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.

My Space

(No, not that myspace.)

I’m on my computer a lot. Having been a remote worker for 18 months and taking classes online, I needed somewhere to focus. When we bought our house, our bedroom had some recessed shelving already installed. Mishra et al. (2013) refer to architect, Christopher Alexander, and his suggestion that “the environment is best shaped by those native to that environment.” He may have been speaking about larger building projects, but reshaping our environment is a natural and expected behavior.

The entire remodeling industry is built on the fact that people want to reshape existing homes to better suit their needs. In my case, I added the desk in the thumbnail above to the bookshelves. It wasn’t a major project (before), but it was one that made the space suitable for the work (both creative and practical) that I needed to do.

I’m no stranger to home remodeling. Having some space set aside for myself was a respite from the major projects happening at the other end of the home. Again, back to Alexander: we were actively developing, changing, and shaping our environment based on the interactions we wanted to have in the space.

The article raises some interesting questions about how spaces (not just learning spaces) can be built to serve a population or a purpose, but seldom both effectively from the onset. If “architectural creativity” draws from “interactions that exist between the inhabitants of the environment,” (Mishra et al. 2013), does that mean building design has to consider multiple functions for a given space? In other words, can a room truly be built with a particular function in mind and still be effective? How much nuance comes into play with each inhabitant?

Truly effective spaces allow for flexibility in function as well as form. It may not seem like a big consideration, but having space for both old and new media on my desk allows me a greater creative range than I would normally have. Fostering both digital and analog thought allows for greater depth and refinement in “produced” work. Ideas are easier to jot down on paper and then refine out in the coding or writing process. Analogous to filming a project without a storyboard or script, writing by hand helps me find a theme to follow for the rest of the process.

Creating and publishing online has allowed for an unprecedented amount of creativity to both spill over as well as be shared. Anyone can make anything and post it online for the rest of the world to experience. New spaces often focus on providing the means to connect, as is described by Mishra et al. (2013):

The room had two large screens that could be used to project video of the participants at a distance, or to share a computer screen. There were cameras around the room, some of which could be controlled by students at a distance (using a web-based interface). The chairs in the room were unusual too: they were mobile, and equipped with iPads that could be used by participants for video conferencing.

The focus has been on giving students the means to connect rather than the means to create. Students and teachers already have devices on hand, so new spaces need to focus on accentuating the devices already present. So, rather than purchasing iPads, perhaps the space should have focused on peripherals or tools to use with whatever students walked in with. Flexibility in any space doesn’t come just from it’s use, but it what uses are afforded by supplemental tools.


Mishra, P., Cain, W., Sawaya, S., Henriksen, D., & Deep-Play Research Group. (2013). Rethinking Technology & Creativity in the 21st Century: A Room of Their Own. TechTrends, 57(4), 5-9.

Shape Games

Featured image creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by Jonas Tana

Shape is immensely important in science. The shape of a molecule, bone, or any other structure partially determines its function. When studying microstructures, it can be difficult for students to really grasp the complex three-dimensional structures that are proteins. I think a good analogy for this idea is the “human Tetris” phenomena. In simple terms, your function is to make it through the wall. Your shape determines how well you accomplish that task.

This is obviously an extreme example, but it’s an easy visual cue for what’s happening in our bodies all the time. In fact, you have proofreading enzymes that will break down a mis-formed protein so the constituent amino acids can be used in another functioning molecule.

Playing the Game

Proteins are complex, so we’re going to take it down a notch and use a simple reverse-engineering game to help students see the relationship between structure and function. You can expand or limit this in countless ways and in many permutations, so don’t worry too much about the particulars. One of my favorites is an old physical science task: keep an egg from breaking when dropped from a height.


The function in this case is very clear – don’t let your egg break. Going about accomplishing that task really highlights the importance of a well-thought out and well-constructed container. The beauty of this game is that it is immediately accessible…there are no rules to learn and no complex interactions to stress over. Lowering the barrier for entry immediately invites students into the process of considering the structure as it carries out its function. Add in rapid prototyping and testing designs, and students are now involved in a learning loop driven by a simple goal and immediate feedback on the efficacy of their design. This is something “professional” players do regularly. Root-Berenstein (1999) quote Elmer Sperry on the prototyping idea, “I never would have realized the possibilities had I not been able thus to visualize [gyrocscopic reactions] while they were actually taking place.”

The prototyping process is also important as students transform an abstract idea to a design to a working device and reinforces the idea that in play, “things are whatever we want them to be.” Each transformation made, from a minor design improvement to a rework of their structure, is important in the learning process. Root-Berenstein also outline the transformational and play processes used by artists, and it reminded me of the mini-documentary below from the group Smiconductor as they played with and transformed data into an art installation.

Cosmos the Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

I’ve also iterated on the implementation of this activity, from limiting their time to build to limiting what they can use to build. Both restrictions create a game environment and push students into higher levels of abstraction and synthesis. However, restrictions do not necessarily highlight the structure/function relationship more completely. By keeping the intrinsic load of the activity at a minimum, students can focus their energies on the structure-to-function relationship, which is the entire point of the task. Games, as with any instructional piece, can be cumbersome and unintentionally obscure the point of the work being done.

Finally, the diversity in student (or participant) solutions is amazing. Limiting materials tends to narrow the type of structure (for example, bags result in a lot of parachutes) and it’s a great way to get into discussions about why certain structures emerge more frequently than others. Again, because of the low barrier for entry and open-ended nature in finding a working solution, students can jump in and begin finding relational points between a structure and it’s function.

Interested in More?

Other building activities which could serve as structure/function comparisons include:


BBC. (2009, December 10). 2009 top fails – Hole in the wall – Series 2 episode 10 highlight – BBC one [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9k_WOjBOFc

Jarman, R., & Gerhardt, J. (2014). Cosmos [Video file]. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/109563495.

Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Book Giveaway – Thanksgiving Edition

The first major break of the holidays is upon us, and I’m in the mood to do some giveaways. Over the last 18 months, I’ve contributed (along with the likes of Steve Kelly, Kristin Daniels, Crystal Kirch, and more) to some fantastic books and I’ve got some extra copies that need to be read.

For this round, I’m giving away a physical copy of Flipped Learning – Gateway to Student Engagement (2014) by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams (pictured above).

If you’re interested, please share this post and then leave a comment below. I’ll use the random number generator to pick a winner Monday evening at 9:00 PM EST. You’ll have a day to contact me through my website’s form to claim your prize.

Be sure to add this site to your RSS feed reader for future updates and other book giveaways over the next few weeks!

Are We Already in a Tech Dystopia?

Featured image creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Wonderlane

I apologize for the click-baity title, but I think it helps get to the root of some emerging issues in the tech and education landscapes. I’ve got four problems briefly outlined with proposed solutions beneath. As always, comments are welcome.

Problem 1 – Closed Content

Schools nationwide are filtering content beyond a reasonable amount. I understand COPPA and FERPA and that they are extremely important. What I don’t understand is how wide a net schools are casting in their use policies with students while citing FERPA and COPPA across the board. This is not a time for blanket statements and policies. Yes, it takes more work to manage a wider range of software and web filtering, but the benefits a more open web brings students are enormous.

What you can do – Keep track of which websites and services you want to use, but can’t. Explain why they’re important in the learning process for your students and justify why they should be opened. Look for positive examples and emulate their methods in order to build a substantial case for change. Finally, volunteer to help review those requests to build a sustainable system.

Problem 2 – Isolated Devices

Hours and hours are spent choosing the perfect device to use with students. Unfortunately, it’s a lost cause – there is no single device which will make you happy at all levels. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that work done on an iPad will probably be locked into being viewed on an iPad (unless you’re publishing to the web, but even that is degrading. Also, see Problem 1.) because it is in the best interest of Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the other guy to lock you in.

Choosing a device for students should be based on what you want them to do, but understand there are compromises.

What you can do – Don’t worry so much about what students are using to create and spend more time on what they’re doing. Device purchases aside, avoid dictating specifics and you’ll see students be far more creative and open with their work that they normally would.

Problem 3 – Fanboyism

iOS or Android; Mac, PC, or Chrome – walk into an education conference and pick a fight with anyone there about which is best for students and watch sparks fly. All of this is really based on opinion fueled by “what we’ve always done.” It’s fun to poke fun at the other guy, but I’m worried that it alienates people who feel like they’re in the minority.

What you can do – It’s hard, but avoid making snide remarks about platforms that are better or worse than others. Really, you can do equitable work on any platform now, so it doesn’t matter at all which one you actually go with. Know what your goals are and make a decision that fits those goals.

Problem 4 – Identity Loss

I’ve written about this before, and I’ve brought it up on more than one occasion in conversation, but if the product is free to use, there is some hidden catch that we need to be aware of. “Going Google” has implications for us and our students that need to be weighed. Remember, you are an asset as a user of a free service – not necessarily a “valued customer.”

What can you do – Know what the costs of creating an account are. I know it’s really difficult to imagine life without Google (I still have a Google account…it’s okay…) but know what you’re putting out there. This is especially true when you ask students to create accounts online – please read the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy before pressing “I Agree.”

Protein Permutations

Proteins are some of the most varied, complex, and mind-bending models studied in biology. Built from our genetic code, proteins have multiple levels of organization which can be modeled independently and corporately to learn about their functions based on their structures. Because of this complexity, proteins offer great fodder for the biology classroom and helps tie molecular genetics (DNA, RNA) into the bigger picture of our bodies as a corporate unit.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by alumroot

Starting small

Protein is the direct result of your genetic sequence. The building blocks (amino acids) are coded in the strand and your body uses that template to build everything. A common activity is to have student decode the template and come up with a simple amino acid sequence – this is the primary structure. The sequence of acids themselves will determine the rest of the protein’s properties.

After the acids are sequenced, they form either an alpha-helix (spiral) or a beta-sheet (flat). The structure of the helices and sheets begins to give the protein its shape in space. As they are formed, hydrogen bonds and attractions or repulsions are realized and the macrostructure begins to fold into it’s functional shape. These are the secondary and tertiary structures of the protein, and this is where students often get confused. Each time a fold is made, considerations have to be taken for adjacent functional groups and their influence on every other part of the model.

Finally, a protein’s quaternary structure comes from its interaction with other protein subcomponents. Because these molecules are so large and complex, they often form in constituent pieces which then fit together into the functional macromolecule. Your blood, for example, is a protein called hemoglobin, and it’s actually four protein subunits working in conjunction with one another.

CC licensed (BY-SA) via wikimedia commons

Working with Students

A great way to have students think through the folding and conjoining aspects of protein formation is to use something like this origami-based activity where students fold a subunit in part one, and then join those units together to form a working structure in part two. They have to think through how the structure of one subunit contributes to the function of the macrostructure once it is completed. They also quickly learn that if proteins are not shaped properly, they will not function correctly.

Pedagogical Implications

Modeling in science is incredibly important. It’s hard to remember that everything we “know” about tiny structures like atoms and proteins comes from many, many years of environmental observation. We can’t actually see how a protein is folded, but we can make models based on how they interact with the environment. Students don’t realize this, and it’s important to point that out.

Everything in science is based on observation, yet we expect students to learn about structures and their functions, yet they can’t be seen. We have to teach them that first, observation is more than seeing something, and second, that models can help us make those observations. Show a student a physical model of a protein or a bone and ask them to describe what they see and feel and let the science happen. Giving them the experience of trying to fold a protein will help internalize the complexity of our bodies and what a marvel they are.

Too often, biology is complicated pictures, graphs, and data sets. It isn’t made real for students, and building models of blood cells from paper is one way to do that. Making the abstract concrete through modeling and analyzing the building blocks helps students see biology as something to be experienced rather than memorized is a big task, but it’s an important one.


Root-Bernstein, R. & M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Turnbough, M.; Martos, M. (2012, August 16). Venom!. ASU – Ask A Biologist. Retrieved November 18, 2014 from http://askabiologist.asu.edu/venom/folding-part1

Update Your Feeds

You may have noticed that the URL for this blog has changed. It should be updating your RSS feed and URL automatically when you visit, but just in case, the new URL is http://blog.ohheybrian.com. It’s part of a larger shift I’m making.

Links should still work fine to old posts, but in case you find a broken one, either leave a comment below, get in touch with this form, or send me a tweet (@bennettscience) and I’ll fix it.

Thanks, as always for reading.

Down the Rabbit Hole with Alice

I read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture when I was in college. In it, Randy talks about developing Alice and how it impacted his career and his views on teaching computer science to kids. At the time, I remembered thinking, “I should download and try it out.” But, I never did.

Fast forward seven years. I’ve spent the last two weeks playing in Alice, and I have to say, given my experience with Scratch, I wasn’t feeling too optimistic.

Spoiler alert: I liked Alice much, much better. I’ll continue after the video.

I said this in the video more than once, but I loved the editor. The staging area was great to set up camera angles and think through character movements before getting into the code. It really helped with my sequencing and thinking through algorithms I wanted to implement.

As with any piece of new software, I debugged a lot. I had to get used to the language the editor used as well as get used to the differences between “moveTo” and “moveToward.” They’re subtle, but important. But, what was nice about Alice is that it didn’t seem too complicated, no matter what I played with. The procedures and their layering in the methods window were intuitive and I had a good time playing with different settings to get the effect I wanted.

Alice and Scratch are very similar…the main difference being Alice uses a 3D environment and Scratch is 2D. That being said, I think I would tend to lean toward Alice as a first-exposure program for students because of the immersive environment and the ease of editing. You can step through staging into the programming, rather than diving into the programming and thinking about staging later. I also think seeing all of the available procedures for each object in the code editor is a huge stress reducer because it saves me clicks later.

Flipping so Kids Can Rewind May be a Bad Idea

There are times where I wish I could go back, rewind what happened, and listen again. Daydreamers, you know what I’m talking about. Even though it’s not in the official pillars of Flipped Learning, a reason I hear people flipping their instruction is so kids can pause, rewind, and re-watch a portion of the instruction. It sounds powerful, and it gives a great visual of students working hard on their notes, but it may not be as helpful as it initially sounds.

What does the research say?

A 2005 study focused on how students studied using video lectures. I know the technology in 2005 was far inferior to the on-demand video content we have today, but that particular point doesn’t really matter. What I want to focus on is the fact that there are some indications that pausing and rewinding content can be disruptive to the learning process (emphasis added).

Students tried to view an entire lecture in a single session; however, some discovered that pausing was necessary. All participants who interrupted viewing reported that pausing caused a serious problem which involved returning to the break point. Students reported that even though they returned to the precise point at which they stopped, they lost the context and didn’t immediately understand what followed. The following example illustrates this point:

“A pause in watching video is worse than a break in reading a book, because I felt that I have no place to return to. I lost context.”

This is just one example of a more poignant point I’m trying to make – don’t distill the benefits of your methods down to one idea or another. Look at your strategies holistically and be able to explain how they work together to your students’ advantage.

There were interesting counterpoints to the above example in the same article:

Navigating the video backward and forward was difficult and disadvantageous for some students, whereas others found it easy and advantageous. Some examples:

“…it wasn’t easy. You sit in front of the computer for two hours and you can’t mark [content]. Rewinding is annoying.”

“…an advantage is that you can repeat something over and over, like I sometimes do when I read a book; however, I never did it. A few times I stopped and ran the CD-ROM backward and then played it again. It was easy.”

What does this mean for me?

One research study does not a law make. However, the feedback from the students in this study is interesting. In addition to the findings about rewinding content, the authors sum the study up in an interesting way:

Our first finding is that most students tried to study from video as if it was a book; in other words,

these students attempted to transfer learning strategies from one medium to another.

The point is that we have to be careful about two things:

  1. Be careful about how you use video with your students. There is consistent frustration with students not watching them, or watching them ineffectively. Make sure your students understand how their attention patterns for instructional videos have to change. Most of our students use video as background noise – it’s in the back of their minds. If you don’t teach them how to listen for instruction, they will struggle.

  2. Be careful about how you talk about video with other people. Again, think about your students – if they’re pausing and rewinding, is it because they want to hear that piece again for clarity? Or because they missed it the first time through? We need to be cognizant of what the bigger picture is with instructional videos and not continue to promote surface-level ideas with deeper implications.

Other methods for repetition

Repetition isn’t a bad thing – the methods we typically rely on for repetition aren’t so great. Here are some ideas for how to revisit ideas with your students:

  1. Spiraling. Be explicit in revisiting previous concepts in subsequent lessons. This is easy to do in science and math, where content builds throughout the year. Look for thematic similarities in English and History. Ask students to draw parallels between what they’re currently learning and what you’ve done in the past.

  2. Context is key! Put your students into situations where they’re forced to think back to previous work. This is similar to spiraling, but it’s more than just mentioning, “think back to when we did…” Planning is important as making contextual connections in your lessons will help students solidify their understanding.

  3. Examples. Homework keys aren’t much fun, but various examples of how to solve a particular problem or answer a prompt can help students make connections. In fact, I started flipping by recording homework examples for my AP Chemistry students. They saw the ideas again, but in context.

Lastly, remember “getting it” isn’t the important part. Yes, we want our students to have multiple opportunities to get a concept, but that’s just step one. If they don’t understand an idea the first or second time through a video, a third or fourth time through may not help much. Don’t fall back on, “Have you watched it again?” Be sure to ask questions, see what they do understand, and then build out a plan from there.