Trying to be helpful, but…

Truly, I love the staff I work with and I’m often incredibly impressed by their professionalism and skills. We’re a big district with lots of moving parts and lots of variables to juggle (that’s education in a nutshell). So I try not to read too much into these types of pleas for help.

“My computer doesn’t work. Why?”

And,

“There’s a red light instead of a green. Can you make it green?”

And,

“It’s slow. You know. Slow.”

And,

“My phone doesn’t have a dial tone. What do I do?”

That’s it. Single lined emails in my inbox with no context, much less origin (sure, I have a name, but again, we’re a big district and I’m not sure what school the problem is at). Often these are emails stuck in a thread dealing with some other topic completely, thereby making it all the harder for me to piece context together.

Typically I laugh. But I have become a bit more – shall we say – to the point in my seeking clarifications. Please provide context! I’m trying to be helpful, but….

homwork

Homework: A Father’s Thoughts

“Your child will have 40 minutes of homework each night. Plus 20 to 30 minutes of reading.”

Random Unexplained Teacher Rule

Grade Level X 10 = Daily minutes of homework to assign students.

One of the many hats I wear is that of father to three beautiful, challenging, and particular Colombian children. As they age, I find myself wearing both my teacher hat and dad hat at the same time.  I get these weird moments of “work me” arguing against “dad me” (political activist me does a pretty good job keeping quiet – although Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee frustrated me enough to write letters to legislators). A certain amount of cognitive dissonance goes with any job.

My kids follow a grade level train (currently we’re 4th, 3rd, and 2nd grades) at a decent public school district. Parent/teacher night always is a bit surreal as I find myself viewing how teachers translate education policy into nuts and bolts, day to day classroom experiences. To their credit, their teachers do a pretty good job of keeping educationese to a minimum. Still there’s enough jargon thrown into the orientation (PARCC, Growth Measures, MAP testing, Common Core) to make school sound foreign to parents. Most parents roll with it and then ask important questions like can our kids bring cupcakes to school for their birthday?

Up to this point, my kids received a homework packet on Thursday that would be due on Thursday of the next week. The packet featured a smorgasborg of worksheets – math problems and reading problems – plus a reading log for the week. From a practical perspective we loved the packet. Our girls are involved in gymnastics, which runs a good 3 hours three nights out of the week. By the time they get home, eat, and clean up they’re not very functional when it comes to academics. Reading before bed helps them wind down and check off a school obligation.

This year is different. My oldest is in 4th grade where they’re introducing elements of secondary school to the students. This means changing classes. More testing. And more homework. Specifically, 40 minutes a night plus reading.

In the education world, opinions about homework are sorta like opinions about politics. You’re going to quickly piss someone off and make a few enemies. As a teacher, I’ve always been a bit sanguine about homework because I really never wanted to step on any mines. But as a father, I find myself reflecting more on this issue because I’m forced to exam it from a different perspective.

What is the point of homework?

It’s always best to start with they “why”? Why do any type of educational activity? Educators are tasked to help their students grow academically (and some would say morally and in civics as well, but that’s a whole different post). So a more specific question to ask would be “does homework result in academic growth?”

At best, studies say the answer to that question is ambiguous.

Most say there’s no effect on growth for younger students (elementary levels).

Among the many notes of caution with these studies, one stand out. Reading has a positive affect on academic growth. In other words, if the homework assigned is reading, that’s a good investment of time for students.

Other studies have shown homework that reinforces what was learned that day/week may have some positive correlation.

The other point(s) of homework

I suspect a lot of homework is given because it’s “how we’ve always done it.” When I taught in the classroom I’d hand out the default worksheet as homework. For the most part, that’s what my kids receive as well. They’re piddly, not very rigorous, but hey, at least it’s a grade. Or maybe not, given that quite a few teachers don’t give a grade for homework (or only a participation grade).

Or maybe it’s the Calvin and Hobbs Dad Theory: Homework Builds Character.

character

Whatever the reasons for homework, I’ve yet to work in a district that doesn’t face a very high “non-compliance” rate of homework completion. Typically this has required (informally or formally) grading policies that point out the seemingly obvious point that “incomplete homework cannot result in class failure.”

It’s still an expectation

My kids’ weekday is packed. They may have an hour of free time in the evening. They also have free time when I drop them off to extended care in the morning (about an hour). We, like many families, juggle work, community, church, team sports, and dozen of other random events. Homework is part of the juggle, and my wife and I certainly expect our children to learn to work with the wide variety of teacher expectations.

But we’re also big believers in balance. Sometimes that means skipping a gymnastic’s meet. Sometimes that means letting them put their pencils down and sending them outside to play (which, I suspect, leads to an equal amount of cognitive growth).

Laptop

Hold on, laptops may NOT be bad for learning

Around a month ago, a corner of my Twitterverse erupted with a study that indicated that laptops in the classroom discourage learning. Titled “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard“, one could easily conclude it best to have students close their screens and pick up a pencil if you wanted more retention in your sit and get.

One key conclusion from the authors:

Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, ‘if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop’ than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes (e.g., Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Richland, Bjork, Finley, & Linn, 2005). For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, ‘laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.’ (p. 1166)

Cue the fun debates and collective wig outs in social science magazines and education blogs!

Also cue existential crisis for technology directors (if there is no need for technology in education, do I really exist?).

Hold On a Second

Smarter minds than mine are finding solid flaws in the conclusion. One of the best takedowns comes from Darren Kuropatwa. He quite rightly points out:

LEARNING ISN’T IN THE DEVICE

In the same way learning to ride a bike and learning to drive a car require different learning experiences using different learning tools also requires different learning experiences. Students don’t automatically know how to take notes; it’s a learned skill, one we have to teach.

Not to mention the questions we should ask about how much of an impact does note taking (pen, keyboard, or otherwise) actually have on learning.

I think we too often forget that technology is a tool, not the actual learning. Tools help cognitive growth, but they are not the growth.