False Dichotomy: Worksheets and Project-Based Learning

I've sat under a false dichotomy for a while and finally stared it in the face today. I have believed that a teacher is either teaching dynamic, project-based, creative lessons, or worksheets. Either the dark side or the republic. A teacher choses one. 

I had a student ask today for worksheets to do as homework. Our after-school program makes him do a thick packet of busy work if he doesn't have homework to do during "homework hour." We didn't do math today so he didn't have homework. This kid asked for his own busy work on account of it being a lesser evil. Myself and a few other students around then had a conversation about how teachers sometimes use work as a babysitter. To keep them occupied. I wanted to be clear that I didn't give work just to keep them busy, but that some people did, and will.

The way I responded to worksheets in this situation triggered a need to examine my thoughts on them as I walked away. Could they be good? I had given and seen some worksheets that provided a great opportunity to practice skills (I just caught myself there--I almost said "teach" instead of "practice"), valuable skills like spelling, grammar, critical thinking skills, and multiplication facts. I then realized that if worksheets can be a useful tool for practicing and improving skills, I couldn't unilaterally discount them. 

In order to enter into good problems and engaging projects, they need material to bring to the table. To be clear, I'm not arguing for mastery of skills before we give students projects and problems to solve, but they need basic tools to facilitate independence, collaboration, communication. They need some vehicle for turning a thought into something tangible. My students do need to know how to structure an essay, use the correct form of "through," employ quotation marks appropriately, and their multiples of 9. Those are simple skills that school is responsible to develop, that a worksheet can help develop.

A worksheet is a tailored, succinct opportunity to practice/develop skills with a defined end, which serves as a clear goal. Goals make things achievable. 

But here I am, talking about it again like it is first the worksheet, first the skills, then the opportunities to implement those skills. Aren't most real lessons in the world learned when engaging with real problems? On the way? Worksheets, though convenience, compartmentalize learning and divorce it from reality. I would much rather have students learn their math facts by building a treehouse in Minecraft with dimensions that are all multiples of nine rather than answering questions on a worksheet. I would rather have a student care about grammar because they are writing an email to our local bus station's supervisor about a decrepit bus stop close to our school than caring about spelling because I may mark the question wrong on the worksheet if they don't.

So maybe I saw virtue in worksheets for a second because I was falling into thinking about learning as a bunch of little boxes, separated by subject matter and skills. Instead, its more like a tree, or a web. Worksheets aren't really what I want in light of that understanding. They seem to enforce compartmentalized learning. After writing this post, Im back where I started, but with more understanding of why I'm standing there.