Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Creating Better Homework

I've been on a tear lately against "crappy homework." I've written before about how I think homework assigned to "teach responsibility" is misguided; I still stand by this argument. More recently, I've been thinking about how bad most of the homework I assigned as a middle school teacher was, and how we can make homework better. I've also been encouraging teachers to think about homework from a parent's perspective, something I did not do enough of as a middle school teacher.

All of this has stirred up some good conversations with friends and fellow educators--I'm always grateful for feedback and pushback on my thinking!--but a common theme in response has been, "So what do you think we should do about this, Dave?"

Public Domain Image
via Wikimedia
That's fair. As Teddy Roosevelt once said,

"Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is whining."

And...I think he's right. So, lest I be accused of simply whining about the sorry state of affairs when it comes to homework, let's start thinking about how we might go about creating better homework.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Homework from a Parent's Perspective

I assigned a lot of bad homework over the years.

Looking back to the beginning of my teaching career, I'm embarrassed about the kind of work I assigned. As I shared in my last post, I never really learned how to write "good" homework, and I just sort of emulated my own teachers, and gave my own students the kinds of work I remembered being assigned.

And so it was that I assigned ridiculously lengthy math assignments. I gave my middle school math students problem sets like, "Do p. 188 1-51 odds" (because the answers to the even numbered problems were in the back of the book. Can't have them peeking, and just copying down the answers!) And usually they would have some time to get started in class, and usually what they didn't get done would become "homework."

Sound familiar?

But let's look at this a moment...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Let's Fix Homework

In a recent post, I shared some of the research that has been done about homework and it's effectiveness (or lack thereof) for helping elementary, middle school, and high school students learn. This has led to a lot of conversations with fellow educators, both face-to-face, and via online connections. It's clear to me that this is something teachers feel pretty strongly about...and to be fair, I have some strong opinions on this topic as well.

I think we can do better than what we've "always done" with homework. I don't think that much of the homework assigned in schools today is doing what we think it is doing. And, if I'm going to say it baldly, I think some teachers are being downright lazy in the work they assign to their students.

If we're serious about helping students learn, let's make sure that the work we assign is really going to help students learn. And that goes for in-class work, certainly, but for out-of-class work too.

Teacher, how confident are you that the assignment you are giving your students is really going to help them learn? I mean, really help them learn, and not just be "something for them to do" or "something that I can grade and put in the grade book."

My friend, Alice Keeler, recently tweeted about something that got me thinking. She is a fantastic teacher, and is thoughtful about her teaching practice. In a series of tweets, she pointed out that throughout her professional training as an educator--both in undergraduate teacher education courses as well as her Masters degree--she was never instructed in how to create "good" homework. And as I reflected on this, I realized that the same is true for me. We mentioned homework in passing in several courses, but we never really talked about how to really create homework that was well-designed to help students learn. And now that I'm a teacher educator...I'm thinking that I'm probably doing a disservice to my students--future teachers--and even to the students and families they will eventually serve; we better talk about homework now!

This makes me wonder about how many of the hundreds of thousands of professional educators in the world today have ever really thought deeply about the quality of the homework they assign. Are we really assigning homework because we are sure it will help students learn? Or are we assigning it because we feel like we "ought to" or out of some vague sense of, "Well, I'm sure homework helped me learn...so I probably should assign some to my students too...?"

We can do better than that, teachers. Let's fix homework.

Image by Corey Seeman [CC BY-NS-SA 2.0]

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Every teacher has their own quirky moves and phrases. Think back over your years in school, and I'm sure you'll think of a few. Teachers have catchphrases that they are likely to say in class (and the kids do notice) and they have habits for how they act, and even particular gestures that come to define them.

If you are a teacher, you probably are aware of some of these in yourself too. I know that over the years, I have regularly used a few catchphrases:
  • When I was a middle school math teacher (years and years ago now!) and we were working on an especially difficult problem and it all worked out, I would say, "Fine-and-dandy, cotton-candy!" as the kids rolled their eyes.
  • As a middle school science teacher, I trained myself to respond to students with, "Interesting!" instead of "right" or "wrong." This was a deliberate choice; I didn't want to shut down their thinking with my judgment of their (in)correctness, and "interesting" welcomes them to think more deeply.
  • When a student says to me, "I have a question..." I almost always respond immediately with, "I have an answer...let's see if they match up."
  • I still break out with "Baby ducks!" if I'm excited or frustrated or amused by something that happens in class. (This is a great general-purpose euphemism.)
Why bring this up?

One thing I often used to do at the beginning of the day with my homeroom students was to start the day by slowly saying:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

No More Crappy Homework

Please forgive me for using "crappy" in the title of this post if that language offends you. But I decided to start things off this way, because it describes the quality of work so many teachers assign. I am pointing the finger at myself here first of all. I have assigned my share of shoddy, low-quality, busywork over the years.

I just read this brief piece from Edutopia, entitled "Homework vs. No Homework Is the Wrong Question." It's good stuff; thoughtfully written, and thought provoking. Here's one great quote to illustrate:
A realistic homework strategy should be a key topic of back-to-school night and the first parent-teacher conferences of the school year. But it should also reflect a considered school policy and not simply be up to each individual teacher to carry out according to his or own theory of student learning.
This makes sense to me. In every school I've taught in, homework is largely left to the discretion of the classroom teacher, other than some vague assumption that "teachers should assign homework, because homework helps kids learn." I'm not so sure that last statement is true--read on to find out more about this--but there are some strengths to this approach, I think. Teachers can be empowered this way to make the best decisions for their individual classes, and even individual students this way. Teachers are--in theory, anyway--the closest to the kids in terms of their learning, and should be the ones to determine the kind of homework that will help students learn most, and learn best. (Again, I'm not sure that is what is actually happening in schools, but in theory, this ought to be the way it works.) But all that said, I also understand the importance of a school homework policy. Having a school-wide policy makes it much more likely that the kind of homework assigned is in fact aligned with the mission and vision of the school.

I wonder if individual teachers who might clamor for the power to make their own decisions about the homework they assign would buck at a school-wide policy? I confess, I probably would, depending on the way the policy is written. For instance, if a school homework policy would prescribe a certain amount of homework that must be given each night...well, I would probably be pretty strongly opposed to that. My fear is that to meet a particular homework quota, even more shoddy, low-quality busywork (ah, crappy homework...) would be assigned.

It's not that homework has no benefit whatsoever. Some homework has been shown, in some situations, to have some positive effect on students learning.