Homework is a Red Herring


Polarization is easy to achieve, but it's hard to undo. Education is riddled with polarizing issues, both political and practical, and the issue of homework is one of the worst.

The central argument: Homework doesn't benefit students, and you shouldn't be giving it.

Aside from pushing buttons and for increasing retweets, search hits, and Klout scores, the homework argument doesn't go much farther than that. Unfortunately, it's also gotten to the point where teachers who do give homework feel ostracized in the popular education social spheres. Apparently, that means they're bad teachers, so instead of trying to engage with an already polarized community, they hunker down and don't bring it up.

It's a tragedy that we can't talk about teaching without diving into our camps.

This girl is in every blog post or slide deck about homework...including this blog post. Creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by Cayusa: http://flickr.com/photos/cayusa/2194119780

Homework in and of itself is no more a "bad" thing than giving multiple choice tests or lecturing in class. What's bad is when we do those things - or any thing - without thinking through what we're doing and why we're doing it. Rather than pushing for ideological conformity, why don't we take time to discuss what the real issues are behind each action?

Let's consider some valid reasons to have work done outside school hours:

Students need time to process their learning individually. This isn't always done best in the classroom. Time to reflect, process, or otherwise chew on information alone should be done outside of school because it is more conducive to finding insight.

Practice. Don't shoot the messenger, but skills need to be practiced. Again, corporate time in the classroom is not necessarily the best place for individual practice to take place.

Teaching time management. If we had unlimited and unscripted time during the school day, maybe I wouldn't use this one in particular. But, when we get down to nuts and bolts, we can't give unlimited time to accomplishing a task - and before you get all "real-world" on me, yes, it happens in places other than school.

Exploration of ideas. I would love to provide a fully immersive environment for my students, but I can't replicate a forest in the building. Sending students out to take a walk and experience their environment requires that they do it outside of school.

We get so hung up on where this stuff happens that we miss the bigger point. Yes, I had students who took care of siblings, played sports, or worked. I did my best to limit the volume of work outside of school, but I think it's a bigger adjustment to change what kind of work happens outside of school. Perhaps it isn't the fact that homework exists but rather the homework we give tends to suck.

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Improving Questions, Part 2


Before starting this post, please go back and look at Part 1 to get the research justification for the outline below.

In an effort to make research more accessible and visible in the implementation of new ideas, here is a practical, "how-to" explanation of ways to get students to ask better questions.

While all of this can be done with paper and pencil in class, expanding the process to the web brings benefits. Students (and the teacher) can interact when and where they want. If you're using an open community, you can also get feedback from outside sources. There is also a running record of the interactions asked and answered by each member of the community, which can be used for analysis, assessment, or just judging the health of the community.

Dan Meyer advocates questioning habits through making it a habit to ask. His keynote at CUE gives an example of how he practices asking good questions. (Please watch just a minute or two of the video. It is well worth the time.) This brings us to thing-to-try-number-one:

Have your students keep a list of questions. Not just content questions. Just questions.

Think of this as brain training. There is evidence showing that students who undergo training in asking questions score higher on information-based assessments than groups who do not receive training (Weiner 1978). Now, before you accuse me of reaching too far, the study also notes that they did not study the efficacy of a particular type of training. So, if we take Dan's example and begin tracking perplexity, we are training our brains to pay attention to our surroundings, which could translate to the classroom. (As a closing side note, Dan also runs a website called 101 Questions which is a fun way to get kids thinking. You can also use it to upload content to get some feedback before using it with students.)

Thinking back to part 1, I gave a brief outline of a method called the "question formulation strategy. So, thing-to-try-number-two:

Try using the QFS rather than a more common tool like the KWL.

I know both strategies essentially do the same thing - get students to reflect on their learning as it happens. I like QFS better because the metacognitive processes the students engage in are open ended and content agnostic. The students are free to ask questions on anything they want, which gives then an open route to make connections on their own. The KWL also has a "finality" to it...once the student learns what they want to know (the "W" column), there is little invitation to continue exploring. QFS, on the other hand, encourages further questioning at every stage.

Finally, thing-to-try-number-three:

Use an online Q&A platform for peer feedback on questionins.

Remember, there is evidence showing that questions alone aren't enough. We need feedback. I mentiond earlier that StackExchange is a great platform for both asking and answering questions, but the added layer of voting and commenting serves as the quality control. Unfortunately, getting the platform for student use is more complicated.

StackExchange is a private company - the platform is not open source. I did some searching and there are some open-source alternatives which can be used, but they're not insignificant to get set up.

The way I see it, there is a large community of educators with the know-how and the interest in getting something like I've described set up. I'm even willing to throw in my small-beans experience in helping to set up and maintain a site. If there is interest in experimenting with this idea (I'm not in the classroom, or I'd try it myself), leave a comment and we'll see what we can do.


Weiner, C. J. (1978). The Effect of Training in Questioning and Student Question Generation on Reading Achievement.

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Video is Not the Answer


The flipped class has been coming up more and more in discussions and blog posts recently. My guess is that it has something to do with Salman Khan's lucrative relationship with Bill Gates and the media's attention on their speaking tours. I feel like a broken record with this post, but it is something that needs to be written again.

The flipped class is not about the videos.

Popular media sees the flipped classroom as video being used in the classroom to teach children. I would like to state again that video can be used in the classroom to help differentiate for all learners. The flipped classroom started this way, but it has evolved into so much more than using videos in the class when implemented effectively.

Video itself will not help kids achieve more in your class. The flipped classroom is about making connections with learners and differentiating your instruction. If videos are a part of that multi-faceted plan, great. If they are not, still great. The flipped class is an ideology, not a methodology.

Personally, I use video because it is a tool that helps me meet remediation needs for learners that have missed class or for learners that just need more time with material. For chemistry, I am in my second year using a flipped class, and the video has taken a huge jump to the backseat as I have more time to work on engaging class activities and labs. Again, video is for remediation and review rather than content delivery.

There has been more positive news coming around about the flipped class being used in great ways across the country. For instance, Troy Cockrum was featured in an NPR article that looked at YouTube being used in the classroom. I'm glad Troy brought it around to the connections made with learners, because that is the true power of the model. Another talks about everything except the videos, again, because they are the least important part of the model. Earlier this month, Aaron Sams wrote a fantastic piece of theimplementation styles of a flipped class. Again, none of these methods rely solely on video or even use video at all. It is an idea, not a method.

The video isn't important. The relationships, the discussions, and the experiences matter. We know that already. Regardless of what methods or ideas you use in your room, let's continue to focus on what helps learners learn best.

This is mainly in response to the #edchat discussion on October 11, 2011 and David Wees' blog post about using Khan Academy as content delivery in his class. Both the chat and David are great and I appreciate the challenges and direction they've both contributed to my growth.