Posts tagged ‘Homework’

What really was the point?

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AT THIS year’s Commencement ceremony I idled the time reading the list of graduates. Names from the past triggered memories.

I watched the recalled names walk across the stage in cap, gown and garlands, looking so proud and so much taller than my memory. Was that really mischievous D’Arcy? He seemed so much smaller then, now he could cradle the principal under his chin.

Jeff, two years of struggle, of repeated assignments undone and promises of better to come and broken promises… who came alive when asked if he could help make a film about the math in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

Ashley who tried so hard, turned everything in, pages and pages of detail and colorful annotations… and almost every answer not even within the realm of what we were doing. Lindsay, who would not move to the next question till the current question had been confirmed, pristine and correct in every way.

Kyle… Kyle… ah, yes, Kyle. Richard who was so correct, now sporting a giant mohican.

I wondered… do they remember anything whatsoever we struggled over? And, does it really matter?

The oh-so-important assignment, grade, topic, algorithm, nuance that seemed so damnedly frustrating and vital two, three years ago seemed so irrelevant now. Our year (or two) together through Indian fall, and the long, grey, wet months, praying for a snow day before seizing on an early glimmer of sun would, at best, be the briefest of memory. You remember that math teacher…?

Each semester I do a student feedback survey. It prompts some reflection and student self-assessment and seeks some feedback on the lessons, what worked, what didn’t. The memories are always a surprise… certainly not the meticulously-planned and brilliantly-executed three-part lesson.

It’s usually the spontaneous moment. The something that popped out of no-where, or, the go-with-the-flow moment or experiment. Lesson-of-the-day: Go with the flow.

Nik complained all year, when are you going to do those puzzles again? Next week. At last he spelled it out insistently… the three baby elephants, the telescope, tweezers and the jamjar. How do you catch three baby elephants and put them in a jamjar armed only with a pair of tweezers and a telescope before mummy and daddy elephant spot what you’re doing? Those thinking puzzles, the ones where the answer wasn’t the point. And remember, we needed to punch some holes in the jamjar lid. They really made him think, Nik explained.

What they all asked — Jeff, Kyle, Lindsay, Ashley, Nik, D’Arcy — is when are we going to use this in real life? And that is the question all math teachers need to ask… and be able to answer. That’s really the point. And depending on the answer, depends what students remember and take away from that walk across the Commencement platform.

If all we did was merely deliver the curriculum, they probably take away little if anything. If the answer is the purpose was to learn to think and be creative in problem solving and that all students will need such skills in real life, students may, it is to be hoped, take away something.

But, as Marie, our school psychologist, commented as students filed out: “They got here. We did our job.”


August 27, 2008 at 3:34 am Leave a comment

No prizes in points

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WHEN I was training to be a math teacher in Britain some years ago there was a popular satirical BBC radio program called I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, presented by legendary jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton.

Humph arbitrarily awarded points for no apparent reason. The rules of the games were far from clear.

And although the audience shouted “points mean prizes…” on cue, no one ever knew what the prizes were. The only real prize for all concerned being an addictive dose of hilarious nonsense that was also a biting weekly commentary on current events.

Reflecting on the issue of grading, I’m reminded of this farce.

Three years ago I decided to completely abandon all grading based on points, marks, percentages or letters. The only numbers in my classroom would be in the math my students and I were working on, and not in any assessment. I felt naked.

But since then, this simple decision has lead me radically to re-assess everything that goes on in our classroom — from testing, homework policies, seating plans, late work, make-up work, behavior management to the really important question… the very essence of what it is my students and I are trying to achieve in our thinking laboratory.

Now my assessment focuses on observation, listening, discussion, collaboration and increasingly on students’ own assessment of progress. I hope the result is a focus on what we’re trying to think about in the classroom, free of the diversion of worrying about some ill-defined percentage.

The prize is the achievement of just trying to get it.

Feedback is verbal and descriptive, striving to help the student find some way of constructing their own meaning and paths to mathematical thinking.

I changed career to be a math teacher at the age of 50. UK educationists were encouraging new math teachers to abandon the traditional mark-book full of numbers. Numbers have no place in assessment and feedback in the math classroom was the argument.

It was summed up: Students who get nines and tens out of ten, nearly always get nines and tens. It may make them — and their parents — happy, but the points don’t motivate them to seek out new challenges or how to improve. They coast, complacently.

Those who get sevens or sixes… well, they’re passing. They just need to survive the you-could-try-harder talk. But how to try harder? To do what, exactly?

Those with the fives, fours, threes… confused, disappointed, frightened, feeling an inexplicable shame, they give up and cover-up as best they can. I was given a class into which such kids had been herded: “Hi,” they said, “we’re the dumb class.” I felt ashamed.

Numbers in assessment de-motivate, set student against student and encourage assessment as a process of ranking and sorting.

Adding some words of encouragement to the numbers also seems to make little difference. Students still focus on the numbers, despite their lack of any real meaning. Changing the numbers to letter-grades, doesn’t shift the focus to learning either.

Only when you take away the numbers, and letter grades, and replace them with phrases such as, “well done, now you need to work on… the distributive property” does motivation get turned round.

A target, a goal, something to focus on finally clears the clouds of confusion for the student. Now the student can see just what to do to improve. With student self-esteem no longer punctured by the stark moral judgement of a number or letter dripping with blood-red ink, students are free to focus on what they need to do to improve… and work cooperatively together to collaborate and help each other.

April 6, 2008 at 4:40 pm Leave a comment

Adolescence, a time for second, third… as many chances as it takes

EIGHTY-PLUS adolescent brains are walked into my classroom each day by their legs. The following 80 minutes working with each brain can be interesting, or just plain confusing, or maddeningly frustrating. On the whole it’s fun.

Then each evening plus weekends there are the two teenage brains that sometimes I find wandering my home. They slump by and crash through a door complete with a surgically-sprouting phone, or, they rush up and give me a hug and lift me off the floor. I’m ok with that.

So, when I found a copy of Why are they so Weird? What’s really going in a teenager’s brain in Portland’s famed Powells I was intrigued.

Its theme is that it is not just raging hormones that make many adolescents such joyful hard work to be around… new neurological research indicates that major changes in the growth of the brain during the teenage years may also be having a much bigger affect than previously thought.

As author Barbara Strauch reports, “most scientists working in this area today think that changes taking place in the brain during adolescence are so profound that they may rival early childhood as a critical period of development”.

She concludes: “Indeed, the remodelling of the adolescent brain — a brain that science had considered largely finished — spreads over such a wide range of systems we should rethink how we think of teenagers altogether.”

Since the late ’90s the advent of the MRI scanner has helped scientists peer into the adolescent brain, for the first time in terms of serious research. The pioneer of this research, Dr Jay Giedd, concludes, “we shouldn’t give up any teenager, there is hope.”

There are serious implications for education in this research. Perhaps the teenage years are too early for us to be labelling our young people as successes and failures. Probably these are the years for second, third… as many chances as are needed.

Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes for Health, started scanning teenage brains in the late 1990s. Hundreds of them. He detected major changes in areas of the brain associated with logic, spatial reasoning, problem solving, language… and most importantly in the frontal lobes behind our foreheads.

It is the frontal lobes that guide our reasoning, decision-making, our judgement, our motivation, that help us plan ahead, that say stop that impulse isn’t the best idea. The frontal lobes are the chief executive and the police wrapped up in one. Developed frontal lobes are what make us grown up. As neuroscientist Chuck Nelson summed it up: “This is the part that tells you to count to ten before you call your mother old and stupid.”

Giedd found the frontal lobes — the very area that makes adults do the right thing — “are one of the last areas of the brain to reach a stable grown-up state”. He adds:”… perhaps not reaching full development and refinement until well past age 20″. It can be as late as 25 in boys. 25!

The teenage brain remains far from finished, says Strauch, “it remains a teeming ball of possibilities, raw material waiting to be synaptically shaped.”

Says Giedd: “If that teenage brain is still changing so much, we have to think about what kinds of experiences we want that growing brain to have.”

Yet the teenage brain seems to be growing in an ever-confined space. One Washington DC school counsellor told author Strauch: “We’ve simply made schools impossible for the regular kid. There are not enough options for how to be a successful teenager.”

A 16-year-old told Strauch the world was too black-and-white, with academic success the only barometer for success. “It seems you have to go to Harvard — or you will be a druggie and drop out.

“There don’t seem to be any in-between choices. People just talk about getting into a good college all the time; they pound that into you. They never talk about being a nice person or having a good marriage or a nice family.

“It’s all about grades. And there isn’t any room for mistakes.”

Giedd is unsure what influence we can have on the developing brain. “We may find out that all we can do is tinker around the edges…

“But we might find out that there are things we can do to improve things. My guess is that, if that is so, it’s going to turn out to be something we already know about.

“And we could find out that the way to make a better brain is not through four hours of homework.” Knowing what he does about the teenage brain, Giedd often lets his own four children decide for themselves how to use their own free time.

“What we might find out, in the end, what the brain wants is play… what if the brain grows best when it’s allowed to play?”

Bob Blum, professor at of the University of Minnesota, who has analyzed much of the data in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health concludes of the neural development of the teenage brain: “Ten years ago there was nothing. Now, I think it will be the frontier of the field for the next ten years. It will change the whole debate about adolescents. It will have huge implications for policy, for laws.

“It will change the whole way we think about kids. Forever.”

February 29, 2008 at 6:25 am 2 comments

Why I no longer set homework

I NO LONGER assign homework. That’s now a decision. I’ve told parents and guardians and I’ve a brief document that I give to them. None have complained. Some have been effusive in their thanks. I think I understand why.

The question of homework, assignments, demands some serious re-reflection. In the schooI in which I now teach, for most students and for most teachers assignments are how you get the points which get you the grade. From what I understand, my school is not unusual. Indeed, I suspect it is typical of a US public school.

The assignments are mostly written work. They are often against strict deadlines. And they’re graded with a percentage. The final percentage, calculated in a computer, defines the grade. Percentage of what exactly is not defined. Real percentages are always of something. Otherwise, they are a nonsense.

So, a student who hands in one assignment and gets an A grade score of, say, more than 90 per cent (let’s forget margins of error, rounding errors and all that math stuff), but misses a second assignment ends up getting an F according to the computer. The tough teachers who value what they call rigor say it’s an F. Softies opt for a C.

After much thought, I say such assignments are discriminatory, are more about teacher control and, most importantly,  have little if anything to do with learning. As an assessment tool they are educationally criminal.

Together with points-based grading and testing, homework assignments are about training students to focus on collecting points and jumping through hoops. Homework belongs to the school of education that believes sorting and ranking is the aim of the public school system… labelling the F students to make the As and Bs stand out more starkly.

The system is discriminatory because it sets up swathes of students to be labelled as failures, the poor students, the black or hispanic students in particular.

I have students who go to work a second day as soon as the school day ends — not for pocket money, but as key income earners for the family. Many live in a culture of poverty which has profound respect for learning, but cannot deliver any of the requirements for quiet study. 

But it also discriminates against students whose learning styles don’t fit a narrow vision of training based on written work, reproduction of algorithms, deadlines and drill-and-kill. The majority of high school drop-outs are not the supposed least able, but among the most discriminating and thoughtful students.

It discriminates against young people struggling with hormonal fluctuations, sleep patterns over which they have no control, erratic front lobal development and all the hard-wired tribulations of teenagerdom.

For many the label of F for failure is branded before they even get started.

Such an education system suits students with access to the largely white middle-class, second-chance affirmative action programs of private tutors, articulate parental advocates and their vision of education as grade-based stepping stones to the safe gated-community of college and entry to the corporate careers of laargely white America. And that requires sorting and ranking, narrowly-defined successes and failures… precisely what points, testing and homework assignments deliver.

Sadly, some parents see homework assignments as some sort of symbol of the worth of a school. A school that does not set or value homework must be a school of slackers. It could not possibly be a place where the hard work gets done inside a vibrant classroom, and which values and respects the home and the private time of students and families alike.

Yet many parents will acknowledge the nightly hell of homework, the nagging, the denials, the tears, the slamming of doors, the simmering rows and breakdown in communication between tired and frustrated parents and their tired and frustrated children as conversation and human contact is narrowed to irritable interrogations about homework completion.

Instead of a stress-free chat about what interesting stuff may have been learned, the end-of-the-day communion between parent and child becomes an exercise in rewards, punishments and time management.

Many parents are angry at the nightly and weekend intrusions into family time.

They are angry that another worksheet and more busy work dictates the time of a tired family needing time to build and maintain the fleeting relationship of child and parent.

They are angry that with no say in the matter, a stranger can impose arbitrary demands in their home and effectively pronounce judgement on the moral worth of the family with a simple letter.

They are angry at how meaningless or simply impossible are almost all of the tasks set.

And they’re the lucky ones… for the students most ill-served by the points-testing-homework trinity of tyranny there is no end-of-day solace and comfort as parents are absent at second jobs or through poverty-driven family breakdown.

If any homework should be set, it should be for parents and childen alike to recall that four innocent people were hanged to death for demonstrating for the eight-hour work day.

Yet, there is no evidence that homework achieves any positive educational gain whatsoever. Indeed, if the evidence shows anything, it is that homework is destructive of learning.

Certainly, there are plenty of pundits — and politicians — who insist on the value of the discipline of homework. Their concern seems to focus on discipline. Here we must be grateful to Mr Alfie Kohn and his excellent The Homework Myth — Too Much of a Bad Thing for exposing the chasm between the conclusions of these charlatans and the actual evidence of their data.

At best homework seems to be set because it seems common-sense to assume that it must be good. But that homework is then used as a prime basis for assigning ill-defined labels on a child’s worth is scandalous.

My homework policy now reads as follows:

“Research indicates it does little to promote real learning, and frequently is a source of conflict in the home between tired and frustrated students and their equally tired and frustrated adult supporters.

“Occasionally I do assign a project to be done in school and at home over a period of time.

“Students are welcome to work on what we are doing in school… if that gives them pleasure or satisfaction, but not if it is a source of stress or worry.

“However, I do understand that parents are anxious to help their students… and may feel homework is a discipline that will help.

“If you want to help your student at home, the most effective way, in my view, is to ask your student to explain the ideas we are tackling in class. Talking math is learning math. Exploring the ideas, is learning math.

“Try to listen and not intervene. Ask a few mildly probing questions. If the explanation does not help you understand the idea, suggest your student raises the matter in class to seek a better explanation.

“Please, do not push the conversation to a confrontation or anything that is anything other than a pleasant conversation in the evening in the home. Please do not try to teach your student the point under question. Just suggest the student seeks a better explanation in school.”

And grading? I don’t use use points in any form. Instead I rely on a description of the grades, and the students’ own self assessment based on descriptions of what it is to be on top of a subject (the descriptions can be found on the assessment page at assessment at The PiFactory).

A factory worker works in the factory. An office worker in an office. My students work in the classroom… not at home.

For a more cogent argument against homework see re-thinking homework by Alfie Kohn. 


January 1, 2008 at 12:17 am 1 comment


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