We’re having the wrong conversation about Homework

My senior writing course is all about argument and persuasion, so on their final exam they need to write an argumentative essay in response to an article.  One of the articles that many of them chose to use as the basis for their argument suggests that homework is a vital part of the educational process and it is necessary for learning.  Those who chose this prompt universally agreed with it this year as they generally have in the past couple of years.  These are not honors students; this is a class full of mid-level students; many of them are college bound, but not all of them.  These are not students who always get great grades and consider school a top priority.  In fact this level of student is notorious for not completing all their homework, and yet they are generally all suggesting that teachers should continue assigning homework or even assign more homework.

There are conversations about homework happening all over the educational landscape.  Cathy Vattertot’s book Rethinking Homework is an interesting read on the subject.  Many schools are suggesting a “Homework Bill of Rights” for students; other schools are limiting the amount of time students should be spending doing homework.  All the research about the effectiveness of homework seems inconsistent–some studies suggest that homework increases achievement; others suggest it has no effect.  The homework debate really is a minefield right now.

I think ultimately, we are focusing on the wrong conversations about homework though.  Let’s stop talking about how long students spend doing homework and the undue stress it may cause.  These are just the symptoms of a real problem.  When I go to the doctor, I don’t want him to simply treat the pain; I want him to find out what is wrong with me and solve that problem.  Otherwise the pain will just keep resurfacing or eventually intensify and require stronger medication.  If the doctor figures out what is causing the pain and stops that, then the problem is truly solved.

That’s how I feel about the state of the homework debate.  We’re talking about mitigating the symptoms of the problem rather than actually solving the problem.  The conversation shouldn’t be about how much time should students spend on homework each night.  The conversation should be about whether or not the homework we are assigning is meaningful and purposeful.

School leaders need to not make homework mandates that just anger teachers.  Instead, they need to be leading conversations about the purpose of homework with individual teachers and PLC’s.  Is the study guide that students answer as they read the book really a meaningful piece of homework?  Should we be asking students to draft their essays outside of class?  Do they really need to complete 25 Algebra problems for homework?  Is the worksheet on verb conjugations appropriate practice?  We can’t say definitively whether these are or are not appropriate without knowing the situation, which is why the teaches involved need to be having these discussions with their PLC’s and school leaders.

Sometimes when I suggest things like this, people react by suggesting that we don’t have the time for this.  That’s malarkey.   If we can find the time to discuss how many minutes each night students should spend on homework, then we have the time to discuss whether the homework we are giving each night is meaningful.  It’s not time to start a brand new conversation; it’s time to change the conversation we are already having.


You can’t be a great teacher all the time

Teaching is hard.  We are expected to create student centered lessons.  We are expected to create rigorous activities within these lessons that are differentiated.  We are expected to create rigorous assessments and provide on going specific and meaningful feedback to each individual student in a timely manner.  We are expected to gather, track, and analyze data about each student.  We are expected to maintain clear lines of communication with parents and other stakeholders.  We are expected to motivate and encourage each student and get to know each student individually.  Outside of the classroom we are expected to attend professional development and participate in various school related events.  And this is far from an exhaustive list of our expectations.

Teaching is hard.

I remember attending a conference many moons ago focused, largely, on the idea of retakes and growth.  I distinctly remember somebody saying about schools that we expect our students to be perfect every day.  When students have a bad day, they get marked down somehow, and this is not how it works in the “real world”.  In the “real world” people are allowed to make mistakes and not be perfect.

I’m not so sure that is true about teaching.  If we make mistakes that become evident through student testing, our jobs may be on the line.  The evaluation procedures at just about every school I’ve seen, don’t seem to leave much room for error.  One of the favorite lines of evaluators/administrators is “There is always room for improvement.”  I’ve heard this sentiment from many administrators both within my school and other area schools and I’ve seen it written in blogs and on Twitter.  Of course, the message teachers hear is: there are always ways I can mark you down.

Teachers routinely get beaten down by school leaders, parents, students and the media.

Teaching is hard.

This is why it is so important that we don’t beat ourselves down as well.  You don’t need to look too far to see that the burnout rate among teachers is staggering.  I hear so many other teachers tell young people to avoid teaching because the expectations are too unreasonable.  We teach hundreds of students each day, 5 days a week, 180 days year.

You cannot be a great teacher all the time.

Seriously, we face such insane pressure to be a great teacher that we cannot meet.  And keep in mind that we are more than just teachers too.  We are husbands and wives.  We are fathers and mothers; brothers and sisters; sons and daughters.  I have witnessed so many good friends try to balance their home life with their school life and struggle constantly.  We need to recognize that we can’t be great teachers all the time.

I made a decision about 5 years ago before my son was born that I would greatly limit the amount of grading that I brought home.  It means that sometimes I cut my lunch short or, like this past Tuesday during finals, it means that I spend an entire day during final exams holed up in my classroom only coming out for about 20 minutes to have lunch.  It also means that my students don’t get their tests and quizzes back the next day.  Would it be better if they did get them back immediately?  probably.  But I can’t do and still be a good husband and father.

You cannot be a great teacher all the time.

We need to give ourselves permission to step away from the overbearing expectations.  If you are a great teacher 51% of the time, then you are a great teacher most of the time.  Most of the time is pretty darn good.


Top Chef and Education

First off, Happy New Year everyone!

Over this winter break, I spent most of one day binge watching Top Chef, the reality cooking competition, and as I watched I couldn’t help but think of schools and teaching.  The episode that really led me down this path was Restaurant Wars.  For those of you who don’t know the show, a variety of chefs are competing for the title of Top Chef and during one episode each season, the chefs split into two teams and have to conceptualize and open a restaurant in 1 day.

This competition lead me to think about assessment and rubrics.  At the end of the episode, the judges choose one winning restaurant.  They don’t do this with a specific rubric (at least none that we as TV viewers see).  Judges comments focus on the taste and presentation of the food, the service at the front of the house, the decor and atmosphere, overall teamwork amongst other things.  Obviously these elements essentially make up a rubric for each restaurant.  The thing that the judges ask each other at the end is: “which restaurant delivered a better experience?”  And that’s the question that led me to think about rubrics and judgements.

In education, we are continually rewriting rubrics to recatergorize and reweight.  We drive ourselves crazy as educators trying to write these perfectly detailed rubrics breaking down each potential element into categories in order to better assess our students to make fair and valid judgements.  But we never ask: “Did this piece of work (essay, speech, project, etc.) deliver the experience it is supposed to?  Did it achieve its desired impact?

I just finished grading a stack of argumentative essays.  I used the rubric to assess the essay’s claim, its development, coherence, etc., but I never really assessed whether or not the essay was actually convincing.  The rubric doesn’t have an area for this.   In Top Chef the judges can sit there and tell the chefs that their food wasn’t good or the service at the restaurant was exemplary, but that doesn’t really tell the chefs if their restaurant overall was any good.

I teach public speaking as well and two of the assigned speeches are a sales pitch and a persuasive speech.  After everyone delivers their sales pitch, I always ask the class if anyone went out to buy a product that their classmate was selling.  If you convinced your classmate to purchase something, then it was surely an effective sales pitch.  If I were the student, I would think of that as much better feedback than the rubric from the teacher.

I’m not entirely sure how to go about doing this, but it seems to me that discussing impact and intended results might be worth the conversation and help make rubrics more meaningful.  I certainly don’t believe we should scrap rubrics altogether–in fact, I am a huge supporter of rubrics, but rubrics shouldn’t be just about justifying a grade; instead we should be focused on how we can improve feedback to our students.  We can make better rubrics.