Homework was the issue.
I was called to meet with a parent, in the office, during my conference period. It was about homework.
I entered the school conference room to find the Assistant Principal, Billy Bones (my student), Billy’s mom and her lawyer! Hmm… ‘Looks like Billy isn’t the only one on the hot seat.’
The lawyer started in on me, “Ms. Bones is concerned about Billy’s grade in math. He received a Fail on his last progress report.”
“That’s correct,” I answered. “He did no work in class so it was the only grade I could have given him. I have repeatedly asked him to get to work and I have offered to help him both in his regularly assigned class time and during lunch or after school but, so far, he has refused.”
The lawyer continued, “What about homework?” At the risk of seeming rude I said, “What about it?” She said, “We asked him about his homework and he said you never gave him any. Is that true?”
I tried to take the high road.
What I wanted to say was, not appropriate for this discussion. But… I tried to take the high road and what I did say was,
“The purpose of homework is to practice or reenforce the lessons learned in class. Homework is an opportunity to reengage with the lesson. Homework (hopefully) can give opportunities to extend thinking about the lesson to different applications and links to other fields. And finally, homework can help to uncover those parts of the lesson which were unclear or just not learned at all. If a student isn’t working or progressing in class there is little or no constructive homework which could be assigned other than rote busy work – which I won’t assign since it has no value.”
“So how regularly do you assign homework?” she asked.
Remaining calm, I tried to explain further. “As you know, we are an alternative school in which students work on individual assignments at their own pace. We rarely do whole class lessons because my students possess a wide range of skills, from those who are working at grade level, to those who need a lot of help to get close to grade level.
“I evaluate the students when they first enroll in my class and I start from there. I use a 60 problem constructed response arithmetic test and a 50 problem constructed response Algebra Readiness test. If they bomb on the entrance tests but later demonstrate a higher level of skill (which some do) I adjust the in-class assignments and homework accordingly. But if a student shows a lower level of skills and then does no work in class and doesn’t even participate in the games and whole-class lessons, then there isn’t much I can do.”
They wouldn’t let it go, “I still don’t see why you can’t assign something.” We had a failure to communicate.
Straight talk about homework
This essay is the first of three about homework issues. The second essay will be my specific suggestions for parents as to how to approach the issue of homework. The third will be about how homework is related to grades, testing, schools and society in general. But first let’s make sure we are focusing on the same issues.
I’ve seen a lot of debate about whether or not there is any benefit to homework. One teacher posted on social media an April 30, 2017 article from The Sydney Morning Herald which was titled: How a Sydney school solved the homework problem. The Homework Problem? Is homework a problem and/or is it a necessary evil or is it something else? As with most complicated issues – it depends.
In the Sydney example, the parents of primary school students doubted the value of homework and the school decided to eliminate it. In the example I outlined with Billy Bones’ mom and lawyer, they wanted homework come Hell or high water!
Children learn differently now! – Rubbish – Examine your cherished beliefs!
What do you believe about how you learn? How do you evaluate learning? It goes to the heart of whether or not homework is of any use. There is a lot of talk which goes like this: ‘Children learn differently these days.’ I was working as an instructor at a BTSA [Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment] meeting where a district administrator got up and told a story about how his granddaughter was able to program his iPhone and she was only in 4th grade. He concluded that children learn differently. I disagree.
People are confusing learning more, at a younger age, with learning differently.
The fact is that children these days are presented with more information and more complexity and they are learning and adapting to that information faster and at an earlier age than many previously believed possible. That is not learning differently it’s simply demonstrating the potential for learning more.
But what about the 4th grader and the iPhone? She obviously has friends who showed her how to do the simple stuff (she didn’t read an owner’s manual) and anything they didn’t cover she would scope out using trial and error. WOW! Monkey see, monkey do, and trial and error. Those learning modalities have been around since before the Neanderthal. Trial and error or discovery lessons are at times effective ways to learn but they are very time consuming (and therefore expensive) and often we just aren’t given the time. That’s why we have a curriculum and schools. Imaging trying to learn the multiplication facts by trial and error (it might not occur to you to even try).
For a less smarty pants way of putting it, let’s say, learning can be said to occur after: 1) Exposure; 2) Engagement; 3) Repetition or practice; 4) Performance.
That is, you are given some tidbit of knowledge or instruction on how to do something. Your mom takes you out for pizza. When the pizza arrives at your table your mom warns you that it is very hot and you might burn your mouth so you still have to wait to eat safely.
This can happen during the exposure to information or after. If you paid attention to your mom and waited, you didn’t burn your mouth. If you were busy punching your brother in the arm and didn’t listen… Serves you right to suffer!
Repetition or Practice
This relates closest to homework but it’s not restricted to home. Each time you go out for pizza you try different wait times. You try to figure out how much wait time is enough so you don’t burn your mouth.
After practicing waiting you now know how long you might have to wait to eat a hot pizza and can do so with confidence.
What do you want them to learn?
But you say the issue isn’t about pizza, it’s about that massive backpack full of books and homework. This cuts to the heart of the matter. How much do you want your child to learn? What are the essential facts to know in order to function effectively in our society? Notice I say ‘function effectively’ not just survive. I see significant numbers of homeless people who are surviving but not really participating in the normal activities of society.
What types of knowledge are necessary. The ability to judge fact from fiction or opinion? The ability to reason? The ability to think on your feet?
I hated to see a young woman cry when trying to make change for me. The bill was $10.02. I gave her $20.02 expecting to get a ten dollar bill back. As she was counting out the $9.98 in change that the cash register told her was my change, I tried to explain to her that she should give me a ten dollar bill back. She could not understand why and became so flustered she began to cry. I tried to calm her down and took the $9.98 and my $0.02 back.
Is it important to know your single digit multiplication facts? Many would say we have calculators to take care of that. But how do you know you are using the calculator correctly? When I give my initial entrance evaluation I tell each student to show all work and to not use a calculator. I had an Algebra student who cheated on a test by using a calculator. But instead of inputing 35÷5= and getting 7; he put in 5÷35= and got 0.142856… and had no idea why that was incorrect [see the work for yourself – I wrote the red parts – as for the student and the calculator – GIGO garbage in, garbage out].
If you hate math and aren’t yet convinced, how about history (always a very heavy book to carry)? I was pitching the value of math to one of my classes. I said, “Number lines can be valuable for a lot more than math. You can use them in your history studies. For example, you can tell which came first, the Viet Nam War, WW II or the Korean War?” And one of my 12th grade students raised his hand and, with genuine incredulity in his voice, asked, “There was a Korean War?”
What is the minimum number of necessary facts and ability to use them for reasoning that we are willing to live with?
How much ignorance are you willing to live with?