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?

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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.

Play

 

Last week, I posted a TED talk about the importance of play. If you watched the talk, the speaker said we have an education “that values rote learning, memorization and standardization, and devalues self-expression, self-exploration,questioning, creativity and play.” Play is universal, promotes creativity, mastery, and purpose. Current research in neuroscience supports this. The New York Times reported last week that principals are finally re-evaluating homework. At work, play includes going out with coworkers for lunch, doing something you love, being autonomous, and not being a prisoner to a schedule. Some of those things are beyond most teachers’ control. Ask a teacher when was the last time she went out for lunch with a coworker (even on professional days, the trend seems to be that most teachers are working through lunch). I’m lucky, since I love my job (lunches and schedules aside). It allows for some autonomy and creativity, gives me a sense of purpose, and I get to laugh with the kids a lot.

Of course, teaching has the perk of summer break. So what I have done these first three days of summer break? Spent it at work. Something I’ve been meaning to do for the past 10 years is organize materials better and purge old stuff (belonging to previous teachers) that could be better used somewhere else. Well, I almost did it, but I feel good enough that I can leave the room alone until August. Now, I can go play. Before the ISTE conference that begins Sunday night in Philly, I will get to spend some time in NYC and do some of the other things I love: seeing a couple of shows, trying new places to eat, discovering new neighborhoods, and some art.

In the meantime, the ISTE conference is shaping up to be overwhelming. I’m trying to narrow down my choices and just to give you an example, here are my already pared down choices for the concurrent session number 5 on Monday (there are twelve – some are two hours long). Yes, I managed to narrow that one down to seven. Maybe since it’s a tech conference, I’ll use a randomizer app on my phone. I wish I were more decisive.

4:15-5:15pm

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Assessing Students Using Web 2.0 Tools [Concurrent Session; Lecture]
Location: PACC 107B
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4:15-5:15pm

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Integrating Digital Citizenship in a Web 2.0 World [Concurrent Session; Lecture]
Location: PACC 126A
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4:15-5:15pm

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A Leadership Framework and Instrument for Technology Innovation in Schools [Research Paper; Roundtable]
Location: PACC 105B, Table 3
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4:15-5:15pm

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Separating Truth from Fiction: Information Literacy for Elementary Students [Concurrent Session; Model Lesson]
Location: PACC 119A
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4:15-5:15pm

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Beyond Literacy to Information Fluency in the Age of InfoWhelm [Concurrent Session; Spotlight]
Location: PACC Grand Ballroom B
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4:15-5:15pm

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The Information Fluency Classroom in Action [Concurrent Session; Model Lesson]
Location: PACC 119B
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4:15-5:15pm

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Plan for Integrating 21st Century Skills in the Elementary Classroom [Research Paper; Roundtable]
Location: PACC 105B, Table 1

There are of course all kinds of other meetings in between, 3 keynotes, exhibits, demonstrations, people to meet, and for a fee, there are even evening workshops. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in a historical sight or two like Independence Hall, and write about some of the resources and learning I’m doing. As overwhelming as this conference appears, I’m very excited and can’t wait.

Pressure Cookers are Designed for Food, not Kids

I just returned from a screening of the documentary film Race to Nowhere. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, I would recommend any teacher, parent, administrator, school policy maker, and high school student to see it. This link shows where the nearest screenings are in your area. It’d be great if our school were able to host a screening for parents, teachers, and anyone in our community who wished to view it. There’s a link on that page to request a community screening.

In this country, starting in the 80s with Nation At Risk, followed in the 2000s by No Child Left Behind, the pressure for all kids to perform at high levels on tests in order to get into colleges has had an adverse effect on our students health and their ability to think critically, find and solve problems, and work well together. After a seven hour day of school and three to four hours of extra curricular activities, should our kids then tackle five to six hours of homework each night? Many of the examples were those of middle and high school students, but it was painful to watch a family end what was probably already a taxing day arguing about homework. The film reiterated what I’ve read and tried to advocate at my school, that there is no evidence linking homework in elementary school to achievement. The correlation begins in middle school, but after an hour of homework, the correlation disappears. By high school the correlation becomes stronger, but again, after two hours of homework, the correlation drops off significantly.

Many of the AP tests don’t test for critical thinking skills, but rather for a bulk of content. One teacher mentioned there is too much content to realistically learn, so they speed it up. The results are kids relying on cramming and cheating. Sadly, there is an increase in all kinds of stress related disorders with the extreme being an increase in teen suicide. It’s hard enough to be a teenager. It was extremely sad to see a parent discuss the suicide of her 13 year-old daughter over a letter grade (the letter grade was a B).

Something I struggled with was watching a teacher who, through her words and tears, was passionate about teaching and cared deeply about her students, However, through the bureaucracy of the system, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to resign. There are already too few passionate teachers that care so much about what they do. Yet the system is so broken that it  makes them leave the profession.

What I liked about this film is that it showed many of the same kinds of pressures that kids face today to compete for a place in a ‘decent’ college regardless whether they came from an impoverished low-socio economic to wealthy suburban or private schools. The pressures trickle down from policy maker to school principal to teacher and to student. Not everyone needs to go to an Ivy league school, yet for many, they felt that it was the only choice if they wanted to be successful. What does being successful really mean anyway?  The movie mentioned that in Singapore, they offer the top 20% of the graduating class free college tuition – and a stipend – to go into the teaching profession. Here we have to go an extra year and pay for it on our own just to get the basic credentials.

Schools differ in many ways and whether a specialized public charter school or an independent one, the film makes a great case for reducing the stress on kids. Some want to extend the school day, take away recess, art, in order to cram more content into their brain. I can still remember the quadratic equation and know what to use it for, but I’ve NEVER used it since learning it in high school. Some other things, like the chemical structure of amino acids, I have completely forgotten. Are either of those things useful to me today? Did they in some way help me think in different ways? Perhaps. Or maybe I was just figured out what was going to be on the test. If that’s the case, that’s not learning. Why bother teaching if you’re just going to follow a script.

It made me think of this list from Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap. He listed seven essential skills all people need to learn:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  2. Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination.

Are those things nurtured, taught, and fostered in schools?  Are they tested?

The movie calls on all stakeholders to be brave and do what they care about, say what they believe in, and take the risk when what that is may break the rules, go against policy, or even seem radical to some. If your heart is in it, and you’re doing it for the students’ benefit (and for me, stays true to the school’s mission), then it’s worth that risk. Those with the power to make decisions shouldn’t expect their employees to interact with students a certain way until they model what that looks like and treat their teachers the same way.

Below are a few related videos including the film’s trailer, and a round panel from Stanford discussing the issues.

If you watch the latter, you will hear that students in Finland (who are one of the countries that consistently produce top scores) are involved in project based learning, and have their social and emotional needs honored. They don’t ‘cover’ content. Here are some interesting links.

Edutopia

Fair Test

NYTimes article about this film.

This screening was the first in a series of three parts hosted by Seattle University. I really liked what the Dean of Education said when introducing the film. The next in the series is the screening of the film “Waiting for Superman” – I can’t wait.