Saturday, March 9, 2013

Homework Wars: Time for a Ceasefire

Homework Wars: Time for a Ceasefire

In the last two days I have read two blogs about homework. I will talk about the second blog at another time. The first was 

The Homework Debate: An Open Letter to Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Kathleen McCartney  From Roy J. Watson, Jr., Co-Chair, Bedford, Massachusetts SEPAC 

In this blog, Mr Watson discusses the problems his child faces doing the assigned homework.  Often the student is failing classes despite exemplary test scores.  He addresses his letter to Harvard School of Education and wants to know what courses in their curriculum address homework.  What is a proper assignment?  How much should is weigh into the final grade?  Should it be graded?  Are strict homework policies appropriate?  I could easily have written this except for the fact that I had not thought to look at college pedagogy curriculum.  
My son wrestling.  I think he has the black shoes.

I am not against homework when it is used as a tool.  Math needs to be practiced until the process is understood whether that is five problems or 100 problems.  The same is true for all the subjects.  It takes time and work to master the knowledge.  Homework, for many, has little impact on actual learning.  It is busy work.  It is a grade in the computer.

When Gabe was in kindergarten and first grade, I often strapped him into the high chair or physically held him in place to work on his homework.  The assignments that took typical kids 15 minutes took us an hour or more.  For me, the purpose of this exercise was to practice and master being able to sit still and work.  His actual comprehension of the material was secondary.  

Before people start thinking that this was a battle of wills, let me explain.  Gabe was not trying to run away or refusing to do his work.  He was interested in learning, I think.  He was just easily distracted and he had issues that caused him to literally fall out of his chair.  What caused it?  I have no idea but we needed to learn to overcome it.  It took time and practice. The homework was needed.

Fast-forward to 4th grade and 5th grade.  Gabe is, for the first time, using the regular curriculum math and reading.  On the typical day:

  • Gabe got off the school bus at 3:30 pm. 
  • Got a quick snack. 
  • Went to his room and started his home work.  
  • After dinner and went back to his room until his homework was done or I told him "Enough or run around outside". 
Gabe needed to spend hours doing his homework because he was catching up on all the years of instruction he had basically missed because his brain wasn't ready for it.  His drive pushed him to complete everything.  What was done incorrectly was later fixed with his resource room teacher, Mrs. Naugle, or his regular education teachers.  Homework was a tool to measure his learning and fill in the gaps in his knowledge.  It worked and by 6th grade (middle school in our district) Gabe was doing the regular curriculum without modifications in the regular education setting.

This is an example of homework serving its purpose.  Without it, Gabe's progress would have slowed to a crawl.  His speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists all gave us exercises to do at home.  These exercises were also part of his "homework" and his progress was assessed during the weekly sessions.  Proper homework is necessary.

So what is my complaint?  Too many teachers use homework as a grade and a "filler activity".  As a substitute teacher, I have seen into the working of many classrooms.  I will never forget my shock when I realized that teachers do not always require or provide corrections to homework, classwork and tests.  A student needed help studying for a test.  It might have been a final exam because he had lots of papers that we looked through.  I was not an expert in the subject and asked him questions from his papers.  Many of the papers were full of red marks but the corrections were not there.  I had no way of helping him learn the correct information because the work had not been corrected.  It had just been graded as failing and pushed aside to make room for the new material.  

I have seen this more times than I care to remember.  Homework marked wrong, the grade recorded, but no corrections or reteaching attempted.  If the student was not able to do the work the first time, what makes the teacher think he/she can understand it with just a red mark on it?  It takes time to figure out why a mistake is made.  But unless the student and teacher try, it will never be corrected.  

2012-2013 Upper Sandusky Wrestling Team
So why do I have these pictures of wrestling throughout this article?  I am extremely proud of our high school wrestlers.  Two of them are my sons and many others are very close to my heart.  They work together.  The team qualified for the State Team Duals Tournament.  These boys had wrestlers in 6 of the 12 weight classes qualify to go to State Individual Tournament this year.  One of the qualifiers was a senior who started wrestling as a freshman.

None of this would have been possible without hard work.  The boys worked practiced.  Paid attention to Coach Rodriquez and learned to correct mistakes.  No matter how a match ended, they discussed what should have been done differently.  They were constantly looking to improve.

Shouldn't homework have the same goal?  It shouldn't end with the grade in the computer grading program.  It should only end when the student has mastered the information it intended to reinforce.  Without effective feedback from the teacher (or coach) improvement will not happen.  If feedback will not be provided, what is the point of the homework?  

Homework needs to be appropriate to the student's needs, learning style and level of knowledge.  Mr. Watson is correct that there needs to be more attention to teaching prospective teachers how to assign, grade and re-enforce homework.  I have come to believe that worksheets are overused and do not help most kids as much as the teachers think they do.  

"Fill-ins", "Matching", "Wordsearchs" and Crossword puzzle worksheets are common and provided by textbook companies.  There are programs were teachers can generate all sorts of these types of worksheets.  Why do I oppose them?  The worksheets aim to make the learning "easier" by providing some of the information and guide the student.  Instead, the students become more passive in the learning.  He focuses on the words instead of the meaning or context.  He finds snippets of information instead of understanding the whole passage.    

Sometimes the worksheets just don't make sense to the student.  I, for instance, hate crossword puzzles and have a horrible time completing them even on topics I know thoroughly. I can not come up with the proper word for a clue any more than I can come up with the proper category for a company in the yellow pages.  Before the advent of Google and Bing, I spent more time than I care to remember trying to figure out how the rest of the world would describe a business.  My brain works differently. 

There are no shortcuts in learning to wrestle and there are no shortcuts in learning to master information.  It takes work.  I am amazed that students are not told to read a chapter or page and pull out the information they think is important.  That is not a passive activity the way worksheets are.  Will it be more time consuming? Yes but the student will know the information.  

I have digressed into another topic.

Too much help hinders.  Homework is needed but it needs to be appropriate and used as a means to an end.  It should never end with the student completing it.  It should end with the student understanding it. Striving for Independence: Ways to Help Children with Disabilities Learn to Function More Indepedently eBook: Kristan Payne: Kindle Store