Should Educators in the Lower Grades Consider Eliminating Homework?

Challenge Success is a project out of Stanford University’s School of Education. Its mission is to “work with schools, parents and youth to develop and implement action plans to improve student well-being and engagement with learning.”

Recently, they announced that they are working on a series of white papers that evaluate and summarize the body of research in a given topic in order to make the research more accessible and to offer suggestions for educators and parents. Their first paper is on homework and rather than take one side of the argument or the other, they try to answer both viewpoints using the available research. Part of their conclusion included the following:

“Much of the research supporting and refuting the benefits of homework seems to be contradictory, and some of the arguments actually have no research to support their claims. Given that much of the research points to little or no benefits of homework, we urge educators to take a hard look at their current practices and policies. Some educators in the lower grades might consider eliminating homework altogether, and just asking students to spend time reading for pleasure (which is positively connected to achievement), or allow them extra time for play and time with family….”

The research on homework is indeed ambiguous, so it’s nice to have a group that has the time to look at the research more closely. Over the past three years I have looked at my current practices (the policies are outside of my control) and considered eliminating homework (short of reading for pleasure), but the reception of this has been mixed. I’m glad that there is more support for what I’ve been advocating.

The suggestions they offer to teachers and parents to make homework more engaging and meaningful are also good.

An example of a recommendation for parents: “Parents can help organize [students’] time or prioritize assignments, but when parents deliver forgotten assignments to school or step in to rescue a child at the last minute, they may be denying the child the opportunity to develop resilience and fortitude.”

For many adults, finding work/life balance can be tricky. Especially if one is truly engaged and finds meaning in their work. An article published in today’s NYTimes about a course at Google to help their employees achieve that balance comes as no surprise. It would be nice to ensure that our students begin to develop a healthy balance?

Two Words I’d Like to See Disappear From Education Articles This Year

Finland & Singapore.

Both countries are on my list of places I’d like to visit one day. What I’m tired of reading is articles that keep trying to compare their education system to the US’s. I agree that it’s important to look for what’s working in education. Unfortunately, comparisons to student achievement and teacher quality in those countries to the US cannot be done easily. There are many challenges that face US education, both independent and public, but simply comparing them to Finland or Singapore is unfair. Finland, Singapore and the US are very different.

In the past few years, Finland has been one of the countries that has consistently placed first on international academic tests. It doesn’t surprise me then that many education reform leaders are trying to look at their practices. In a nytimes article last month, it even mentioned that the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, Pat F. Bassett has made the pilgrimage. The one thing I like about Finland’s education system is that most kids don’t start testing and homework until their teens!

Still, Finland or Singapore are small countries that value teaching. It can be harder to get into a school of education than into law or medicine (and the schooling is fully subsidized). they recognize that the quality of teaching matters and they support that from the beginning.

Apart from that, looking at what Finland or Singapore is doing right is not going to fix the challenges that exist today in the US. I agree with Linda Darling Hammond, that it might be a good model for a state like Kentucky, but both those countries have a much more homogenous society.

The US education system has to stop being reactionary. It cannot repair itself simply by learning from Finland. It has to innovate and lead. Education in this country has always been able to do that, and I am optimistic that it will continue to do so. There are many amazing schools with incredible teachers doing many things right. We should start to look at those as models first. Good teachers eventually find the schools that fuel and support their passion and purpose. It should be the other way around. Schools should be finding those qualified teachers.

Just think of all the people who learned Russian or Japanese not too long ago. I think it’s great that they learned a foreign language, but I wonder if those choices were based on what was going on in the world at that time. Finland and Singapore are both on my list of countries I’d like to visit, but somehow I don’t think the general population is going to be learning Finnish anytime soon.

hyvää yötä

Elite New York “Pressure Cooker” Schools are Rethinking Homework

An article about homework in this weekend’s nytimes couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time, as I continue to search and explore ways to make homework (now called “home learning” in our second grade classes) be meaningful.

Sending a worksheet home, so that it can be returned the next day for the sake of compliance is not the message I want students to get. If I have to assign it, and kids have to do it, it has to have purpose beyond that. Being prepared to share something in class with their peers is valuable.  So is practicing various skills as long as there is immediate and meaningful feedback. Unfortunately, over the course of a regular busy schoolday, one often doesn’t have a chance to check a child’s homework until after the end of the day, so by the time a child receives feedback, was the home learning task really that successful?

Towards the end of last year, I thought I’d give Kahn Academy a try, and while it worked for some, it didn’t achieve what I was hoping. What I did like was the immediate feedback kids were getting at home. Sal Kahn spoke at our regional conference this year and I was surprised how novel his ideas seemed to many teachers.  He isn’t the only one who’s been trying new things, but he’s been endorsed by Bill Gates and has also done a TED talk, so he’s definitely more visible.

So this year, my teaching partner suggested some other online tools which were more age appropriate than Kahn’s, covered multiple subjects so that kids could have some choice in their learning, used tech in a way that allowed for immediate feedback, and allowed us to still included elements that required kids to be prepared to share as well as take some responsibility to bring certain things back to school (even though it might not be daily).

Well, I wouldn’t call it a complete success after the first month. There were a lot of elements to consider, and some we have reconsidered.  Many things, however did work. There are elements that really seem to be doing what we hoped, and they just need to be revised and tweaked. In the classroom, my students have begun to start appreciating the idea of process and revision and not always about getting it right on the first try. It’s great that I can show kids that it is also how adults learn. We didn’t get it right on the first try, but we’ll see how the adjustments go, and report back. Thanks to all my students’ parents who provided excellent feedback in helping us refine it.

It’s nice, though, to know the most elite independent schools in New York (not that it should be a measure of anything) are also working on similar issues. We too, will be giving a “Home Learning” holiday on October 31st!

Great Article on Homework in the NYTimes

I almost missed this great article about homework in the NYTimes Sunday Review, but thanks to a parent who forwarded me this story, I had a chance to read it yesterday. I’ve always struggled on finding that balance in working within my school’s homework policy and making homework as meaningful as possible. My teaching partner and I are also looking at ways to have homework be more flexible (for those whose kids are suddenly inundated with extra-curricular activities depending on the season), and we want homework to encourage time together with families rather than a battle with some to get it done.

The article in the times stresses three main findings in looking at neuroscience, psychology, and education.

1. Spaced repetition

2. Retrieval practice

3. Interleaving (the article describes this really well)

Along with recent studies on motivation, we are going to try and incorporate these practices into our students’ home learning assignments. I’ll keep you posted on how things go.

Something I Wrote is in Independent Teacher’s Spring Issue

It was fun to see something I wrote appear on another website. Independent Teacher decided to publish an article I submitted about making homework meaningful. I would rather not give my second grade students homework, but since it’s a school policy, trying to make it meaningful rather than just busy work or eliminating it was my main objective. If the purpose of some homework is to honor kids who need a little more time to finish their work, why ask those who’ve done the work to do more of the same? Also, when you give kids their own choices about homework, you’d be astonished how many of my students, motivated purely by their own curiosity, go well beyond what one would expect.

Anyway, here’s a link to that article. It’s my first, so I’m a little excited.

PDF: Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, a few colleagues and I were at an incredibly inspiring panel discussion about education which featured a diverse group of speakers from the Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Nick Hanauer, to Tyrone Howard. One thing that struck me was how each said very similar things, but each clearly had their own focus. This post focuses on Denise Pope’s angle.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Education,  stuck to her main issue that schools today do not foster healthy children – both physically and mentally. She is featured in the movie “Race to Nowhere”  and has written the book, Doing School: How We Are Cheating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.

I’ve only read parts of it, but here are a few things mentioned in the book:

  • homework has no correlation to success at the lower elementary levels
  • kids today don’t get enough sleep
  • they are more concerned about how to get an “A” than what they are learning
  • they are becoming more disengaged
  • they are more stressed and as a result, she concludes, have a higher rate of weight loss due to not eating, drug abuse (usually the use of stimulants), low self-esteem, and so on.

Denise Pope (image from Seattle U's website)

Pope co-founded Challenge Success to redefine what ‘success’ means. She asked us to imagine if our bosses would suddenly give us a test about something school related, had it timed, and then told us the stakes were high. Is that really what happens in our life? Tasks and learning for students should be authentic and relevant. She remains adamant that standards should be high for all students, but that the way we are going about it is unhealthy for all.

She gave us an acronym to remember: P.D.F. (and it’s not a document)
P = Playtime – kids need unstructured play (well-meaning adults structure their lives too much)
D = Downtime – just chilling
F = Family time
Our school has one half-day inservice devoted to community building. Today we enjoyed playtime, downtime and family time. I say family, because my colleagues are indeed like family to me. It was time well-spent.
Here’s an article Pope wrote that’s worth reading.

Day 1 of Flipping the Classroom

There’s the common expression, “Change is hard. You go first.” Well, I’ve been doing a few firsts this past year or so, partly because I decided not to wait. If I think it’s worth experimenting with, I’ll try it. What I’ve learned is that with a few of these things, I might have been better off talking about it, rather than dive right in. As a result, I may have ruffled a few feathers here and there and had to repair a few work relationships. It was actually a good exercise in growth for me and made me a lot more reflective about what I want to do next.

I started this blog, for example to share what I learned at a conference, but decided to keep it going because I actually enjoy it. Because I had no expectation of anyone else blogging, I was oblivious to the fact that some might feel that they would have to share what they learned via a blog. It’s just my way, and I enjoy it. I also started my own classroom website because I couldn’t wait for our school’s official site to have all the features I wanted. It’s worked for me and my students’ parents and that’s really all it boils down to. There are so many ways to communicate, sometimes the purpose dictates they type.

Well, I’m at it again. After only a couple of weeks since the TED talk “Flipping the Classroom” aired, I unleashed Khan Academy upon my second graders. Honestly, the videos are pretty dry and boring for the most part, but the kids love the exercises, the immediate feedback, and the choice. One child decided for homework tonight to head to the geometry section which asks for the area and circumference of circles. He made a few attempts, got all them wrong and decided he’d come back another time. It was very non-threatening. Today was just the first day, we headed to the media lab so they could learn how to login and logoff. And even though I assigned about 10 to 20 minutes, I noticed that many kids were engaged enough to spend much more time on it. I’m actually more excited about the data that might come back after Spring Break. Why? So much of good math pedagogy is not just helping a child develop a concept, but asking the right questions. Knowing what children have mastered, allows you to target your questions more precisely. Of course good teachers who already know their students well do this, but with the added data, who knows.

One interesting unintended consequence occurred. Many of my students have older siblings. So far, I’ve gotten great feedback from parents, but they wanted to know how their older child could sign in. I told them how and that they could sign me up as their coach if they wished. This is a big experiment. I don’t intend to have students using Kahn Academy in class, but only at home. What I will do, is use the data to help inform the way I teach each child. As Kahn put it in his TED talk, “Flipping the Classroom.”

Kahn Academy approaches math in a very linear, sterile manner, but with some of the basic skills under their belt, they may be able to really grapple with project based learning activities which involve plenty of mathematical problems, creativity, and the beauty of math that doesn’t always get to see the light of day the way our math texts are written. Who knows? This is still day one of doing things a little differently. It may just end up being something faddish, which is something I  usually try to avoid, but when I see some potential in how it can help kids, I’ll dive head first. Sign in for yourself and try some of the later differential questions. Do you even remember how to do them? More importantly, do you know why? I’ll keep you apprised of how my little experiment goes.