Why we banned maths worksheets

6th November 2017 at 15:27
Getting rid of maths worksheets allows you to take greater control of your classroom, says one maths teacher

We don't use maths worksheets in our school. Ever. This might shock some people to hear, especially in a climate where teachers have to perform a juggling act: planning, marking, assessing and so on. But this decision was not taken lightly.

There are many fantastic resources out there in the form of worksheets, such as those produced by Nrich or NCETM. However, there are at least an equal number of not so useful worksheets. 

We've all been there. Sunday evening, marking to finish and lessons to prepare. In these moments, a ready-made worksheet can seem to tick a lot of boxes. But now, more than ever, with the emergence of the mastery approach, we know how important the right questions are – not a variety of questions on a worksheet designed to target a range of learners at different levels, therefore maximising their audience. Don’t get me wrong; I love that teachers share materials and appreciate having a resource ready. However, we need the appropriate variation that suits the needs of the specific class. This can’t be pitched at the appropriate level by anyone other than the teacher of that class.

Just as we need a balanced diet for what we eat, children need a varied and balanced "diet" when they are taught mathematics. A constant diet of worksheets, where only the answer is required, is not healthy for the children or teacher. They are boring to do and make maths lessons boring for everyone in the room. Would you expect a diet of "fill the missing word in" for every English lesson? Of course not. Why, then, is this acceptable in a maths lesson?

Children 'more engaged in maths'

At my school, we have come up with a different approach. We develop a set of learning questions for a particular year group, making sure that they are open questions that allow all children to access the same learning, but at different levels. These low-threshold, high-ceiling activities help us to avoid the trap of recreating worksheets. 

The practice and application part of the lesson normally involves open-ended activities designed to allow learners to take ownership of the learning and make connections across and within concepts. Our learning questions focus on the skill involved rather than the procedure. For example, we might have a learning question that reads: "How can we use our understanding of triangles to find missing angles?" This task will involve quadrilaterals and other polygons; however, the skill we are developing is the relationship between triangles and these shapes.

Our new approach to devising maths questions is time-consuming and it did take time to get everyone on board with it. But the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

Children are now more responsive to maths. The subject is no longer reduced to answering an unending list of questions. And if you finish your work, guess what? You get another task to work on. Pupils are no longer so keen to rush through the first activity and have become more resilient as a result. They realise that getting the right answer isn’t always the most important thing and that what counts is whether they actually understand the maths involved.

I appreciate that people will have differing views on this, but I would suggest giving it a go – you might even enjoy designing your own lessons. Break the chains of worksheets and take control of your teaching.

Stevie Devlin is a Year 6 teacher and maths lead at Bursted Wood Primary School in Kent. He tweets @devlin_steven

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