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/

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.