After perusing these articles and radio broadcast (The Trouble with Homework, Rethinking Homework, Homework: An Unnecessary Evil?), it seems safe to say homework is under attack.
Why? If you ask me, it is because the systems and critiques of education have yet to figure out how to measure the value of an education. Because again and again the measures by which the successes of students, districts, states, and a nation are tainted by the belief that we can really know what is going on in a school based on standardized test and inherently faulty grading systems that simply represent a number, not a learner.
In the search for a way to put a value on a student’s or a school’s achievements, we have lost sight of what is significant—lives, brains, beating hearts, moldable spirits, OUR country’s FUTURE agents of change. In our classrooms sit our teachers, our doctors, our lawyers, our politicians, our work force. Those we are molding will be molding our country in the all too near future. How do we want them to approach each day of their future? This is a future in which we will live, but in which they will be the major decision makers and creators. We will pass off the baton sooner than we realize, and we will have expectations on how that baton should be carried. Are we setting our future lawmakers, teachers, and coaches up for success in meeting these expectations?
When one approaches the homework debate he or she must not forget to consider the humans behind the numbers and take into account that the qualities we all look for in humans are rarely measurable. A good list of these qualities can be found on Brianna Wiest’s blog: “17 of the Most Universally Admirable Qualities People Can Have” (read it because I am going to give a list, but her descriptions are so much richer than the snippet that I am sharing.)
Want to see the hallmarks of a good school, a good teacher, a good student? Then look for these qualities. Sadly, in the midst of searching for a significant purpose for homework, the connection to number driven data has led to a number of articles and opinions against homework. However, looking to generalized test score outcomes as a base for determining effectiveness of homework is not a reasonable place to go looking. Yet, that is the sum of most of the research out there on homework. In the numbers generated by standardized tests or final grades it is impossible to determine if through the process of practicing independent learning positive personal qualities are being enhanced.
Certainly, a measure of “enhanced personal qualities” would be challenging, and likely the reason such a study has never been completed. Where would one even start? It would require hours upon hours of examining students’ growth in character over time, the study of the various ways teachers use homework, and an in-depth analysis of schools’ commitments to ongoing, outside of the classroom learning initiatives. It would require more than handing out paper and pencils and having students write what they know on that day at that moment (with no consideration of what variables could have blocked understanding during the hours, days, or weeks leading up to the test). A true “test” of the significance of homework would have to take into consideration the various backgrounds of students and measure growth of character qualities over time.
When I assign homework, I take into consideration the busy lives that my students lead. I take into consideration that approaching new material can be challenging when done alone. I take into consideration that mom and dad may not be around to help. But I also take into consideration that THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES MAY NEVER CHANGE—that each of these students will face challenges in fulfilling tasks, expectations, and obligations all of their lives. Learning the skills and attitudes necessary to overcome circumstances is essential to successful decision-making. And in the future (when they are the adults) they will actually be on their own to figure that out. For now, they have me and other teachers and adults to coach them through, to help them learn how to face apathy, fear, and frustration with a spirit of courage and determination. I can be there to help them try again when they fail. To let them know that failure isn’t a place to stay, but a place to work up from. When I assign homework I don’t look for a perfect paper in return, I look for whether a student tries or not. I look for whether they put in time and faced the fear of looking at a blank page and took the courage to start. Then I coach from there.
Do I sometimes get nothing in return? Yes, but that is also a starting place for coaching. Should I stop assigning homework because some of my students consistently decide not to do it? No, because then I miss a moment to pull those students aside and coach them toward caring about expectations and obligations, about working toward goals. If I never assigned independent work I would never have these important conversations with students who need to be trained in how to follow through with tasks. Because, you see, as Mr. C. Mielke writes in his blog post, “What Students Really Need to Hear” the “main event” of school is the learning of how to face challenges, academic and otherwise. The practice of homework is just that, a necessary practice in honesty, selflessness, self-awareness, showing a willingness to learn, building confidence, creating personal style, respecting that which may not be understood clearly, active responsibility, and independent learning. Show me a study that measures the correlation between these universally admired qualities and the amount of homework assigned and I am willing to bet the search for the significance of homework just might turn up some positive results.
But here is the rub: are we (am I) taking the time to use homework as a means to teaching character qualities? Do we (I) stop and take the time to do mini-lessons on the prospect the practice of completing homework has for building character qualities that lead to successful living? If we (I) don’t, and we (I) let it be another item on the checklist of class duties, then we (I) will cheat OUR FUTURE leaders out of the opportunity to grow in character through the practice of homework. I want to leave our county’s future in good hands, hands that know how to work, love, serve, respect, and learn, not hands that simply know how to put pen to paper and determine the worth of something based on numbers on a page.
During the month of April I was able to attend an education conference hosted by Saint Mary's University year two Master's of Education and Learning learners. It was a fabulous display of all that excites me about education: teachers sharing ideas, gaining insights from each other, learning what the research has to say, as well as what that always important instructor, Experience, can teach us.
Following the conference I was challenged to incorporate at least 2-3 ideas from what I learned at the conference into my classroom. (Logical, right? Learn about what all these amazing teachers are doing and then try it!) Upon reflecting on all that I had learned at the conference I realized that I had been skipping a very simple, but powerful habit for creating a positive working environment in my classroom--MUSIC.
The timing of this discovery was perfect because I had been becoming very frustrated with my students not using class work time productively. They just couldn't keep themselves from talking. So I combined this frustration with the great reminder that music can relax an environment and help students focus and chose to play music during our next working class period.
The results were amazing (though possibly skewed because I also threatened a quiz if a majority of the students chose not to use their time wisely by talking and interrupting others.) But I would like to think that the music played a role in the students finding a higher level of focus that day.
Below is my thinking process, results and reflection:
Why implement music?
The classroom I am teaching in is a multi-grade (9-11) room. It is a big open area with two smaller classrooms to one side and the church kitchen and storage on the other. The back of the room is also the "hallway" by which other students pass to get to their classrooms. Above the classroom is the sanctuary which is also used for PE and drama classes. Any noise from up their travels down. Because there is a lot of noise in our classroom and I have noticed the students can’t seem to handle quiet without feeling the urge to talk, I chose to start playing background music during work time.
What was the overall result?
I believe it did the following: 1) Buffered the noises that are naturally a part of the classroom. 2) helped me to not hear every little comment that is made (which was driving me batty), and 3) I think it really did help the kids to realize it isn’t talking time but working time. (I only had to remind them about the quiz 1 time, about 5 minutes in to working. Otherwise, most of them managed to stay on task--or at least refrain from disturbing others around them).
Will you use this activity again? Why? How could it be tweaked for improvement?
Yes! However, I realized my playlist is pretty limited in the area of “background” music. So I need to be better prepared before class, think ahead to what music would be most appropriate. The album I had on last week was typical background music, but maybe a bit too upbeat and maybe a little too romantic of an English classroom setting. (They commented they liked the idea of music, but that my choice of music was up to their standards of "good music"! Sorry, Michael Buble, these teens might not like you, but I still think you are great!)
Links to all the, Go and See Study, sessions.