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/

Collaboration, Cooperation and Competition

At times, education can become quite competitive as students undertake class tests, external and standardised testing or, as they vie for positions at university. Competition can lead to individuals taking a very insular approach to their learning as they worry whether they help the give others will benefit them at their own expense. For some, this competition can be fruitful and spur them on to work harder and learn more, but for many others this can have a detrimental effect on their learning.

Recently, I was introduced to the term “Ubuntu” – an African term that has been defined simply as ‘human kindness’. However, it has a much deeper and richer definition that encompasses connection, community and mutual caring for all. Its meaning is possibly best captured by the phrase “I am; because of who we all are”. At its heart is the concept that together, as community, we can be better than if we work on our own.

When applied to education and learning “I am; because of who we all are” is probably best understood as:

Cooperation more than competition; and, collaboration more than cooperation.

When competition is present, it has the tendency to put the learner at the centre of the story. It can shape our world view that what I learn is of most importance. Cooperation, however, requires us to work together to make the task easier by splitting it in to parts for each person to complete and then piece it all together at the end. In cooperative learning, there can still be a sense that ‘my’ mark depends on how well ‘you’ complete your part. Collaboration is different to both of these as its focus is on individuals working and learning together and moving on only when everyone understands. It requires learners to shift the focus from themselves to others.

It’s not always easy to achieve but is something that we should be encouraging our students to embrace by providing opportunities to work together, and to see it as a way of serving one another. In essence it’s the denying of self to serve others in their learning. That’s not to say that our own learning won’t be as effective, or important, but that we will be looking for opportunities to serve others by using our skills and talents, often deepening our understanding as we clarify and consolidate what we know in order to help others develop their understanding.

Over the last couple of years, together with a number of other teachers, I’ve spent some time learning about Project Based Learning (PBL) and planning units of learning to implement in their classrooms. Project Based Learning uses an authentic overarching question to drive the learning and give it purpose. One of the key concepts of PBL is that it provides opportunities for students to work collaboratively to investigate and solve problems and grow their understanding of the topic as they consider a response to the topic’s driving question. At times, as we practice these new methods they may possibly seem messy and disjointed but the hope is that we can provide a learning environment that embraces the “I am; only because of who we are”.

Former US President Bill Clinton, in a speech to global leaders of business and heats of states in 2006 is credited with saying, “the world is too small, our wisdom too limited, our time too short, to waste any more of it in winning fleeting victories at other people’s expense. We now have to find a way to triumph together.” While it was spoken in the context of world politics, it can be applied just as clearly to education.

Avid Readers or Not?

It’s an interesting task to think through what would you like your children to be like when they are adults. I know there are a few things I don’t want my children to be like yet what I would like them to become can become quite a long list. Earlier this week, while meeting with teachers in a professional learning group, we were discussing a list of attributes that groups of parents had identified as what they’d like their children to be like as adults. The list, from the book ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’ included attributes such as curious, engaged, able to persevere, empathetic, willing to take risks and try new things, able to problem solve, helpful, passionate about something, a listener, open-minded and so on.

As a group we evaluated the list by thinking what we, as teachers in a Christian school, would like our students to be like and whether there were any attributes we would like to add. As a collective we thought we would add gentle, loving, trustworthy, servant hearted (or service minded), to act with integrity, a disciple who loves the Lord, and to possess Biblical Wisdom. Collectively we identified ‘go getter’ as one which we would like to remove and possibly replace it with ‘shows initiative’. One of our group though wanted to challenge the notion that our children should become ‘avid readers’, however, following some rigorous debate being an avid reader remained on the list (English teachers can be quite persuasive!). We did decide that we don’t need to be digesting classic novels at every opportunity but that we should be reading something regularly, be it newspapers, blogs, novels, textbooks or even ‘how to’ websites.

Some children are easy to motivate to read but for others it can be a real battle. However, there are a number of things that we can do to encourage our children to read:

  1. Read to your children regularly from a young age and continue as they get in to the late Primary years (or even beyond). Reading aloud to your child can help improve the fluency of their own reading, helps expand their vocabulary and improve their comprehension.
  2. Be a positive role model. As well as reading to your child, it’s also important that your children see you reading and that you are reading for pleasure as well as by necessity. Boys particularly will benefit greatly from seeing their fathers regularly.
  3. Provide opportunities and resources for your children to read. Provide age appropriate books or resources that will engage them. Much to my mother’s displeasure I still have a box of Rugby League Week magazines in a cupboard at her house that she faithfully bought for me each week because she knew that I’d read them cover to cover. It will most likely be something different for your child but having something they want to read is a good start.
  4. Don’t discourage them from reading the same book over and over again. While it gets boring for us to read the same story over and over again, there’s obviously something about the book that brings them back again and again. Having “Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?” stuck in your head day after day might not be great for you as the parent but is probably have a positive effect on your child.

The influence of Joe Bower

I gave up Facebook 2 days ago. I’m hoping it’ll be long term but I’m not sure how long it’ll be for – but that’s another matter. One of the side effects of logging of Facebook is that I’ve been going to twitter more regularly that I have in the last few years. So when I logged in to twitter today, it was with great sadness today that I found out that Joe Bower had passed. Joe Bower was the author an educational blog “For the love of learning” and was instrumental in changing the way I thought about learning and educational practices such as assessment, grading, rewards and motivation.

His blog site was a go to site for me when I wanted to read a considered opinion about assessment and learning. He was passionate about education and more importantly about his students and ensuring that they had the best learning experience he could provide and that they deserved.

I didn’t know Joe personally other than a skype call here or there to pose some questions I had about the practicalities of de-grading my classrooms. I’ll always appreciate that he gave up his time to help me better understand how to change my practices. I no longer give marks or grades except when I have Anyway, if you haven’t read his blog, you should. If you didn’t know he had a book, you should buy it and share it around your colleagues. I’m thankful that I stumbled across him on twitter. It changed my professional practice.

Vale Joe Bower.

Post Script: After writing this blog I finally got around to checking the ‘report’ for my blog for 2015. I only posted once but so I wasn’t expecting anything too amazing but I was blown away that one of the 5 sites that was highlighted for directing people to my site was Joe’s blog. A quick search on his site and I found that he’d highlighted one of my blog posts back in 2015. I’m blown away a) by the timing of this revelation and b) that he thought it worthy of sharing.

referring sites

 

The problem with diminishing grades

As we’ve just finished our end of year reporting process, I’ve been reflecting on giving students zero if they hand a task in late. Whether it’s a straight zero for being a day late or whether it’s losing 20% per day, it doesn’t make sense. What a policy like this says is that a student who hands in their project a day late (or 5 days late) has learned nothing when in reality, the project that they’ve completed could have communicated the most extensive understanding of the topic they were learning about. Is this fair? Does the lateness say more about their disorganisation than the development of their understanding? In NSW we are required to use Course Performance Descriptors to allocate a grade at the end of the school year for Year 10 (and now Year 11) students. Even if a student handed in all their assessment tasks late and received zero, we should still be able to give them an “A” if their projects showed an extensive understanding. I wonder how many students will have received a lower grade than they deserve because they handed a task in late?

Consider this scenario. A student is working on a project that they have become totally immersed in and is wanting to learn more and add more to their final project because they are continuing to learn more. As the due date looms, the student asks for a request to have an extension, not because they are sick, just because they don’t want to hand in something that’s not as well done as they feel they can do. It’s worth noting that I’ve never encountered this scenario myself, but I wonder what I would do if I wasn’t bound by school policy and have to do what it dictates?

A diminishing grade system, whether it be a zero policy or 20% per day, is no more than a big stick to help with management of students to complete their work in an orderly fashion I’m sure because it doesn’t seem to be there as a tool to help accurately demonstrate what students’ have learned.

Some other things to consider:

  • What effect does the zero have on the student’s motivation to learn? Joe Bower has given some thought to this both here and here
  • Why give a mark or grade anyway? Does it give an accurate reflection on what they know?
  • The board of studies in NSW doesn’t require us to give a grade at all until the end of Year 10 if we don’t believe it’s suitable which means a zero policy could be redundant anyway (although we do need to report a 5 point scale twice per year) but so many of us do anyway. Is that just historical?

I’m planning that in 2013 I will be giving away the grades and working with students to enjoy learning without the fear of judgement. I’ll be focused on giving quality feedback and allowing students the opportunity to improve what they’ve done rather than seeing a grade as an endpoint to their learning.

How “school” can kill the desire to learn

I used this image in one of my classes earlier this year and thought I’d struck gold. I actually had but, sadly, the school “system” quickly tarnished it and gave me clearest indication that school, which is intended to increase our students desire to learn, in it’s institutionalised form can actually do the opposite.

I’ve been encouraged to use stories and stimulus materials to pique the student’s curiosity and to use the stories behind the pictures to challenge their thinking and actions. As the Olympic games were bearing down on us, we were doing a unit in our elective sports science class about “Issues in Sport”. I thought I’d use this famous image of the 1968 Olympic Games 200m Podium to discuss the place of sport in society and whether their is a place for protests in sport or at the Olympics.

As the students entered the room I had this image up on the wall waiting for them. At this time, I gave them no information about what it was, when it was or what was happening. I simply asked the students to do two things:

  1. Write down everything they observed in the image
  2. Write down any questions that you have about the image

It was slow to get started but with a little bit of prodding the students really got going, they were calling out the things they observed and others were writing down ideas they were hearing from other students, they were asking me lots of questions and I just told them to record all the questions they had. They’d wondered why they were wearing gloves, why they had no shoes, why were they facing the way they did, what was the badge they were all wearing and plenty more.

Once the observations and questions started to dry up, I shared with the class the key details: that it was a picture taken at the 1968 Olympic Games after the 200m Sprint. Once the students had this they were then able to go and find answers to the questions. The next 20 -30 mins was some of the most enjoyable moments of my teaching year. Some of the students had found footage of the race and were watching it, others were finding answers to their questions. All 18 students were ‘hooked’. They were calling out the answers they found “The two Americans were banned from going to the Olympics again. Why was that?” Good question, write it down was my response. “Peter Norman never represented Australia again after this either. Why wasn’t he allowed to compete? He didn’t make the salute.” Good question, write it down.

This went on for the remainder of the lesson. It was pretty to watch.

Then the bell rang.

I didn’t have my class for another 3 days. As they came in, again I had the same picture on the wall. The immediate response from most students was “What? Are we still doing that?”. The break had killed their enthusiasm and curiosity. It had drained all momentum that had been built as we worked toward talking about why human rights were important enough to these athletes that they’d risk being banned from competition and why an Australian who wasn’t living amongst the racial tensions of the USA at the time would stand up for the same thing. Or what we’d be willing to stand up for?

It made me realise it must be so frustrating for students to go from one lesson to the next regardless of where they are up to. To be fully immersed in a learning experience and have to stop, pack up and move to another lesson and start again.

I’ve got no answers to make it right other than to say that it’s broken. So much of our schooling is institutionalised and constructed to fit in the “timetable” to make it easier for teachers to work but how much of what we do is set up to make it easy for the students to learn and enjoy learning?

As someone who doesn’t have the power to change things, I can only ask the questions. I don’t even have a solid answer to my own questions really, but it’s becoming clearer how much of what we are doing is actually making it hard for students to grow in their love for learning.

How a ‘Road bike party’ can model learning

Video 1 – Road Bike Party

The last few weeks has been quite difficult for lovers of cycling. The USADA vs Lance Armstrong has been getting lots of headlines and left those that love the sport of bicycle riding disillusioned with the sport. However, the above video was shared with me by a friend. It shows an incredible level of skill riding a $12k+ road bike over obstacles more suitable to mountain bikes. Martyn Ashton (the rider) is a highly skilled rider who has been doing tricks on his bike for a very long time and it shows.

A few days after I first saw this, I was also sent the video below of the outtakes from the making of the Road bike party video. What I loved as I watched it was that as he took adventurous risks to learn/perform skills in new ways, even though he failed a number of times, he didn’t give up but tried again until he got it just right to put in his video. He didn’t just do the back flip out of the golf bunker but planned it and rehearsed it in a ‘safer’ environment before taking it on to the golf course. Even then, he stacked it big time … but still persisted until it worked. Watch the second video and see for yourself the difference between the two.

Video 2 – Road Bike Party – the outtakes

If the link between the two videos isn’t obvious yet, let me spell it out more clearly. Perfection in learning doesn’t just happen. The learner won’t get it right first time every time, but needs a safe environment to take a risk in when practicing and perfecting a skill – one that allows them to fail and try again (preferably without judgement).

I would hazard a guess that many of our students already learn this way in their own time as they learn to try new tricks on skateboards, surfboards, bikes, at dance lessons, when painting or something else they are interested in.

The question I need to ask is, how do we provide this in a school context? What do we need to do to get our students motivated to learn, willing to take a risk and fail and then persisting until they get it right?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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

The Biggest Loser Challenge: My PBL journey Volume 1

Well, I’ve taken the first step in my PBL journey. After toying with it for a while and watching tweets fly between Bianca Hewes and Dean Groom, I’ve finally decided to take the plunge. As I looked at a teaching programme we’ve been using for a few years now with year 9, I realised it was becoming a little tired, I realised it needed to change.

I put a call out to a few of my twitter PLN for a driving question for my project. @BenPaddleJones came up with “How will you ensure you never end up on the biggest loser”. Considering the Australian series has just finished, it struck a chord. The number one issue of faced is time – it’s been hectic to get this thing of the ground because from the time I started planning it, to when I intended to teach it was only 24hrs!! Ridiculous. Anyway, after a quick chat with Bianca only 2 hrs before kick off, I managed to buy myself 48hrs – which brings me to now. What a whirlwind that conversation was! She explained how the hook lesson will work, how to do circle time, how to set up my groups and started me thinking about the possibility of using a narrative and that I could ‘gamify’ my unit. Wow, so much to do but it certainly got me excited at the possibilities starting to build for this unit. (I think I may have frightened my faculty a little with my enthusiasm!)

I went with a narrative that the TV channel that runs the program is after a team of health experts to create a plan for educating school aged children on healthy living. Students will be put into groups to create a research investigation of the syllabus information, create a presentation and will finally present their plan to a panel of experts (their classmates, PE teachers and hopefully a personal trainer or health professional).

Tomorrow is ‘D’ day for delivery and explaining it to the class. BUT, there’s still time to improve. I’d love you to have a look at what I’ve come up with so far and leave me some feedback on ideas that I might be able to implement. You can check out the document below.

I must finish by giving credit to The Molistic View’s willingness to share his experiences and his project through his blog. It’s given me plenty of ideas as well as an idea of what to expect. Thanks.

Minor breakthrough

As I started with a new stage 6 (year 11) PDHPE class last year I was really keen to try and integrate technology into my teaching in a way that helped not just to engage the students but to assist their learning. My aim was to choose tasks that would allow them to find the answers to questions themselves by analyzing information and organizing their work to allow them to use it effectively.

In the start The students thought some of what we were doing was interesting but they found some of it to be ‘too hard’. Through a number of conversations with the students it was communicated that they’d just prefer to have me give them the information – effectively, to stand out the front of the class and lecture. It wasn’t the type of feedback I was hoping for after planing activities that I thought to be engaging, interesting and helpful in developing good learners.

While discouraged, I wanted to make sure I kept on with my plans but I made some modifications and being very careful in what things I chose to do. I’ve continued with that for the past 12 months and the students have come to accept the method allowing me to ‘push’ a little further.

Last night, we had parent-teacher night with the parents (and some students) from that class. It was very encouraging to hear one of the more vocal opponents of technology admit that he can now see the the worth in what we are doing with technology and that he’s finding it helpful. It was quite unexpected, but welcomed.

It’s given me the encouragement to keep pushing ahead with trying to be innovative in my teaching – not just with technology. It might take some time but the changes will be worthwhile.