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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Homework Stinks #3 - Teachers' Perspectives

"Really, the dog ate my homework"

My previous posts on homework discussed the history of homework, asked some questions to try and get  teachers thinking about their homework practices and its effect. The second post, although longer than I would have liked, discussed how homework impacted student learning, student motivation, and relationships at home. For this post I want to discuss homework from an elementary teacher's perspective. I would like to talk about why we as teachers, do what we do and  the reasons we issue homework. (As I've written before, many of the issues that involve elementary students transfer to grades 7-12 as well)  
 Let's start here.
Parental and Administration Pressures for Homework

Adult Centered
A study on homework conducted in 2001 (Epstein and Van Voorhis) outlined 10 categories for doing homework and found that 70% of those reasons were adult centered. Reasons included to improve student self-efficacy, student self-regulation, and to teach responsibility. This is not to say that Teachers do not always have the students' best interest in mind when assigning homework, but that their motivation might not be centered on student learning needs. There are several factions that put pressure on the classroom teacher to issue homework and most of them are focused on the 70% of the categories identified have little to do with student learning.

Helicopter Parenting & Pride
Parents often feel, based on their school experiences, that homework is necessarily a part of school. I've talked to numerous teachers who have related stories about parents expressing their concerns that their child isn't bringing homework home on a regular basis. The parents worry that their student is not telling them the truth, or for some, they express a feeling of panic that 'Bobby' or 'Susie' are falling behind other students, schools, and districts. I've personally had parents schedule conferences with school administration to discuss the fact that their student (1st grade) was not getting enough homework.  Parents feel that if their child is busy, they must be learning something. I've heard discussions among parents that use the amount of homework their child is receiving as a point of pride or use the quantity as a type of 'one upsmanship'. 

Teachers also hear the whisperings or intimations that if their students don't have a lot of homework that their instruction is not as rigorous, or that they are less than serious about educating children. 

Parental involvement in the completion of homework can be a "two edged sword" (Trautwein) When parental involvement was more direct and possibly interfered with a student's need for self determination, the results were mixed and had a negative correlation with student achievement. (especially with older students)

Policies and Mandates
District or building policies that mandate homework is another pressure on homework issuance. Usually part of a character building program or an effort to appear that the school system or curriculum is rigorous, homework is a outward signal to those outside the school that students are challenged. Not only do these policies have little to do with student learning, they make about as much sense as 'zero tolerance' policies on anything. The requirements don't take into account the students' needs and situations, and are more about appearances and compliance. Successful issuance or completion of a task does not equal learning.

Teacher's Homework Impact
The media compose stories that lament the loss of creativity and innovation, while constantly comparing US students to other countries to try and hammer home that public school teachers are solely responsible for the country's 'poor showing' in the standings. Billionaires proudly point to the fact they never finished high school or college and their creations never arose from a textbook. Yet, time spent on homework has continued to rise. We celebrate people who create, but don't give our kids enough time to explore or create. 

Differentiation, personalization, customization or whatever providing students with instruction that meets the learning needs of individual students is called this week, runs contrary to most homework practices. Does it make sense that everyone needs the same practice on the same skill, at the same time?

Self-Regulation Skills
Development of student self regulation is an frequent reason to issue homework. The reasoning is that students need to learn how to eliminate distractions and improve their diligence towards school work, and that homework is the answer. The problem is that self-regulation is just not a skill they are ready for developmentally, especially in K-4. Cooper (2006) found that "younger children are less able to ignore irrelevant information or stimulation in their environment."

Teacher Support
Teacher support is critical to positive student motivation towards homework, including "support of autonomy, (&) competence...extends beyond the realms of the school walls. Perceived teachers' support is important to all students' " (Katz,2010) If students feel that their teacher has not put effort into creating a quality assignment, their efforts suffer.

Questions parents and administrators might want to think about:
  • Is academic activity better than any activity?
  • Is the homework a task or does it foster learning?
  • Can creativity be considered homework? 
  • Why is every student getting the same assignment?
  • Can we expect parents to provide an effective level of support for the learning activity in a home setting? Would the activity be better completed in the classroom?

Coming up next in my "Homework Stinks" series:
#4 (final) My Verdict - What I will try and do in my class for my students and what I have learned about homework through through this series. (Week of August 25th)

Research studies referenced in this series can be viewed on the Homework Stink References Page

Thanks for reading, please tell me what you think.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Homework Stinks #2 - Student and Home Perspective

In part one of Homework Stinks I wanted to provide some background and ask some questions to get readers thinking about homework in their classrooms. This post will look at homework from the student and home partner's perspective and discuss how the homework practice  impacts them. I have tried to keep the focus on homework for elementary students, but I have found that many of the issues surrounding elementary homework also apply to 7-12 year students as well.

I think it would be useful to look at some research and see how the various studies addressed homework and its various components and their impact on students. Research on homework has increased dramatically since 2000 and with this increased study; we are beginning to understand how complex the issue is. Multiple disciplines have looked at homework, including Psychology, Sociology, Economics, and of course Education.

The research has addressed all of the major elements of homework, such as student motivation, parental involvement, impact on achievement, self regulation, self-efficacy, and effects on different student populations and levels. [A complete works cited section is included in the 'Homework Reference" page on this blog's sidebar. I'll be suggesting additional reading as well]

Student and Home Impact- How does homework impact student learning, motivation, relationships, and attitudes?

Assignments & Grading
Assignments - If students find that homework is too easy or over taxing (lengthy or difficult), there is a positive correlation to decreased effort and emotion towards homework. (Dettmers et al., 2010) Students who perceived their homework too difficult and too frequent, lead to negative thoughts about themselves. (Hong,2011) However, if students believed that homework was both beneficial and challenging, they performed better on standardized tests. Students need to feel that the work is meaningful and that its completion is valued by their teacher. (Bempchat, 2011) The difficulty lies in assigning homework that hits a 'sweet-spot', where the work is not too difficult to be perceived as challenging, but not too difficult that it discourages student effort.

Grading - If I can paraphrase Forrest Gump, grading is like whole 'nuther country and I'm trying to stay on homework with these posts, but grading homework is part of the picture.

The Dettmers study also concluded that grading of homework is an unwise practice and does not benefit student emotion or outcomes. Grading homework is more about grading an effort than assessing progress towards obtaining a skill. Grading an assignment is like getting a 'tick' mark on an auditor's worksheet, compliance not learning.

With most skills in the 'real world', practice is not a primary concern. Whether a high jumper practicing for a competition or a manager practicing for an important presentation, it is the mastery or final attempt that is important. We can assume that the high jumper practiced to obtain the skill, but we celebrate the achievement, not what he undertook to reach such heights.

Motivation, Relationships, & Learning
Motivation - Several studies have identified that "discrepancies exist between students' and teachers' perception of student behaviors and that these discrepancies are problematic in efforts to improve performance" (Hong,2011). The Hong study called for grading and feedback on student homework to improve student awareness of their behaviors. They felt that if the work was not graded, students would not take assigned work seriously. (many others as backed grading as well, Trautwein; Xu)

Student motivation towards homework is affected by the type of assignment. For instance, a teacher who puts a high value on drill and practice will discover that "student effort and achievement tended to suffer." (Dettmers, 2010) If homework is given, teachers should consider the interactive nature of assignment; ensure that the task focuses in on the lesson objective, and that the types of assignments should be varied.

One study highlighted the differences in student motivation towards completing academic activities at school and at home. "Homework involves different motivational processes than do school bound academic activities" adding that homework contains "fewer environmental cues and supports for focusing on task." (Katz,2010) Homework, the researchers said, "competes with activities that students engage in during their leisure time." Students and parents can minimize distractors that interfere with homework effort, but the learning environment is still very different from their classroom where they can readily receive teacher guidance/assistance or collaboration and cooperation with their peers.

In 'Motivations for Doing Homework', the authors found that homework has an especially negative impact on at risk students. Katz (2010) found that students completed homework not out of a sense of intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve, but from a "desire to please" or "avoidance punishment" (extrinsic motivators), and that this type of motivation is "undesired".

Intrinsic motivation towards school declines as a student gets older and starts to run up against their desire to do things on their own (aligning with self-determination theory), making homework more of a chore than a pursuit, especially in high school students.

In the column of I don't want to be in this researcher's class, this researcher concluded that "Pragmatically...homework is bound  to be boring at times" and that it parallels with the working world where you sometimes have to "endure boredom." Adding, that "lack of interest is a natural part of learning that must nonetheless be overcome through persistence." Cautioning that "Homework is largely a solitary activity associated with negative effects." The study did point out that "collaborative (homework) assignments seemed rare." (Bempechat,2011)

The findings of these studies and others, is that the influence a teacher has on student motivation is extremely high.

Learning -Despite Marzano (2003) stating that "homework is one important factor that increases achievement" and that Bembenutty (2011) concluded that "homework is an academic endeavor of paramount importance for students, parents, and teachers", there is no statistical significant achievement gains at the elementary level (K-6, Cooper,1989; Cooper et al.,1998). Despite these findings and in spite of low effect sizes (.15) that support benefits of homework for elementary students, Cooper (1989) still recommended  homework for elementary students.

Let's say for instance that during the school day a child is introduced to a new concept in a content area such as Language Arts or Mathematics. In a class where the teacher regularly assigns homework, the routine goes something like this, a new concept taught, in-class practice or work time is used to practice the new skill, and then additional practice is assigned to be completed for tomorrow's class. The child takes the task home and because it is a new skill, cannot complete the work, fostering frustration. Worse still would be a child, with limited understanding, attempts the practice and completes it totally wrong. The work is returned, maybe with feedback, possibly graded, and handed back. In this scenario, the student is either demoralized because of the grade/feedback or their lack of learning, re-taught the skill, or untaught the incorrect skill.

Skills practiced poorly in isolation, just build bad skills. I would rather a child have the insight and input that as a classroom teacher, I can provide them. While they are in my care and in my classroom, I can ensure that they are on the right track towards mastery and learning.

Relationships at Home - When parents are 'highly engaged' in student homework, students achieve at a higher level. (Voorhis, 2009) There is a price however, as 29% of parents report that their child's homework "is a major source of stress." (Markow,2007) Anecdotally and personally a child's homework has a major impact on evening  home activities. Parent's have their own homework, their job's work that comes home with them  demanding their attention. When kids bring their homework it increases everyone's time on stuff other than time together or time relaxing or pursuing personal interests.

The support of the student's home partner is a major factor in a students' success in completing homework. (Voorhis,2011; Trautwein,2009) It stands to reason that a child with a strong support system and solid routines at home will be better able to successfully complete a required assignment. Is it fair to, in essence punishing a student who does not have those critical supports in place? A child may have the will and the discipline to complete nightly homework, but if a child's home life is chaotic with sporadic mealtimes and interruptions that come with a low time sensitive households, not only is a child's grade sunk, but maybe  their motivation as well.

Class instructional time is owned by the teacher, but time outside of the class is not my domain. I create and control the atmosphere and culture of our classroom. It is a safe, nurturing environment. I simply cannot control the environment the child encounters once they leave the four walls of our classroom. I have no assurance that they will have a safe, productive, and distracted place to learn when they return home. Not to mention the support they might have. Sometimes, many of my students don't even know where they will be in the evening, due to split homes, parent work schedules, and different caregiver placements. I don't want  my students trying to learn in what may already be an overly stressful environment. How much, really, can I expect a child to learn and retain in chaos?

What right do teachers have to claim time away from their student's classroom? Is it okay to supplant the potential for family time or exploring a student's own interests? Does everyone get the same assignment? Those questions might get educators closer to the reasons why they assign homework.

Coming up next in this "Homework Stinks" series:
 Post #3 The Teacher's Role (week of August 19)
Post #4 My Verdict - What I will try and do in my class and what I have learned. (Week of August 25th)

Thanks for reading. Please tell me what you think.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Homework Stinks

"Homework stinks."
 If you're a teacher, you've heard this before. If you're a parent, you've heard, or maybe have even said, this before. As a student, you've almost certainly uttered this phrase in response to the workload assigned  by your teacher/s. Why is the phrase so universal among students and the practice so despised? While my thinking on homework continues to evolve, the phrase is approaching a truism for me. Even though my philosophy and practices are still not aligned, I am getting closer to the coherency that I would like to achieve.

I had the opportunity to complete my Masters Degree this summer and aside from that achievement, I was able to devote a significant amount of my classwork towards the role of homework in our classroom. I've had a draft post on the topic for some time now, but the topic is so complex that I just never could seem to commit the time needed to address in a way that I felt it deserved. So I'm going to 'eat the elephant' one post at a time, four in total.

What the posts will try and accomplish or address:
  1. Start the conversation. I'll try to get people thinking about homework and provide some background on homework, its issuance, tradition, and new thinking on the topic.
  2. Tackle the homework issue from a student and home partner perspective. Its impact on learning, personal interests, relationships, and motivation.
  3. Look at homework from an Teacher's perspective. What are teachers, administrators roles in homework and how do their attitudes and practices (issuance/grading) impact student learning and motivation.
  4. My verdict on the issue for my students. What I will try and do and maintain for the benefit of student learning and motivation.
Even as I write the outline for these posts, the task seems too large, but here I go. I'm an elementary teacher so my perspective on the topic addresses homework solely from that perspective. Feel free to visit my Delicious bookmarks on the subject (tag: homework)

Homework and its issuance have been a part of classrooms school culture since the one room classroom of Laura Ingalls. The issuance of homework is entrenched in not only teaching theory, but in the daily practice of the modern classroom. Homework has been considered the "job of childhood" (Cornos/Xu 2004) and just an assumed part of school life and learning. Many teachers assign homework as a way of helping the school-home connection, build responsibility (self regulation), to develop self-directed behavior, and as repetitive practice of concepts learned in the classroom. Some research has found that homework can develop student self efficacy, enhance learning, and improve performance on standardized tests. (Cooper 2001; Hong 2011; Ramdass 2011;Trautwein 2004, 2006)

Some however, have called homework 'the most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity" (Alfie Kohn.The Atlantic 2009) Many teachers are starting to understand that despite increasing pressure to cover multiple content standards, navigate sometimes competing direction from administrators, and loss of class time that homework is not an answer to student learning. There is a growing movement that seeks to either alter or eliminate the practice of homework issuance. Here is a prominent example http://www.endtherace.org/

"Break the legs of an old tradition" - Italian proverb

Some questions around homework.
  • Why do teachers assign homework?
  • What does homework contribute to student learning? Is it an effective practice and is it based in sound instructional theory?
  • What, if any, conditions need to be met for homework to be a productive practice?
  • Should homework be graded?
  • What is the social impact of homework?
  • Is the impact of homework the same for all students? Low income youth?
  • Can teachers claim or demand time outside of their classroom? And does homework take away from student creativity or the development of their personal interests?
  • Does homework facilitate deeper home partner relationships and involvement in student academics? Or does it add stress and frustration to students and their home partners?
  • Does homework improve the home-school connection?
  • What in terms of assessment or feedback does homework produce? Is the educational product valuable?
  • Is homework the result of poorly planned lessons or mismanaged class time?
Tell me what you think. I'd love to hear where your thinking is. Thanks for reading. The second post of this series is here. Homework Stinks #2 Students and Home Partners

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