paper” has supplanted its use according to definition 2 above. I did another analysis for “math worksheet” and “science worksheet” and the result is much more interesting.


Google generated plot of frequency of use of the term "math worksheet" or "science worksheet" in books

Frequency of use of the term “math worksheet” or “science worksheet” in books


Whoa! Look at that rising trend in the appearance of “math worksheet” in books of all kinds. It is interesting to note that “science worksheet” was reported to have only  a single occurrence in the data set.

Sure, the term “worksheet” conjures up pretty much the same image in just about everyone’s mind when they hear it. A worksheet is a collection of some combination of silly, cute, mindless, boring problems to solve in a mechanical (rote) way. Worksheets are the classic example of a “kill and drill” approach to practice and learning. A lot of them are like that, and they do come out pretty low on the critical thinking scale. If you are fan of Bloom’s taxonomy they tend to be at the first (knowledge/remember)  or second (understand/comprehension) level. It is this reputation as an almost cruel way of getting learning to happen, that has led to a real backlash against worksheets in recent years. And, they are cruel if someone is made to do them even if they have mastered the material that they contain. That is just torture. Or more kindly put, “busy work.”

I am pretty sure that Frank Noschese (@fnoschese) is not a big fan of the old kill and drill style worksheets but also doesn’t think that all worksheets have to be that way. I’d bet that Sean Junkin’s (@sjunkins) would be wiling to agree that not all worksheets are created equal. And, Alex Shevrin (@shevtech) is essentially correct in that worksheets have their place. If I am wring, I’ll hope they’ll engage in some discussion.

The problem is, that the single one-size-fits-all definition of worksheet is in need of an update. Here’s what I am going to start using.

Rep Sheet—A set of problems that are strictly skill based, designed to reinforce and remember how to reliably perform important algorithms or techniques of problem solving and for memorization of facts. Examples would be sets based on math facts (multiplication, addition, subtraction, division) and the algorithms used to find sums, differences, products and quotients. A science example would be a set of problems on calculating densities, volumes and masses.

Practice Sheet—A set of tasks designed to be more active that the simple performance of rote skills. Some data would need to be organized or some measurements taken, then questions about the data or measurements wold be answered. An example would be a sheet asking for the average temperature of the room, taken from 9 different measurements around the room with a digital thermometer.

Think Sheet—Presentation of one or a few open-ended problems to which the method of finding a solution is not immediately obvious, or there is more than one way to go about it. A Think Sheet could also simply pose a problem or ask a question that requires more that recollection of facts or methods to be able to solve or answer. “How would you find the average temperature of the air in this room?” and extensions based on this initial question.

Kind of weak on dividing fractions? Here’s a Fraction Division Rep Sheet. Forgot how to use a protractor? Try this Measuring Angles Practice Sheet. So you are done with the unit on photosynthesis? Here’s a Think Sheet providing some data on the typical photosynthetic rates on a sunny day of nine plants in three different plant families. Where would you expect a sunflowers to fit into this data set and why?

So for an operation definition of worksheet, I say get rid of the word entirely and replace it with better more specific and meaningful definitions. Because, when it comes to “worksheets” one size definitely does not fit all.





Modeling an undersea volcano

Modeling an undersea volcano

There are grand slams and slam dunks. You can slam someone’s idea, slam dance or participate in a poetry slam. How about a learning slam? I tried it. I like it. Kids like it.

My version of a Learning Slam is loosely based on the so-called “FedEx Day” at the Australian software firm Atlassian, and described by Daniel Pink in his book Drive. You can read about that if you want, but in a Learning Slam, small groups of learners have one class period (about an hour and a half) to produce a product to demonstrate their understanding of a topic and present it to the class.

Although I thought of the idea myself, I am not the first person to use the term “Learning Slam.” I was hoping to see what other people had come up with so I could adapt, modify and build upon rather than invent something, but the only reference to a Learning Slam I found was from Zoe Parish, Instructional Technology Resource Teacher in Goochland, VA. And, I couldn’t tell if that Learning Slam was much like what I had in mind. I think it is likely that this is being done by others, but under a different name.

Learning Slam in Science

I had (gulp) given out a few worksheets recently. I did not want to keep doing that. We were finishing up on plate tectonics and getting ready to go into the history of life on Earth. We needed something more interesting, more engaging, that included elements of project-based learning, student choice, collaboration, creativity and problem solving. There was already a major project-based assessment lined up for the unit (Plate Tectonics and Geologic Time, 7th grade) so it needed to be a more finite learning activity that could be completed in a short time. Enter the Learning Slam.

The students were in groups of three or four. For the morning class each group was assigned a topic (undersea volcanoes, earthquake resistant buildings, the San Andreas Fault, deep sea trenches,  shield volcanoes, etc.). A four step outline of how to proceed was given:

1) Research the topic.

2) Discuss, learn and teach each other about the topic.

3) Create a list of resources used to learn about the topic.

4) Create a final product and use it to teach the rest of the class about it.

More than one person can work on a time line at once.

More than one person can work on a timeline at once

No other instructions were given up front. Go!

It was an impressive thing to observe. The kids were totally engaged and worked hard to complete their project in the given time. Allowing for presentations, there was about an hour of work time available. The degree of cooperation was high and the outcomes were diverse. Some projects were done using technological tools, others involved colored paper, markers and cardboard. Final products ranged from models, Keynote presentations, and movies made with iMovie and Explain Everything, to posters and cartoon drawings.

Based on the first period experience I modified the afternoon procedure slightly. The only change was I that instead of assigning topics I asked the groups to come up with their own topics for approval, and I made a few suggestions here and there as needed.

Learning Slam in Math

Could a Learning Slam work in math class? Although I have not tried one yet I am quite sure it can. I have a few ideas (well, one for now anyway).

We will soon be studying data analysis using box and whisker plots. I am going to set out triple beam balances and different sets of shapes that appear to be identical. The shapes I have in mind are: two different sizes of wooden cubes, large and small plastic geometric shapes, maybe some unsharpened wooden pencils (maybe even some newly sharpened one—hey, what about sets of pencils, some of which were all sharpened by a single person, and some sets that were sharpened by a bunch of different people?) or piles of pens. I’m thinking 10-12 in a set. Teams will  analyze the masses of a set of the shapes and compare their results with the results of the other groups. Are the mass distributions of the sets similar? How similar? Why might some sets be more self-similar than others? Can you explain that? Does it even matter? Would your conclusions be the same if you were working with a sample size of 20? What about 30? Is a box plot the best way to compare the masses of these sets of objects? What other ways of analyzing and thinking about the data might work, or be more or less useful?

I can think of other ways to go about this. For example, maybe an activity like this should be done at the end of the data analysis unit and teams would have to think about and choose an appropriate method of analysis without me choosing one for them. I’m looking forward to it.

Iterating the Learning Slam

Motor-driven earthquake simulator

Motor-driven earthquake simulator

Feedback from the kids is almost universally positive (almost). A number of kids enthusiastically requested that we do more Learning Slams.  The only real concern expressed has been about the short time allowed, which some students—especially the detail oriented ones—find a bit stressful. But you know what? That is an authentic reality. You do not have unlimited time to complete tasks in your life or at work. Not everything has to be perfect. You have to make tradeoffs and focus on the important parts of a thing.

The biggest challenge for me moving forward will be to find meaningful learning activities that can realistically be accomplished in the allotted time that effectively support the learning goals. The one I tried in a later class period requiring a representation of the geologic history of the earth turned out to be a bit too big to handle in a little over an hour. I’ll work on that one.