Essential Learning Activities Should Be The Ultimate Goal



I caught the statement below from Lyn Hilt in the comment section of Scott McLeod’s post on whether or not parents should be allowed to have their children opt out of the use of technology in 1:1 settings. 

Here’s an idea, engage kids in essential learning activities at school, infuse the technology meaningfully, and let kids be kids and enjoy their lives outside of school by not assigning loads of homework. (And elementary kids? Zero homework.) If kids are so inclined, with their devices they can extend their thinking at home on their own time, but don’t make it mandatory… “

I’ve written several posts on homework in the past and I can’t help wondering what students would use their time for if they had the opportunity to “extend their thinking” on topics that they found most interesting.  How much longer will we continue to ignore the research of Alfie Kohn surrounding homework? It has been nearly a decade since Kohn came to the following conclusions:

“For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.  At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.  Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.”

I grow continually frustrated as I see my own students spending their time on so many low-level, rote tasks that really serve no essential purpose in preparing them for what they will face when it is time to prove that they have marketable skills that would be an asset to some organization. When they do find time to spend on some of the things that they are most interested in, I am amazed at some of the self-directed learning that they do in spite of the very traditional education they have had.  I can only imagine what the possibilities would be if my kids spent six hours a day in learning environments that focused on the self-directed and collaborative skills that they need (and long for). 

We need to change this cycle…

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We Have Some Work To Do On Homework…

Mathematics homework
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is my fourth post on subject of homework. The original post was prompted by reading some conversations on the topic that were taking place online and also some growing frustration with some of the homework I witnessed being assigned to my own kids.  In addition, John Spencer had written a few thought-provoking posts on the topic and followed up with the creation of an open Facebook called Teachers and Parents Against Homework.

Since my initial post went up on this blog a week ago, there have been a number of comments written.  I have also received feedback from a number of people both in person and via e-mail on their interest in pursuing this topic further.  One parent’s comment (see below) sums things up well.
I am happy to bring forward this matter to the School Committee and formulate a plan so that we can discuss our homework practices in Burlington and see if there is a need to set focused guidelines on the assigning of homework.  While I know that this work will be difficult due to the fact that so many people have strong opinions on the matter, I feel the task will be mad easier if we utilize the resources that are available from others who have had these discussions before us. 
As a perfect lead in to a discussion of this in our school community, I want to share a great post on the topic that was written by Chris Wejr, a Principal in Agassiz, British Columbia.  The post titled Homework Why’s and Homework-Wise provides a summary of the discussion that took place at his school in October 2010 as well as links to a number of great resources on the topic of homework. Thanks to Chris for allowing me to share the post below in its entirety.
“…the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling”
Alfie Kohn

I remember my days  in school when the bell would ring and the teacher would blurt out the homework for the next day.  This work did very little to increase my learning and it often left me arguing with my mother, who happened to be a teacher, at the kitchen table about how to do the work correctly.
Lately I have seen a few blogs, newspaper articles, and journal articles (see below for links) questioning the purpose and practice of homework: Why do some teachers give homework and others do not? Why is homework given as a blanket assignment in which each child is given the same homework? What is effective homework? How much homework?
These questions, along with many others, led our staff (K-6) to discuss this topic at our last staff meeting.  Here is a summary of our dialogue on the issue of homework:
  1. The teaching and learning of the specific outcomes should happen at school – with students, teachers, and staff to support. According to the research by Alfie Kohn, “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”  Students should not be sent home with homework that relies on parents, family members or tutors to provide instruction.  If the student is not learning this at school, who do we expect to teach it? We also need to keep in mind that not all students have someone that can help them at home – how does homework benefit these students?
  2. Homework should be meaningful, relevant, and engaging.  Students need to feel like they will benefit from the learning and feel they have ownership of the assignment.  Student input about assignments can lead to a view that this is their learning, rather than the teacher’s assigned work to be done. Provide CHOICE; there are many ways that students can practice and/or demonstrate learning.
  3. Homework should be differentiated. We all agreed that the time per day rules/policies (ie. 20 minutes/day for grade 2, 30 min/day for grade 3, etc) do very little to support the individual students.  A learning activity that takes one student 10 minutes may take another student 30 minutes.  Each student requires learning that is catered to their needs – homework should be differentiated just as it is done during school.
  4. Homework should be flexible. Family time and play time are so important for students at any age!  If a child is involved in activities on certain days and only has a small amount of time with the family that day, maybe homework can be given on a different day.  Again, the learning activities need to keep the individual student in mind and we must respect students’ time. Is homework even necessary that day/week?
  5. Homework should not be part of the grade. Although grades are a topic for another post, one of the worst things we can do to a students is grade them on their learning at home (or worse, give them zeros for not completing homework).  Reflect on how much parent involvement there is and how this impacts the homework and learning.  Is a student going home to an environment that supports homework or is the student leaving school to look after his/her younger siblings or go to a part-time job to help support their family?  Homework must be designed to support learning; the assessment OF learning needs to take place in class when the teacher is there to support.
  6. Reflect on the purpose of homework. If the students understands the learning outcomes, why do they need to spend more time on material they already understand; if the student does not understand the learning outcomes, how do we expect them to learn it at home?  Is the homework “busy work” (ie. worksheets with 40 math questions, argh!) or is it going to actually enhance their learning?  Is the particular assignment the BEST way to help the student learn? Is it necessary? Is this homework more important than being active and spending time with the family?
In addition, we often hear teachers and parents say that homework helps students to understand that in order to get ahead in the “real world”, you must do more and take responsibility for more.  If we are relying on homework as the main way to teach responsibility, we are in trouble.  Again, if a student goes home and has a parent that ensures their homework gets done, is the homework teaching them responsibility? What about the responsibility to spend time with and help friends and family or serve a purpose in the community? I agree that students should be responsible for their learning but in order to do this, we have to give them responsibility through voice and ownership; this can happen throughout the day and not just with homework.
So what can we, as parents and educators, do about the idea of homework? I think Kohn sums it up nicely,
It strikes me as curious on the face of it that children are given additional assignments to be completed at home after they’ve spent most of the day in school – and even more curious that almost everyone takes this fact for granted.  Even those who witness the unpleasant effects of homework on children and families rarely question it.
I believe it is time that we all begin to question it.
Research/Links:
Rethinking Homework J. Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? R. Collins
What Homework Should Be B. Kuhn
The Destructive Forces of Homework J. Bower
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework C. Vatterott
Show Us What Homework’s For K. Cushman
Homework Done Right J. Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework S. Bennett/N. Kalish

Homework Lady –  by Cathy Vatterott
Homework is killing our kids’ joy in education – by John Ferry (Vancouver Province Newspaper)
More Teachers Flexing Around Homework – by Erin Anderssen (Globe and Mail)
Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples – by Alfie Kohn
The Truth About Homework – by Alfie Kohn
Rethinking Homework – by Alfie Kohn
Rethinking Homework – by John Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? – by Remi Collins
What Homework Should Be – by Brian Kuhn
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework – by Cathy Vatterott (Educational Leadership Journal)
Show Us What Homework’s For – by Kathleen Cushman (Educational Leadership Journal)
Homework Done Right – by Janet Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework – by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish
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The Homework Discussion Continues With Thoughts From B.C.

Photo via psychologytoday.com

It has been great reading the feedback on the post I wrote a few days back titled “How Necessary is Homework?” If you haven’t had a chance to read the post and the comments, I hope you’ll take a moment to read it and then add your opinion on the issue. It is imperative that we have open discussions about topics like this that have such a great impact on our students and that we review our practices to ensure that they are accomplishing the outcomes we desired.

Another positive of having this discussion in a web-based setting has been the fact that we have gotten feedback from people in other parts of the world who have had these same discussions. We are truly fortunate to live in a day and age where this type of sharing can take place so easily.

David Truss

One of the links shared came courtesy of David Truss, a school administrator from British Columbia.   David shared a post he wrote back in April of 2011 titled “Homework.” I love how he handled the topic of homework when he was a classroom teacher:

 “As a math teacher, my first lessons were not about Math they were about life. I wrote this formula on the board:

Equal is not equal to fair.

Sometimes certain students didn’t get homework, or they got alternate homework. Some didn’t write the pre-tests, some only did every other question, some only had to do 5 questions, some had to do them all. It’s not fair to give 3 students the same number of questions when one student is bored to death by them, one can do them in 20 minutes and still another student will struggle with them unsuccessfully for an hour… it would be equal, but not fair.”

The differentiation of homework amounts as described by David is definitely something that needs to be looked at closely. I encourage you to read the entire post here and I look forward to reviewing some of the other links on the topic of homework that David cited, including one from Alfie Kohn, one of the most well known advocates for less/no homework.  
I hope people will continue to share their thoughts and links to relevant material on this topic. 
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Healthy Homework Guidelines (Video)

The video above starts with Alfie Kohn stating, “Homework may be the greatest single extinguisher of children’s curiosity that we have yet invented.

Whether you agree or not with this powerful statement, the video above from Reel Link Films, the producers of Race To Nowhere, is worth checking out in reference to the discussion on the assigning of homework.  The video discusses the Healthy Homework Guidelines that have been developed.  Check them out below.

1. HOMEWORK SHOULD ADVANCE A SPIRIT OF LEARNING 

Educators at all grade levels should assign homework only when:  

  • Such assignments demonstrably advance a spirit of learning, curiosity and inquiry among students. 
  • Such assignments demonstrably provide a unique learning opportunity or experience that cannot be had within the confines of the school setting or school day.  
  • Such assignments are not intended to enhance rote skill rehearsal or mastery. Rehearsal and repetition assignments should be completed within the confines of the school day, if they are required at all. 
  • Such assignments are not intended as a disciplinary or punitive measure, nor as a means of fostering competition among or assessment of students.

2. HOMEWORK SHOULD BE STUDENT-DIRECTED 

Educators at all grade levels, but particularly in elementary and middle grades, should limit take-home assignments to:  

  • At-home reading chosen by the student. 
  • Project-based work chosen by the student. 
  • Experiential learning that integrates the student’s existing interests and family commitments.  
  • Work that can be completed without the assistance of a sibling, caregiver or parent.

3. HOMEWORK SHOULD PROMOTE A BALANCED SCHEDULE 

Educators at all grade levels should avoid assigning or requiring homework:  

  • On non-school nights, including weekends, school holidays, or winter or summer breaks. 
  • On the nights of major or all-school events, concerts, or sports activities. 
  • When a child is sick or absent from school.
  • When it conflicts with a child’s parental, family, religious or community obligations. 
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