LISTEN — Class Disrupted Podcast Episode 2: Why Is My Child Doing So Many Worksheets Right Now?

LISTEN — Class Disrupted Podcast Episode 2: Why Is My Child Doing So Many Worksheets Right Now?

Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast hosted by author Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner, Founder of Summit Public Schools. Together, they engage in insightful conversations with educators, school leaders, students, and other members of school communities to explore the challenges faced by the education system during the pandemic and discuss potential directions for the future. You can access every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher (with new episodes released every Tuesday).

Numerous studies have demonstrated that authentic learning occurs when students apply their knowledge to real-world problems and receive consistent feedback to facilitate improvement. However, schools often rely on worksheets and textbooks, which fail to inspire students’ motivation to learn.

In this episode of Class Disrupted, we address the concerns of parents who notice that much of their children’s schoolwork is mundane and lacks creativity.

Joining Diane and Michael in this discussion is Larry Berger, the CEO of Amplify, a curriculum and assessment company. Larry provides insights into the process of incorporating textbooks and other curriculum materials into schools and explains the difficulties associated with implementing innovative approaches. The conversation delves into the effectiveness of digital learning tools, the increasingly significant role of teachers in a digital classroom, and the future of education.

Listen to the episode below, and find the full transcript following the recording.

Parent: Hello, Diane. I hope you can assist me with something. My son, Carson, used to be quite engaged in the classroom, but now he’s struggling immensely. His school only offers a few days of distance learning, and the rest of the time, he is expected to learn from videos and textbooks. Unfortunately, he seems to have trouble comprehending the material when he reads it. This isn’t his preferred learning style, and I’m uncertain about how I can support him. Can you provide any guidance?

Diane: Greetings, I’m Diane Tavenner.

Michael: And I’m Michael Horn. Thank you for joining us on Class Disrupted, a podcast that examines the disruptive impact of the pandemic on education and explores alternative approaches to teaching and learning that better suit students’ needs.

Diane: In our last episode, we discussed the attainability and significance of ensuring that every student has access to internet and computers.

Michael: Today, we want to delve deeper into the importance of this initiative, specifically focusing on digital learning tools. Diane, I must admit, I’m quite eager to explain what these tools entail and emphasize that, like any tool, some are excellent while others fall short. In other words, being digital does not inherently determine its quality.

To aid us in our discussion, we are joined by Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, a company at the forefront of developing exceptional digital learning tools. Larry will enlighten us on the impact of the textbook industry on current curriculum practices and shed light on why districts have relied on worksheets and textbooks for many years.

Diane: Before we dive into the specifics, it’s crucial to address a broader question that underpins the concerns of parents. Worksheets and textbooks offer little motivation for students to engage in learning and often have the opposite effect. Many individuals are now questioning whether this is the best we can offer, and as an educator, I personally feel somewhat embarrassed.

Additionally, let’s expand our perspective. Answering questions from textbooks and worksheets encourages a compliance-oriented approach to knowledge acquisition and regurgitation. It trains children to follow instructions blindly and unquestioningly, and this frustrates me. The reality is that the future job market demands a different set of skills from our children. Lucrative employment opportunities require individuals who can think creatively, solve problems, and determine what needs to be done. There are fewer and fewer jobs that involve mindlessly following repetitive tasks assigned by someone else.

Michael: Before we proceed, Diane, I can’t resist the temptation to interject and present you with a pop quiz. You’re the only one here, so I’ll direct the first question to you: Can you name the 15th element on the periodic table?

Diane: Chemistry happens to be my weakest subject, and you targeted it deliberately. Like many high school students I know, I’m going to skillfully evade your question.

Diane: One issue I encountered is that I didn’t acquire any substantial knowledge in chemistry or most scientific subjects, to be honest. Unfortunately, this lack of expertise extends to other areas as well.

Similar to many students, I spent a significant amount of time reading textbook pages, completing worksheets, and taking tests. While I managed to achieve satisfactory grades, I didn’t genuinely grasp the concepts of science or history. It makes me wonder, what if I had developed a true interest in those subjects? What if I had pursued them wholeheartedly?

Especially in the current pandemic, even disregarding my past experiences, I can’t help but think about how much more actively engaged I could be in my daily life if I possessed a deeper understanding of these subjects.

Michael: Your point is quite valid. In fact, we now understand much more about effective learning techniques compared to when we were in high school. Research and common sense both emphasize that active engagement, rather than passive compliance, is the key to learning.

This involves setting goals, interacting with the material, applying knowledge to real-world problems, receiving regular feedback, and taking the time to reflect on the learning process.

Diane: Michael, you’re now discussing the type of education that truly excites me. It reminds me of how people learn and improve in sports. Let’s imagine a basketball player who wants to enhance their free throw shooting skills. It’s a common objective for basketball players to strive for. So, how does this player improve their free throw technique? Primarily through practice, right? They stand at the free throw line, ensuring their body is positioned correctly. They focus on their elbows, wrists, and follow-through, and then they shoot the ball, observing the outcome.

One of the incredible aspects of sports is the instantaneous feedback. Did the ball go into the basket or not? There’s immediate feedback. If it went in, they try to replicate the same technique. If it didn’t, they make adjustments to increase the chances of success next time.

Michael: And that’s a far cry from completing a worksheet, isn’t it? In worksheets, the only way a child receives feedback is by searching for the answer key. It feels artificial, and students often perceive it as a way to "cheat" and obtain the correct answer without exerting any effort. Learning always requires some level of effort.

Diane: Exactly. However, effort alone is insufficient. This is where the role of a coach becomes crucial. The coach observes the player and provides tips based on their experience with numerous other players and knowledge of free throw shooting. Unfortunately, the coach can’t always be present during practice sessions. Therefore, the player may have their shooting sessions recorded by a parent for analysis and evaluation. They might also practice with a teammate who can offer feedback. The player’s knowledge of free throws develops from various sources as they engage in more profound and dedicated practice.

Michael: I absolutely love this analogy. Consider what the player in your example is doing. They learn through active practice, receive feedback, and draw insights from multiple sources. They reflect on their progress and continuously work on their technique until they are satisfied and, ideally, achieve their objective. It’s not just about going through 25 more free throws on a hypothetical worksheet. Even if another teammate shares the same goal and has access to the same resources, their path will likely differ. And I think that’s the whole essence of this discussion, isn’t it?

Michael: It’s truly mind-boggling to consider, and there is substantial research indicating that the use of data to help students improve their performance can be incredibly motivating for learning. However, when data is employed to punish someone, as is often the case in schools today, it has the complete opposite effect.

Diane: This is absolutely true. I have witnessed it time and time again. When children receive feedback on their progress and guidance on how they can enhance their abilities, they become eager to improve and dive right back into their work. Kids do not want to fail; they genuinely desire to learn. Unfortunately, we fail to create the right conditions for them to do so.

Nowadays, many parents are closely monitoring their children’s schoolwork like never before, and they are realizing the limitations of the traditional approach. They notice that their kids frequently seek their help. What’s happening here is that children instinctively understand what they need in order to learn. They are seeking feedback from their parents so they can improve and grow.

Michael: If we consider the current Zoom lectures, they are incredibly passive, aren’t they? They essentially replicate all the ineffective methods that we advise against, and they are delivered in an environment where students are isolated from their peers and teachers. It’s no wonder it’s not working.

This brings us to digital learning tools, of which there are many. The type I just described is unengaging and ineffective, resembling the drawbacks of worksheets, textbooks, and lectures. Learners simply sit back and watch without truly participating in the material. Alternatively, they mindlessly work through problems with minimal feedback until they’ve completed them all.

Diane: Absolutely, and let’s not forget that this is not only happening online; it’s also prevalent in classrooms.

Michael: Precisely. However, a well-designed digital tool can truly be powerful. It can serve as a means for instant feedback, offering students the opportunity to assess their approach and make adjustments while continuing to practice. Every student becomes actively involved in the learning process, eliminating wasted time. The teacher can assume the role of a coach.

Diane: This is the kind of work that most teachers envisioned doing when they entered the profession, Michael. They can work closely with individual students or small groups, providing personalized feedback because they genuinely know their students.

Michael: I believe Larry Berger is the perfect person to contribute to our discussion. As the CEO and founder of Amplify, he has been involved in the field of digital learning for 20 years, starting from the days of dial-up connections. He has graciously agreed to share his insights on the capabilities of the best digital learning tools. More importantly, he can shed light on why many schools have been resistant to adopting them.

Diane: You have extensive experience with digital learning tools, and we would love to hear from you about what they do exceptionally well or differently from other learning tools.

Larry: If you allow me to extend to my top 15, I would gladly do so. But for now, my top five would be the ability of technology to provide quicker and more frequent feedback. While learning, you receive real-time information that is typically only attainable through one-on-one tutoring, which is often challenging to achieve. Additionally, technology can generate more comprehensive feedback as it observes various aspects of your performance. It can assist with homework and be present during class sessions and everything in between.

Furthermore, technology can facilitate experiences that are difficult or even impossible to replicate in a traditional classroom setting. For instance, if a science teacher proposes the idea of releasing 100 million tons of methane into the atmosphere to observe its warming effect, this would be frowned upon by the principal. However, in a simulation, this can be done, allowing students to witness the outcome.

Lastly, technology generates valuable data about students’ experiences, which can be used by teachers, schools, and entire educational systems to gain a deeper understanding of what works and where improvement is needed. When relying on paper or analog learning methods, this process becomes much more challenging.

And in some cases, they may send out sample materials to a few teachers to get their feedback, but it’s not a comprehensive or thorough evaluation of the tools. So essentially, what happens is that the decisions about what materials are used in the classrooms are made by a select group of people who may not have direct experience with teaching or have a deep understanding of the students’ needs.

Once a tool is approved by the state or district, it is then distributed to the schools and classrooms. This could happen through various means such as physical delivery of textbooks or digital platform access for online tools. The specific process can vary depending on the resources and infrastructure available in each school or district.

For example, in some cases, the materials may be sent directly to the schools and then distributed to the teachers and students. In other cases, there may be a centralized distribution system where the materials are delivered to a central location and then distributed to the schools.

Ultimately, it is up to the teachers and administrators in each classroom to ensure that the students have access to the designated materials. They may hand out worksheets or textbooks to the students, provide them with login information for digital tools, or guide them in accessing and using the materials in any other way that suits their teaching style and the needs of the students.

However, it’s important to note that the process of selecting and distributing educational materials is not always efficient or focused on finding the best tools for the students. It can be influenced by various factors, such as bureaucratic procedures, financial considerations, and the influence of special interest groups.

As a result, the materials that end up in the hands of students may not always be the most effective or engaging ones. This can limit the potential for personalization and self-direction in the learning process.

In order to truly meet the diverse needs of students and promote effective learning, it is crucial to have a more flexible and innovative approach to the selection and distribution of educational tools. This could involve involving teachers and students in the decision-making process, considering a wider range of resources beyond traditional textbooks and worksheets, and prioritizing the use of tools that have been proven to be effective through research and evidence-based practices.

Diane: As a teacher, I have dealt with numerous textbooks that are visually appealing with beautiful covers and pictures. However, skimming through hundreds of pages leaves me with limited time to truly appreciate them. As a human being, I find myself drawn to the pretty pictures, but it makes me wonder what criteria I should really base my judgment on.

Larry: In the publishing industry, there is a disheartening saying, where an executive confesses, "I don’t create textbooks for children because they don’t buy them. I don’t create textbooks for teachers because they don’t buy them. I create textbooks for committees because committees are the ones who purchase them." Essentially, they aim to meet the compromise position that a large group of people in a room would agree upon.

Michael: Listening to your description, it sounds quite absurd. Another aspect to consider is that textbook companies, especially smaller ones, can only produce a limited number of versions of their materials. As a result, certain states like California and Texas likely have a disproportionate influence on which textbooks get adopted across the rest of the country. How does this system operate?

Larry: People often label certain programs as specific to Florida, Texas, or California. They assume that these programs were designed for those states first and then modified for other states. This assumption stems from the fact that these states have a significant impact on textbook adoptions due to their size and influence.

Michael: But Larry, it seems like things are changing now, right? You mentioned that there are improvements being made and a shift away from traditional textbooks. Are there any factors that make you optimistic about this moment?

Larry: The world reached a point where there was enough infrastructure to support teachers who wanted to utilize digital devices in their teaching. This development played a significant role in pushing things in the right direction. Moreover, it created a self-reinforcing cycle. Once teachers could access the necessary devices, publishers began investing in programs designed for digital teaching, ensuring that the software was functional. This, in turn, reinforced the trend further.

Michael: We’ve mainly discussed textbook publishers so far. How does this relate to the worksheets that my child receives? Why is most of the schoolwork based on worksheets?

Larry: It’s interesting to see how many different types of products end up as worksheets, but I believe familiarity plays a role. The format of a worksheet is a well-known method: simply handing one out can occupy students for a few minutes while they complete it. However, I have never met a child who came home excitedly saying, "I did a fantastic worksheet today!" This suggests that worksheets may not be the most effective educational tool, despite their familiarity.

I believe there are two primary sources of worksheets today. First, when a core curriculum is sold, there is often a teacher edition, a student edition, and accompanying workbooks. Surprisingly, publishers often don’t make a profit from the teacher and student editions, but they make up for it by selling renewable sets of workbooks. The difference between a workbook and a textbook is that students can write in the workbook, making it unusable for the next year. Publishers realized they could generate a continuous stream of revenue through this method.

The second source of worksheets comes from testing companies that gather data. When educators notice their students performing poorly, they want to know how to improve. Unfortunately, instead of approaching this pedagogically, the common response is to provide worksheets that focus on the specific areas where students struggle. The selling point is that these worksheets resemble assessment items, so students will perform better on future assessments. Research studies are conducted to show the effectiveness of these worksheets by demonstrating that repetitive practice with particular assessment items leads to improved performance when those same items appear on future assessments.

Diane: It seems like math and English always get the most attention, but we often neglect science and history, which are actually important to parents like myself. My sister called me a couple of weeks ago and asked if I create my own science curriculum. I replied affirmatively, and she responded with "Of course you do." Puzzled, I asked her why she was asking, and she explained that her district had just tested out two science curriculums for 12 weeks each, only to find that neither of them met their teaching standards. This outcome wasn’t surprising, but I would like to understand what’s happening in the field of science education better.

Larry: We regularly assess English Language Arts (ELA) and math every year, but science is only tested every four years, and history isn’t tested at all. This sets the structure of the market. I might be a bit biased because we have invested a lot in a science curriculum that includes engaging simulations. The exciting thing is that we are seeing increased adoption of our program, called Amplify Science, which embraces digital tools. Around 40 percent of districts in California have chosen to implement it, which is a significant shift from a few years ago when only advanced districts would have considered such an ambitious program. Now, many districts believe they are ready to take on this new approach.

In each unit of our curriculum, we incorporate familiar science teaching and learning elements. Students read about science, answer questions, participate in activities, and engage in discussions. However, there are also new possibilities that were previously unavailable.

Every student takes part in what we call an "engineering internship" within each unit. They become part of a fictional team at a science and engineering company. For example, in a unit about climate change, students are tasked with designing rooftops for a city. They apply the scientific knowledge they have gained, work with their team, and design rooftops. Interestingly, most of the time, the team’s initial great idea fails due to a scientific reason, which requires them to go back to the drawing board, just like real engineers. Additionally, our curriculum includes hands-on experimentation, a staple of good science programs, but we also incorporate digital simulations that allow students to explore concepts that are not feasible in a traditional science classroom. For instance, we have a simulation that demonstrates natural selection, a concept that is often challenging to grasp. It puts students on a virtual island with trees, carnivores, and herbivores. By adjusting the island’s temperature, students can observe how, over thousands of generations, herbivores with fur survive while those without it do not. They also learn that without a mutation that supports fur, the herbivores simply die. This simulation enables students to fast-forward time and witness the effects of evolution in just seconds.

I believe that the real value lies in the ability to advance from learning science through reading and writing, which scientists themselves devote a lot of time to, to performing hands-on experiments, and then expanding that experience to include digital simulations that push the boundaries of what can be done in a classroom. To further apply this knowledge, we even have a computer science internship where students use a programming language designed for kids to build their own scientific simulations. They set the parameters and let their peers explore an underwater ecosystem or something similar.

These are just a few examples of the new possibilities that digital technology has unlocked. However, in all these cases, the successful integration of digital, print, and social experiences in the classroom relies on the presence of a teacher who can facilitate and guide the learning process.

Overall, the combination of these elements, with teachers at the center, creates a powerful learning environment that was not possible before.

Diane: Honestly, Michael, if I reflect on my past experience as a teacher, which was ages ago, it’s clear that the process needs to change. Larry’s description of the science experience got me really excited and brought back memories of wanting to return to school.

Michael: I feel the same way. I wanted to implement the new curriculum with my children right away.

Diane: That’s true. However, we must not overlook the fact that adopting the curriculum is just the beginning. The community needs to embrace and utilize it, which may not be as simple as it sounds. Many parents worry that if their children learn through computers, they will become isolated and lonely. They question whether children should be learning together. In my experience, what Larry described is actually a more social way of learning compared to sitting in rows of desks, listening to lectures, and taking notes and tests.

Michael: People need to remember that trying to make school a social experience can get you in trouble as a child. If you ask a friend for help in understanding something, you might get kicked out of class. It’s almost like my middle school teachers thought my book, Disrupting Class, was my personal story. It doesn’t make sense to discourage socializing. However, what Larry described is new and unfamiliar, which can make parents feel uncomfortable. It’s scary to try something different that we don’t understand and aren’t sure will work.

Diane: I completely understand what you’re saying, Michael. I’ve personally experienced these feelings for years as the head of my child’s school, which utilizes digital tools. I constantly witness my husband’s discomfort because he’s unsure of his role as a parent now. He was accustomed to flipping through textbooks, finding answers, and helping with homework. He struggles when it comes to assisting with digital tools.

But the good news is, based on my experiences, we all have the same goal. We all believe that school should be a social and enjoyable experience where our children actually learn. We’ll discuss the social aspect further in future episodes. The point here is that what parents consider as social learning isn’t necessarily true.

Michael: Then there’s the second fear: that digital tools will replace teachers. We addressed this in the last episode, but it’s worth repeating because I constantly come across articles describing online learning as "substituting teachers with computers."

This notion is tired and completely untrue. It’s not an either/or scenario. Just think about it: in this day and age, would you expect employees to work without basic digital tools? That would be absurd.

Diane: I think it’s worse than absurd. It’s a complaint you would hear from your employees.

Michael: Absolutely. And nobody believes that just because employees in an office have digital tools, the need for mentors or managers disappears. Technology enhances the role of teachers, making learning more effective, social, and meaningful.

Diane: In our last episode, we spoke with Jill, a teacher, and discussed her perspective on what makes a digital tool valuable or not. It would be beneficial for us to revisit her thoughts on this.

Diane: (To Jill) Can you explain the difference between a high-value technology tool and a low-value one from a teacher’s perspective?

Jill: A high-value tool is one that improves and transforms instruction. It empowers students and allows them to take charge of their own learning. On the other hand, low-value tools are more teacher-driven. High-value technology tools enable students to choose their preferred learning methods and follow their interests to drive their own learning.

The value of technology such as BrainPOP and YouTube varies depending on how it is utilized. If I were to use a YouTube video for a classroom introduction, the value would be low. However, if a student independently chooses to use a YouTube video as a resource because they are interested in it, then the value becomes high.

Diane: What you’re suggesting is that the way teachers construct the learning environment and guide students in using these tools is crucial.

Jill: Exactly. It definitely matters.

Michael: So, to summarize once again, not every digital tool is good. However, the really good ones incorporate the science of learning to create effective learning environments that motivate students, increase productivity, engage them, and provide the desired educational experiences.

Diane: Michael, those are the kind of places where you and I would want to send our children, and I believe most parents would agree.

This conversation might give the impression that it’s easy, that all we need is a digital tool and a teacher. It sounds simple. And that’s probably why we often hear questions about Khan Academy. Khan Academy has the world’s most famous teacher, Sal Khan, and it’s a digital tool, plus it’s free. So why can’t Sal Khan just teach everything to everyone?

Michael: Well, conveniently, Diane, we will be exploring that very question and more with Sal Khan himself in our next episode of Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is an author of several books about the future of learning, including "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns." He collaborates with various organizations to transform education so that individuals can pursue their passions and reach their full potential.

Diane Tavenner is the CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She has dedicated her life to education and innovation and is the author of "Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life."


  • kaylarusso

    Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.



Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.

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