What is a work plan?
A work plan is basically what it sounds like, a plan for what work a child is going to complete in a given day, week, or month. They can be as simple as requiring a certain amount of work in a subject area for a given day/week, or as complex as listing out exactly what works a child should complete during a specific time period. They can be filled out by the child, the teacher, or together.
Among Montessorians, work plans have a somewhat sticky reputation. Some claim any amount of teacher initiated planning is limiting to the child's free choice, other's claim that planning for or with the child initially helps them to learn how to plan for themselves and manage their own time better. Although I have heard of work plans being used in the 3-6 level, they are not acceptable below 6-9.
I have done some subbing in a Montessori classroom setting and I will tell you that work plans definitely make things easier for a teacher coming in. It gives them a specific list of things that a child is supposed to be working on. The same applies for the classroom teacher who has children working at 3 levels (more usually) across many subject areas. I must say, however, in a normalized Montessori environment, the students can work equally well for a sub regardless of if he or she actually knows anything about what they are doing! In that way I think work plans are a comfort measure for adults, more than they are for the students.
My overall feeling is that the plans themselves are not harmful, but what is harmful is when the plan is driving the child instead of the child driving the plan. When a teacher or parent is continually saying, "Have you finished everything on your work plan?" as opposed to observing to answer the question of what the child is working on. It is dangerous to rely on a submitted checklist to ensure that children are covering a wide range of subjects. A child may well be completing their required 5 math problems per day, but they may not be completing them correctly. It is important to not check just the work plan, but to check the work as well.
Work plans also limit children in many ways. Children who are very intense high achievers could easily become discouraged by a list of work that they are not able to finish in a given time frame. Their work may be fantastic, but they feel down and judge themselves because they didn't finish everything they were supposed to. The work plan can become a method by which children judge themselves instead of a tool for planning.
Work plans can also keep children from following their own interests if the plan is not individually tailored for time and ability. This is more of a concern in a classroom setting where each child has an identical work plan, but could be an issue at home as well. In addition to creating time problems among children who work at varying speeds, it also creates a crutch for the child not able to make their own decisions. When the work plan is gone (such as finishing early), what will they do?
I have given you several reasons why I don't particularly love work plans, but that isn't to say I think they are a bad thing. I think it is merely in how they are presented. The goal should always be to work towards independent planning and management of time. I use work plans sporadically (as in my prior post) as a way to help keep Aidan moving. When I see the follow up work not being completed, challenging works consistently not being chosen, or there is a goal that he can not necessarily appreciate (like the importance of not being in the middle of a project over our 2 weeks off at Christmas), then I will initiate a plan to keep him moving.
The goal of work plans in my mind is to teach time management and record keeping. This can easily be done in many ways that are better than a work plan, but in moderation they can be a useful homeschool (and classroom) tool!