22 July 2009

Working It Out

In my last post, I suggested that we in education might need to revisit our concept of "seat time." Sitting in a designated spot for a pre-determined number of hours per week does not guarantee quality work (for either students or adults).

But what about homework?

In a serendipitous confluence of events, ASCD sent me a new book (Rethinking Homework, by Cathy Vatterott) at the same time two articles about classroom work showed up in my RSS feeds. Seems like many are thinking about student products this summer.

Personally, I'm kind of a moderate regarding homework. I'm not at this end of the spectrum (as reported by Teacher Magazine's "How Much Homework Is Too Much?"):

"I don't believe that there's any use for it," said Harris, of Federal Way, Wash. "I think that's a complete waste of childhood."

...but I'm not here either:

One standard that many school districts are turning to is the "10-minute rule" created by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper. The rule, endorsed by the National PTA and the National Education Association, says kids should get 10 minutes of homework a night per grade. A first grader would have 10 minutes of homework each night; a fifth grader 50 minutes.

I've long argued for an expanded definition of "homework," because I don't think it has to include student products (such as worksheets) and I don't think there is a magical standardized amount that applies to every student. Rereading notes taken in the classroom should count...so should time talking to parents about what was learned during class. Some students need more practice with ideas---others are ready for different things. Is there some way we can get away from "one size fits all" when it comes to homework?

And then, I'm not sure I want to go quite so far as what the New York Times is terming "credit recovery." Okay, so nearly every school district I know has some sort of similar program, but these particular examples were rather eyecatching:
A year after reports showed that New York City high schools were offering failing students a chance to earn credit simply by completing worksheets or attending weeklong cram sessions, educators say the system of making up schoolwork is still abused, and the state is seeking to crack down on it.

At William H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn, for instance, a nearly illiterate student racked up many of his credits through after-school remediation programs. He was promoted to 12th grade still unable to write full sentences or read a line of text, his teachers said.

At Mathematics, Science Research and Technology Magnet High School in Queens, several students were awarded credit last school year for clicking through questions on a computer screen until they got the right answer, teachers said.
In other words, just the act of doing the work is enough to earn credit---there is no expectation of actual learning. But New York is running into the some issues along the way in terms of regulation. Sure, you can impose several layers of regulations and oversight, but it won't keep some from finding ways to game the system and there are always going to be exceptions to every rule. Those are just issues at the surface. They never really address the real question: What does it mean to learn something?

Can we, as a system, work out a way to get past a reductionist view of learning as a number of hours and worksheets into something more meaningful for each student?


teachin' said...

"Can we, as a system, work out a way to get past a reductionist view of learning as a number of hours and worksheets into something more meaningful for each student?"

Gee, that sounds hard. Why would we want to do that? :)

Seriously, though, I'm not sure. I think teachers have such dramatically different ideas about the purpose of homework (and indeed of education) that I don't know if we can do that, at least not yet. Seems to me that a lot of people are pretty overwhelmed as it is - I'm not sure they have the mental capacity to do much more. Or the desire.

One of my personal goals this year is to make homework more meaningful - stuff that actually needs to be done outside of school for some real reason, not just because I'm supposed to assign homework. I do know parents, however, who want kids to have homework just because - they think assigning homework is an example of what good schools do, and not doing it means you're a bad teacher. So I'll have to try to balance the two.

Dr Pezz said...

I'm not sure how how people came to believe that homework should occur every night or that a specific number of minutes a night is need. Odd. How can anyone even quantify it?

I tend to assign homework only when I need to do so. If the homework does not connect to the lessons at hand and does not increase student capacity, why assign it?