By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. After three decades of fascination with all things early childhood education, I still wonder where the future path will lead? What will the the field of early childhood education look like 25 years from now? Morrison (2004) asked that question over a decade ago and made some predictions including a move from a “romantic/developmental” to a “rational/cognitive approach” (p. 1) that correlates with a shift from child-centred to teacher-centred practice. Teacher-centred is not teacher dominated, directed, and dictated. “It does not mean straight rows and worksheets. It does mean that teachers are and will be held more accountable for children’s learning” (p. 3). The future role of the early childhood educator will be defined instead by Vygotsky’s “social/cultural” theories (p. 1). As an advocate and follower of Vygotsky’s theories when I read Morrison’s predication back in 2004, I was thrilled but now, over ten years later, I am concerned that developmentally inappropriate “worksheets” still seem prevalent. I am not the only one concerned. Take a look at these images of the worksheet examples that came up when I “Googled” preschool and kindergarten worksheet images.
I will admit that I used worksheets and gave them to my own children when they were young. I remember being concerned that some children scribbled on the page rather than connected the dots, or drew a line to match the letter to picture or filled in the number of apples on the page. I understood that developmentally they were not ready for the worksheet but how could I put out worksheets for some and not for others and what do I do with the scribbled worksheets? I remember worrying about the parent’s possible reaction – would they think that their children failed at a task? It didn’t take long for me to abandon the use of worksheets and I have never looked back. Worksheets are not the future, should not be the present and should stay firmly in the past. We know better ways to approach literacy and mathematical outcomes. Still I hear some say that parents want worksheets. I don’t see that as a reason for utilizing worksheets because as a professional, an early childhood educator should recognize the inappropriateness and be able to take a more playful and hands–on approach to meeting outcomes supported by research. Parents may want worksheets because of their own past experiences. Parents are, themselves, products of a curriculum that supported worksheets, cutouts, and themes. Parents may feel pressure to have the children ready for the next grade level, and they associate the practice of worksheets with the school model. In trying to duplicate a school model, child care programs use instructional group experiences, construction paper cut outs (i.e., turkeys at Thanksgiving, pumpkins at Halloween, and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day) and worksheets to “teach” the children. With the habits of practice entrenched, this legacy of a school model for child care will become the norm and we will have “straight rows and worksheets” rather than a community of learners socially constructing with a multiplicity of materials. Worksheets in contrast to Reggio inspired mathematical invitations are visually very different and this is significant. Look what appeared when I “Googled” mathematical invitations Reggio inspired.
Worksheets are a passive task with children often reminded to “keep their eyes on their own work”. This certainly will not lead us to early childhood education defined by Vygotksy’s social cultural theories. Some may argue that some children enjoy using them. I think these same children, will also enjoy more open ended experiences and will have more of a chance to be creative and individually expressive. Worksheets do not allow for creativity or individual expression and offer very little in the form of skill development. I have seen worksheets that are very open ended and do not require children to fill in predetermined answers. These are different. Some children also enjoy colouring books and tracing sheets but they too have limited inherent opportunities for skill development. I worry for the many children that find worksheets frustrating or difficult and wonder what we are doing to their motivation and creativity. I remember being called to meet with my son’s senior kindergarten teacher who was concerned that his teddy bears were multi-coloured and he didn’t stay within the lines. When she showed me the worksheet and expressed her concern, I bit my tongue and remained silent, worried about fueling her already apparent dislike of my inquisitive, active, hyper, creative and verbal son whose fine motor and social skills lagged behind his peers. He had a rough year in senior kindergarten and many more to follow. What would school have been like for him, if there had not been worksheets? I have heard the view that it is difficult to “teach” letters and numbers without worksheets. I am here to say, that I know it is possible! In this blog post I will address numbers and in a future post, I will take a look at letters and discuss why it is possible to “just say no” to worksheets. Recently, I had two young friends visit at my cottage. I had an opportunity to “kid test” some of loose parts, particularly small world minatures. I was especially excited to hear Kalina talk math as she created her small world exclaiming to her Mom that she “divided the pie in half”.
I am preparing to teach two sections of a fourth year early childhood education, math course at Ryerson University and thinking ahead at how I will address beliefs that worksheets are okay. I am so inspired by the work of Janice Novakowski and the teachers from the Richmond School District, that I plan on creating some math kits to demonstrate how outcomes can be met in ways that support children’s curiosity, inquisitiveness, creativity and playful nature. I am grateful to my friend, Cindy Green for supporting me with my crazy ideas with enthusiasm and excitement. I don’t see this little project as work, but as a playful and joyful experience to co-construct these kits together.
I learned about the math kits from the book, Reggio-Inspired Mathematics and grateful for the power of Twitter and the opportunity to directly connect with Janice. I asked and she kindly sent the list of materials for each kit. I will be putting together a set of math kits and sharing with my students the three formats for mathematical provocations. As described by Gandini (1998) provocation is something arriving by surprise. Provocation is a means for provoking further action. I like that the book links provocations and invitations as one in the same responding to the question about “what’s the difference” that I hear so often. Let’s get beyond trying to define them so discreetly and get onto the task of creating them in multiple formats. The formats are:
- Direct Prompt. A prompt, question or problem is provided by the teacher orally or is included as a visual or written prompt with accompany materials.
- Implied Prompt through Modeling. A visual model, suggestion or opening is provided with the accompanying materials.
- Open Exploration. An open invitation to exploration, with intentionally selected materials.
I am so inspired by the possibilities of Reggio-inspired mathematics that I hope to return to the Swan Lake Centre as a potential venue for a workshop with the York Region Nature Collaborative on math indoors and outdoors. I hope the stars align once again and Janice might join us from across the country so we can share inspiring math practices sans worksheets. I hope that others will be inspired to make these math kits. If you think that you might be, I will end this post with Janice’s wise words.
Yes, please feel free to share the lists. My only concern with the whole kit mentality is they get used for a “unit” and then get put aside. We developed them as a starting point for teachers to introduce them to the idea of Reggio inspired mathematics. What we found is that every teacher that piloted a kit went to her principal and asked for some funding to buy materials that could be in her classroom all year long, which is really what we want – for students to have access to open-ended materials all the time.