Homework – Who’s game to take the first step?

I remember a few years ago hearing a Horse racing trainer turned commentator (I think it was Richard Freedman on the Triple M Dead Set Legends) talking about the early starts that face race horse trainers and jockeys. When asked by his colleagues why they train so early in the morning he replied something like ‘because everyone else does.’ He went on to say that historically the hours gradually got earlier and earlier as trainers tried to get an advantage over their peers. When asked by his radio colleagues whether it made a difference, he replied “No”. So when they asked him why people keep doing it his response was “Because no one wants to be the first”. When it comes to homework, teachers and schools seem to be in the same boat. No one wants to risk being the first to cut it incase it does lead to lower learning outcomes.

So it was with interest that I read an article today from the Washington Post about an Elementary school in Vermont USA that removed all homework other than reading for pleasure each day.

A couple of days ago, I was talking to some friends whose daughter has just started high school at their local Girls school. I asked how she was settling in. Mum’s response was “Yeah, it’s going ok.” From her tone though I could sense that it hadn’t all been rosy. As I asked more about it, Mum said that her daughter had become very overwhelmed with the amount of homework. She wasn’t going to bed until 9:30pm each night and hadn’t had any down time to just relax.

We spoke about how they might be able to support her but I wondered how it must feel to be at the end of your fourth week of High School and come to a realisation that this is her reality for the next 6 years of her life. School, a few extra curricula activities and then a second shift of school work. And don’t even get me started on the teacher who told them that the work they were starting would be completed for homework if they don’t get it finished in class and then gave them more when more than half had finished before the end of the lesson! Trust gone.

There seems to be enough research to suggest that there is little academic benefit for Primary (Elementary) aged students and many schools have responded. Many have not. It’s also apparent that there is a slight academic benefit for students in early high school that grows as they get (Alfie Kohn, 2012). However, correlation doesn’t mean causation. That is, is the increase in academic performance due to a student doing homework, or, is it that the students performing well academically more likely to be doing more homework?

What concerns me is that regardless of what the research says, schools are still dishing out hours of homework based on historicity and unproven anecdotal evidence. On the other hand, we have rising child and teen mental health statistics and students who are under increasing time pressure. We need to balance the desire for higher academics with a desire to have healthy, well balanced students who have time to rest, time to play, time to be creative – all things that have been proven to assist brain development. The brain needs time to process but also down time.

If teachers are serious about the well-being of our students then we need schools to step up and reduce the amount of homework they are giving students while ensuring that what they do set is meaningful, engaging and, if possible, relevant to what the student has identified as an area of required practice or reinforcement in their learning.

So, who is going to be next to take the first step?

References

Cooper, H. Robinson, H. J. Patall (2006) Does Homework Improve Academic Acheivement? A Synthesis of Research 1987 – 2003 Review of Educational Research

Kohn, A. (2012) http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/homework-unnecessary-evil-surprising-findings-new-research/

Assessment – the real start to your child’s academic growth!?

My wife picked up a parenting magazine today as we entered our local swimming pool as we took our son to his regular swimming lesson. As she flicked through it, the advertisement in the picture above, caught my eye. As a PE teacher, it was the picture that initially drew my attention and so I looked closely to see that it was an advertisement for an externally administered, standardised testing program. The tests typically take the form of a ‘bubble’ test that requires student’s to circle the bubble that corresponds to the correct answer. After they’re marked, students get a certificate that tells them whether they got a credit, distinction or high distinction. (I’m not sure whether the students who get in the bottom 10 percent get certificates, but maybe they’ve decided that that would be detrimental to a student’s well-being?).

The claim on the advertisement is “Assessment: The real start to your child’s academic growth”. Just stop and think about that for a moment. What’s it saying exactly? That until students’ are properly assessed they can’t achieve substantial academic growth until they are assessed. And, that that assessment is best done by a once per year multiple choice bubble test that is marked by computer?
It also claims that their tests help you (the parent) identify strengths, weaknesses and progress to support academic success. For this to occur, parents need to be given feedback saying what the student got correct, what they got wrong, where they can improve on. However, in a subject that requires particular skills to answer the question, how can a test that doesn’t require a student to show how they solved the problem give accurate feedback?
It makes me think, if parents need to rely on the information gathered from a once per year, standardised (mostly) multiple choice test to find out what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are then our school’s information gathering about student understanding and reporting on it is not doing it’s job.
On the other hand, are we (teachers) using these because it’s ‘good’ for the students to see how they compare to other students, then we need to consider whether learning is a competition in which we need to compare ourselves to one another and whether that is good for the well being of the students.
In his article “The case against grading“, Alfie Kohn sets out clearly how research has shown how detrimental grading is to learning – that it decrease the learners interest in whatever they’re learning, that they create a preference for the easiest possible task, that they reduce the quality of student’s thinking.
More and more I feel our number one priority must be to encourage students to become individuals with a desire to learn more, who enjoy learning and have the skills to do so. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get rid of grades or marks completely from our schools because we often have to collect information or prepare our students for their final leaving exams. Here in New South Wales, where I teach, that is the Higher School Certificate. However, we can take steps to minimise the number of grades that our students get and endeavour to give more helpful feedback to students that doesn’t provide judgement on their work but shows them what they’ve done well and what they can improve and what direction they can move in next.
In my classes, I’ve started using feedback forms that outline the areas of their work that they’ve shown they’ve shown they understand what they are doing and a section that sets out areas that they can still develop. Maybe this isn’t perfect but I’m trying to keep my feedback free from judgment. I also give students opportunities to re-submit (even on tests when we still have them) so that they have the opportunity to show what they actually know rather than using it to test their performance at that one moment in time.
Does anyone else keep portfolios of learning and give feedback rather than grades? I’d love to hear how you do it and what format you use, and what the advantages and disadvantages are as I seek to do it better.
Also, if you haven’t read any of Alfie Kohn’s work on grading, motivation and extrinsic rewards I strongly recommed you take a look. You can find a lot of his articles here.
Reference: Alfie Kohn (2011) “The Case Against Grading” http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tcag.htm