Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Student Effort Conundrum...

Every year it seems as teachers we lament the way students "try" to learn.  We know they complete homework for the sake of checking it off their list instead of learning the material.  We know that the students who struggle rarely complete their homework, if they attempt it at all which then makes determining whether it is student effort or academic deficiency that leads the student to failure.

In year 17 of teaching and year 4 of administration I can honestly say students are giving less effort than they were 4 years ago, and probably 10 years ago.  What is our answer?

Note:  where is says "homework" it could say "effort."  I am trying to use them interchangeably.

All theories in education say students need to know the purpose of homework otherwise why would they do it.  Our reaction is to devalue homework by removing it from the grading categories, currently it is valued at 5% of the overall grade or lower.  Then, by differentiating the homework and explaining its connection and purpose to students will enable them to give full effort and focus on the learning, not just complete it.  However, what is happening in many cases is the students reaction is then to realize it means nothing on the overall grade and in turn, don't pay much attention to it.  

The intention is strong but the execution is weak.  For a student to understand that doing homework is for learning purposes and students should focus on homework/effort in class for the long-term learning in the course is reaching the highest level of Maslow's heirarchy.  They are reaching self-actualization.  It means they are fulfilling their potential and becoming all that they are capable of being.  It is to assume that all students are reaching Maslow's top tier or self-actualization.  Just to even write that is to realize how unattainable this theory is in practice.  Most adults don't reach this level in Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

What would be a better option?  

First, not all courses are equal.  For this blog - math is the course of preference.  
We need to teach students the importance of practice for learning.  It is what promotes fluency in math and ease of future skill development.  DO NOT READ THIS AS "SKILL  HOMEWORK IS WHAT WE NEED."  In reality it is the exact opposite and reading most any other post on this blog will reinforce the need for engaging activities that connect students to the use of the math skills in terms of high end applications.  Second, differentiation is the key to homework.  Regardless, in the primary grades students need to understand the importance of homework and set the stage to what homework does.  This will help build the culture of homework/effort as learning.  

As students get older they naturally have other barriers to effort/homework.  Peer pressure, 10-12 year old issues, increased student work load, etc...  These things start to really kick in from 3rd - 6th grade.  This is where I feel we are making our largest mistake in theory to practice.  These grade levels need the reinforcement of homework as learning but this age of student needs a little more hand holding.  They need the added incentive and perks to completing homework beyond just the understanding or learning they achieve.  They need the incentives for completion, and learning can follow.  Furthermore, this age is where math skill is "cemented in" and the foundation is set for years to follow.  Fluency practice is essential in grades 3-6.  

In grades 7-9, Algebra is the goal and having a clear foundation is essential.  Students will need significant practice but more importantly they need to have practice at their level of learning.  This means differentiated homework.  At these ages, students still need hand holding but need to understand the importance of assessments.  Gradual release is the key.  Lessen the percentage weight of homework but make sure completion/effort is achieved.  

In grades 10-12, homework should take almost no weight (in reality - 0%).  Culturally this needs to be set at a young age with students understanding why they should practice and give effort.  

The key for me is meeting the needs of all kids where they are at in their years of growth.  I would love for homework to not be needed in that students are working to achieve on their own.  However, I don't see this happening.  A structure that progresses with students as they grow might make sense.  

I am anxious to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Are we doing homework wrong?

I just finished reading the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower and it made me consider how we treat our talented students.  This is not to say that it didn't cause thinking about other things such as how crazy high school can be, that Charlie lived a very different high school experience than I did, that I hope drugs are not that prevalent (but pretty much acknowledge that they are)...

Regardless, Charlie was an extremely intelligent boy who ran into a teacher that truly cared about him.  In that caring was giving him additional books to read and essays to write about them.  Charlie didn't see these as extra work or even a labor to do.  He enjoyed doing them.  Is that so different than our classrooms?  There are students in our classrooms that depending on the subject area have an interest that goes well beyond the normal student.  For this student, we expect of them the same as every other student.  We expect them to do the normal work, at the normal standard level the same as every other student.  We don't give them any other work or tasks to meet their needs because we are told by so many people that too much homework is bad especially in the elementary grades.

However, for students like Charlie, extra reading and essays are not more work.  Its playtime.  Its a time to think like they want to think.  Its an opportunity to explore an area they already love to work in.  We can't keep thinking of an assignment as a prototypical assignment but as an opportunity to take them further.

This work cannot be more problems but a deeper experience with math.  If you've read previous posts I obsessively talk about Math Tasks.  We have them.  They are provided in our tables we use for our topics.  We just need to give them to our students either in selective groups or as a classroom.  Regardless, just like the caring teacher in the The Perks of Being a Wallflower it's all about how the discussion after the task.  Charlie's discussions were always with his teacher.  Our discussions could be with us as teachers but more importantly should be with other students.

We need to treat all students as individuals.  Some need the standard level of instruction, others need additional help because they struggle.  Still there are those others who can sneak through the cracks.  Not because they end up struggling but because we never approach them to see if they could do more.