The Homework War: What Is It Good For?

The Homework War:  What Is It Good For?
With the start of the new school year just a few days away, I anticipate that many progressive, cutting-edge schools will show parents and students clips from the film “Race to Nowhere”.  For those of you unfamiliar with the content (check out RacetoNowhere.com) , it’s a documentary that laments the incredible pressure kids today face, which then often leads to classroom cheating, apathy in learning, or self-destruction.   Ironically, almost every school that I know showed the movie last year had kids at that very moment who were stressing out over loads of homework, ambiguous assignments, and seemingly endless projects.
Which leads me to my acronym of NIMS, “Not in My School”?  No school ever thinks it gives their students too much homework, frivolous homework, or homework that isn’t “higher order thinking” material.

Sure, whatever.
So let’s talk about homework.
According to the research presented by Race to Nowhere, here are some trends:

1.  Reading for fun declines significantly after age eight.  Why?  Too much homework.

2.  Homework doesn’t seem to increase academic achievement.   In fact, students in countries that had the least amount of homework generally scored HIGHER than students in countries that had large amounts of homework.

3.  The amount of homework assigned to kids from 6 to 9 almost tripled between 1981 and 1997. Assigned homework increased from about 44 minutes a week to more than 2 hours a week. Homework for kids aged 9 to 11 increased from about 2 hours and 50 minutes to more than 3 and a-half hours per week.  This seems low, based on what I see with the families I coach.  The typical high schooler I know is doing 4-5 hours of homework, 7 days per week.  Ridiculous.

4.  Most teachers receive zero/nada/absolutely no training in research about homework.   So whatever the teacher believes about homework is the student’s responsibility, even if the assignment is bogus.  How many teachers know their stuff is bogus, and if they did, would admit it???  NIMS.

5.  When homework impacts a student’s grade dramatically, it is easier for the student to fall behind and fail.

Okay, so most homework is pretty useless, but I recognize that most teachers will still give homework to their students.

For those of you teachers who “like” or are required to give homework (as I was), here are some points to ponder:

1.  Do not take a late assignment without penalties.  This is the worst “accommodation” I have ever seen implemented in the schools.  Yes, emergencies come up and situations arise that sometimes necessitate accepting work the date, but it should NEVER be the NORM.  What kind of false expectation are you setting that kid up for in real life?  No job is going to continuously allow an employee to turn proposals, analyses, and reports in after the “drop” date.  It would be MUCH better to help the student set and keep target dates and anticipating and knocking through glitches.  And any late work should have at least a nominal penalty, even if it’s just one point.

2.  Homework should be graded based on completion, NOT accuracy.  If the student completes the assignment in full, or shows an attempt to answer the assignments, that kid gets full credit.  PERIOD.  You should review the homework during the next day’s lesson in class.  DO NOT COLLECT and grade.  Your students need to learn error-analysis and make corrections so that they can build upon the lesson.  If you don’t need to review the assignment during the next class, it was really just busy work, and you should have never given the assignment in the first place.

When I taught modern languages, kids and sometimes parents occasionally said they “didn’t understand the assignment”.  Once I explained to them that the student could simply write “I do not understand” in every blank, the excuses faded.  And guess what, those very kids, when compelled to write something in the blank, actually answered the questions.  I was stressing work ethic, not necessarily content mastery.  I expected kids to make mistakes and form questions to bring with them to class.

3.  Have kids write the homework questions.  It’s much more difficult and active learning when you have to create a question, rather than passively answer the teacher’s questions.  I frequently had kids write 2 math problems and provide the solutions.  Sometimes I would use this in the next day’s lesson; other times I would use their questions as the test questions.  The students loved this because psychologically, it was an “easy” homework (it wasn’t, LOL) AND they had buy in from each other in the class.

Okay, I’m jumping off my soapbox.  I challenge you all—teachers, researchers, parents, administrators, and students—to monitor the value of your child’s homework situation and take action!

Reading is NOT Natural

Reading is NOT Natural

A few years ago, I made the mistake of requesting information from a company that “guaranteed improved reading scores within a few weeks”.  Ever since then, despite repeated attempts to block them, the company frequently emails me special offers and webinar/seminar opportunities.

Then I get kind of angry because I think of all the kids and adults who think they’re stupid because they can’t translate these symbols (visually) into meaningful ideas.  Then I think of countless educators who give lip service to the idea that “every teacher is a reading teacher”.  Then I get even more upset when I hear the world-at-large label weak or inexperienced visual readers as deficient students/people.

Then I calm down because reading is NOT a natural process.  After repeating this mantra seven times, I can remind myself and others that neuroscience has probably given the best insights into the reading brain, and this science will eventually reach a classroom or professional development series.  That’s where I can help.

So why do so many kids struggle with reading?  (For purpose of today’s writing, “reading” will be defined as “making meaning of text via visual processing” rather than my regular definition of “making meaning through comprehension of text”.

The brain’s ability to develop spoken language, which is a natural process, seems to greatly impact the brain’s ability to read.  As humans begin to associate meanings to arbitrary sounds in approximately 6500 languages worldwide, it is difficult to not be awestruck by the brain’s ability to process these complex patterns.  Without going into too much detail, the brain’s neural components allow humans to go from a simple spoken word, and through a series of steps, arrive at concept formation (Gazzaniga, 2002).

Reading ability has very little to do with intelligence, and vice versa.  You can have a genius IQ and still not be able to read.  In fact, most kids who struggle with reading have above-average IQs (Shaywitz, 2003).  And unlike spoken language, which has specialized areas of the brain (Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area), there is NO specialized area of the brain for reading.  This is where teaching can help to link e sounds of a language to the letters in an alphabet can help.  But simply learning sound-letter relationships does not necessarily improve phonemic awareness (the ability to break down verbal language into smaller pieces).

Consider this piece of writing taken from a physics book:

“…sound waves are propagated through air and other gases as a series of compressions and rarefactions that take place so rapidly that there is no time for heat to flow from one part of the medium to another.  Volume changes for which Q = 0 are called adiabatic processes. We can ensure that Q = 0 either by carrying out the volume change very quickly (as in sound waves) or by doing it slowing in a heavily insulated environment.  Let us see what kinetic theory has to say about adiabatic processes.” (Fundamentals of Physics, Halliday and Resnick, 3rd edition)

Okay, now please take out a sheet of loose-leaf paper and summarize what you just read without looking back at the text.  Plagiarism will result in a “zero” and an academic referral to the principal or school head.

I bet that most of you could decode (pronounce the word and probably define many of the individual words), yet could you summarize it in your own words?  If you said yes, then you comprehended the text.   If you said no, then you didn’t understand the point.  You fail the test because you’re dumb, no recess for you.  See my point?

I could spends months on this topic, and since there’s so much data and research on the topic, I will have to “chunk it” to keep it manageable.  There are so many others factors to consider, including working memory, syntax, morphology, eye movement, etc.

So the next time you encounter someone who struggles to read, remember that reading

Reading is NOT Natural

A few years ago, I made the mistake of requesting information from a company that “guaranteed improved reading scores within a few weeks”.  Ever since then, despite repeated attempts to block them, the company frequently emails me special offers and webinar/seminar opportunities.

Then I get kind of angry because I think of all the kids and adults who think they’re stupid because they can’t translate these symbols (visually) into meaningful ideas.  Then I think of countless educators who give lip service to the idea that “every teacher is a reading teacher”.  Then I get even more upset when I hear the world-at-large label weak or inexperienced visual readers as deficient students/people.

Then I calm down because reading is NOT a natural process.  After repeating this mantra seven times, I can remind myself and others that neuroscience has probably given the best insights into the reading brain, and this science will eventually reach a classroom or professional development series.  That’s where I can help.

So why do so many kids struggle with reading?  (For purpose of today’s writing, “reading” will be defined as “making meaning of text via visual processing” rather than my regular definition of “making meaning through comprehension of text”.

The brain’s ability to develop spoken language, which is a natural process, seems to greatly impact the brain’s ability to read.  As humans begin to associate meanings to arbitrary sounds in approximately 6500 languages worldwide, it is difficult to not be awestruck by the brain’s ability to process these complex patterns.  Without going into too much detail, the brain’s neural components allow humans to go from a simple spoken word, and through a series of steps, arrive at concept formation (Gazzaniga, 2002).

Reading ability has very little to do with intelligence, and vice versa.  You can have a genius IQ and still not be able to read.  In fact, most kids who struggle with reading have above-average IQs (Shaywitz, 2003).  And unlike spoken language, which has specialized areas of the brain (Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area), there is NO specialized area of the brain for reading.  This is where teaching can help to link e sounds of a language to the letters in an alphabet can help.  But simply learning sound-letter relationships does not necessarily improve phonemic awareness (the ability to break down verbal language into smaller pieces).

Consider this piece of writing taken from a physics book:

“…sound waves are propagated through air and other gases as a series of compressions and rarefactions that take place so rapidly that there is no time for heat to flow from one part of the medium to another.  Volume changes for which Q = 0 are called adiabatic processes. We can ensure that Q = 0 either by carrying out the volume change very quickly (as in sound waves) or by doing it slowing in a heavily insulated environment.  Let us see what kinetic theory has to say about adiabatic processes.” (Fundamentals of Physics, Halliday and Resnick, 3rd edition)

Okay, now please take out a sheet of loose-leaf paper and summarize what you just read without looking back at the text.  Plagiarism will result in a “zero” and an academic referral to the principal or school head.

I bet that most of you could decode (pronounce the word and probably define many of the individual words), yet could you summarize it in your own words?  If you said yes, then you comprehended the text.   If you said no, then you didn’t understand the point.  You fail the test because you’re dumb, no recess for you.  See my point?

I could spends months on this topic, and since there’s so much data and research on the topic, I will have to “chunk it” to keep it manageable.  There are so many others factors to consider, including working memory, syntax, morphology, eye movement, etc.

So the next time you encounter someone who struggles to read, remember that reading is NOT natural process!