The Case for Homework

Kevin Gannon (Grand View University; Twitter:@TheTattoedProf) wrote an excellent rebuttal to an essay published in the New York Time recently. Mark Bauerlein, himself also a professor (Emory University), penned some thoughts about teaching in “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Dr. Gannon took exception to many of the notions expressed by Dr. Bauerlein, and rightly so, in my opinion. With all due respect to Mark, his comments exhibit far less depth and complexity than I would expect from someone in academia.

However, I also have come to understand something else, having been in academia myself since 1993. Many faculty have lost contact with their academic spirit guides, and have succumbed to the same professional and vocational desires of their students, i.e. “I need this degree so I can get a job at a university.” They then go about aping the behaviors of their predecessors without fully appreciating and valuing the depth and scope of what entails being a life-long learner.

We’ve all witnessed this scene. A head coach, or assistant coach, gets in the face of a little guy or gal, and screams bloody-murder at them for what seems like an eternity to the kid. A couple of episodes of this and the kid is done with sports. Maybe; sometime persistent parents will cajole the kid into playing another season, “because you’ll have a different coach, and it’ll be better. I promise.” Again, maybe.

I contend teaching-lecturing is equivalent to coaching. I can’t really think of any way my allegory breaks down. Some educators might rebel at this; I assure you this is a high compliment. Some educators might agree and state “coaching is a form of teaching.” I submit the converse, “teaching is a form of coaching.”

Teaching is a form of coaching, and homework is the “practice.” But, homework is more than simply practice.

Homework as Practice

Every successful athlete practices. Every day. Hours every day. Over and over again. Catch the ball. Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Throw the ball. Free throw made. Free throw made. Free throw missed. Free throw made. Hit the ball. Hit the ball. Swish. Hit the ball. Hit the ball. The athlete may mix it up, add some variety. Catch the bouncing ball. Side-step, head-fake, shoot.

Why is it athletes practice all the time, understand why they practice all the time, and parents and kids complain about doing homework? It is the same thing, really.

The reality is, athletes don’t practice all the time. An exaggeration on my part, I agree. Athletes don’t do much in the 0ff-season. They sit around, play video games, mess around, get fat and lazy. When the next season arrives they show up at training camp overweight and slow. On the other hand, the new draft picks, fresh from graduation, have their mettle to prove. Guess who is going to lose their starting position? Guess who is going to lose pay because their contract obligated them to be at a target weight, and they missed?

Athletes have a season, and an off-season. Students have a school year, and a summer break. Decades ago, if a student missed their target grade the student was held back. Today’s 21st century students get passed along, awarded “social promotion,” because not shattering their fragile is too important. Little Noah gets promoted passing his reading-level problem along to the next teacher. And, he passes Noah’s reading problem along to the next grade’s teacher. And she passes Noah’s reading problem along to the next grade, or school. Pretty soon, Noah is in the 8th Grade and reads at a 2nd grade level. Brilliant. Let’s wait until they become a college freshman when they realize they read at a 6th grade level and shatter their ego at age 18, rather than rectify their ability at age 10.

I’m not making this up. Teachers may have 50 minutes each per day with Noah. Parents will have more time, hopefully, in the evening and weekend. Don’t have to time to help your child read? Guess what? You had the child. Now, you have the primary responsibility of raising that child. Not the teacher. Yet, too many parents these days point the blame at educators and not at themselves.

Parents, you are academic coaches as much as any professional educator. Step up to the plate and help your child practice.

Homework Builds Skills

Granted, some teachers simply give out homework as busy work. I understand this. Homework is an inanimate object and is not responsible for its own administration, though. The teacher is responsible. Teachers need to assign homework for practice, to build skills, not because they are too lazy to teach.

Ask Wynton Marsalis how often he practices – does his homework. Ask Keb Mo how often he practices – does his homework. Keb Mo is a brilliant blues guitarist, by the way. Ask Lisa Randall how often she practices particle physics and cosmology. Her book, Knocking On Heaven’s Door, is a great read for anyone and does a fantastic job detailing why CERN is critical to humanity understanding humans.

Homework builds skills. How many math problems does it take to learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide? The answer: as many as it takes, plus more. Many schools don’t require students to memorize multiplication tables. Thanks for dumbing down our kids, administrators.

Practice builds skills for students to be able to function in a technological society. We cannot let technology stand in for basic knowledge. I teach cartography. I have my students convert, by hand, on paper, degrees-minutes-seconds into decimal-degrees-decimal-minutes (38º7’30” = 38.125°). Some cheat and use their TI-87 calculators used for their math courses. When they cheat more often than not their answers are wrong. How can this be? They used a calculator, for cryin’ out loud! Their answers are wrong because the students haven’t learned the difference between gradians, radians, and degrees. Their TI-87 calculators are set to “radians” and when they perform their cheating they obtain the wrong answer and write it down, trusting their calculator.

Nope.

Our society cannot support having technology insidiously infection humanity with complacency. Look, I’m a huge proponent of technology – I’m an IT guy working in geographic information systems and remote sensing, but people cannot abrogate their responsibility for thinking, for reason, for rational thought to technology. We constantly have to question our results and we need the mental skills to be able to question results, not blame our computer program or smartphone app or calculator. To be able to handle our analysis we must be able have the mental aptitude to question, and to do that we must practice. When we figure out gratuities at Applebee’s, or discounts at JCPenney’s, or work out how much car or house we can afford, we need to be able to work some math in our head to protect ourselves from simple clerical errors, or people trying to work a pyramid scheme against us and take our retirement fund.

We have to strengthen our mind, and we strengthen our minds by practicing. Sudoku, crossword puzzles, learning a new language, learning a new skill. And all of those activities require practice to become learn the skill, to improve the skill, and become more proficient at the skill.

Homework Hones Skills

Granted, some teachers do not understand the value of homework. Some homework is intentionally redundant. Being able to add, subtract, multiply, divide should be like riding a bike. I know what this is like, too. In elementary school, I could do everything except subtract. I couldn’t subtract. I couldn’t subtract 400 – 200, 40 – 20, 4 – 2 to save my dog’s life. My teachers would send letters home to my parents. My mom is a school teacher. Other than 15 years she spent working for a government agency, she has taught her entire life. Even with her other employment she was responsible for training. She taught preschool, junior high, high school, and special education. She didn’t take me not being able to subtract lightly. I subtracted all the time. I subtracted nights, mornings, and weekends. I subtracted before school; I subtracted after school. Do I look back on these days as being horrible? Nope; I realize my mom cared about me being able to overcome subtraction and learning how to find a way to overcome subtraction.

Learning how to overcome. That was the real goal. Find success. Persevere. Don’t let it beat you.

Later in academic career, I did pretty well in high school math, was in honors math. In college, I did fine in college algebra, trigonometry, and Calculus I. Now, Calculus II, III, and Differential Equations gave me fits but I got through them. And I really enjoyed my three statistics courses.

Homework is as much about refining skills once they are developed. Teachers need to use practical examples, practical homework, demonstrate how the math will help you, how the math will prevent you from being taken advantage off, how to save money, how to best spend money, how to manage a business or career.

Homework is also about building cognitive pathways, to maintain knowledge. Here is a good essay on practice: “Practice Makes Perfect—but Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection.”

“What’s necessary is sustained practice. By sustained practice I mean regular, ongoing review or use of the target material – [See more at: http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2004/ask-cognitive-scientist#sthash.FOWyFq5z.dpuf]

Homework for the sake of homework is not a good idea. Homework should help students maintain fundamental understanding of basic principles. Homework should also adapt, should introduce gradually complex material, and build upon previous skills. Homework then reinforces neural pathways.

Homework should also hit students from different angles. Watch a video. Listen to a podcast, read an article. Students should have some sort of activity to reinforce concepts. Then, the homework should be tooled to address another discipline. For instance, if math homework, draw an assignment from biology. Then, draw one of economics; then, physics. Draw from other disciplines. Drawing from other disciplines keeps topics interesting and fluid for teachers, and demonstrates to students applicability of the subject matter.

Homework as Student Self-Assessment

Homework is necessary for students to assess themselves. Assessment should really be about confidence-building. Today, politicians are enthralled with turning assessment into a numbers game and money racket. Thanks for destroying the intent of learning, politicians. Assessment should really be about helping gauge a student’s skill and ability, assessing strengths and weaknesses, and helping students strengthen their weak areas and challenge their strengths.

Students need to know how well they are doing. They need a baseline of where they have been, what they are doing now, and where they need to be. Students like to know they are making progress. Progress builds confidence, fortifies self-esteem. Assessments as they are done today do not care about the individual student so much as they are used to penalize teachers, penalize schools, and penalize school districts. This creates a horrific punishment and award system, leading teachers and administrators to “game the system.” We’ve seen this already with the Atlanta trials of teachers, principles, and administrators fixing grades in order to protect their jobs.

Policy-makers have to be careful about the incentives they believe they are creating. Incentives can have really crazy downstream effects. A reason why people need to study economics, or at least read all of the Freakonomics books.

Assessments should be used for students to gauge their own progress, for parents to gauge the progress of the child, for teachers to gauge the progress of their students and their class.

Assessments are necessary to ensure topics are being taught, and the topics themselves are being effectively being absorbed by students. Too many standardized tests are being given, though. According to a recent NPR story a student takes an average of 113 standardized tests over the course of their K-12 academic career.

Homework is for Parent Assessment

Parents should be the teacher’s ally. Too often today, parents see themselves as the teacher’s adversary, the school’s adversary, and the district’s opponent. Parents should help their child by encouraging their child to seek help, seek tutoring, by sitting down with them and engaging with them on their homework. Growing up, working on subtraction and word problems, my mom would clean the after-dinner dishes and I would sit at our tiny kitchen table – a table I fondly use today as my own kitchen table – and do subtraction homework.  She would offer help when needed, and check my work. Generally, parents today don’t really understand how to parent, what parenting encompasses. Parenting is not about being your kid’s friend. No. Parenting is about raising a responsible, respectful, educated adult. Parenting is about making hard decisions, being fair yet firm, about being in charge of your child’s learning and exposing them to a variety of experiences. But, the last thing on that list is being your kid’s friend. Bad idea.

Parents need to incorporate teacher feedback appropriately. Teachers are not attacking your offspring. Teachers are advocating on behalf of your son or daughter for you to work as an ally to help your child improve and develop. A friend of mine, “Barbara,” was stopped in her school hallway recently by the irate mother and father of one of her students. Let’s set aside the huge mistake the school administrators made by allowing the parents entry into to the school proper and focus on the primary concern. The parents stopped Barbara between classes, in the school hallway, got in her face, and challenged her as to why their son was failing her class. Barbara is not one to take this confrontation lightly and she has extensive experience from coaching, no less, on dealing with irate parents. She explained to them, there in the hallway with no other supervision except for the hallway cameras, their son was not only not doing his in-class assignments but was also not turning in his homework. “So, he gets a lot of zeroes.”

“My son doesn’t have any homework, MISS BARBARA! He does’t bring any homework home to do!” Mom retorted.

“Oh, I assure you I send homework home. The simple fact is, he isn’t bringing homework home. He’s probably throwing it out in on the bus. It may even still be in his locker. Why don’t we go down to one of the conference rooms and I’ll explain.”

Patiently, Barbara guides the parents downstairs to a conference room. She brings up the school’s learning management system on the conference room computer. On the spreadsheet-like interface the parents are able to see the in-class assignments plus the homework assignments and associated grades. The truth then becomes clear; their son has been lying to them for several weeks.

Teachers are the best advocates for a child’s success. Parents wrongly take protective positions of Teachers vs Parents. The reality is, education should be a healthy ecosystem of Teachers – Parents – Students. I hesitate to even use the word “ally” as doing so continues the conflict metaphor. Teachers are not the enemy, students are not the enemy, and parents are not the enemy, yet our society today has vilified teachers and education, in general. Meanwhile, other countries, countries cooperating with the United States, and competing with the United States, recognize education as a societal good, a public good. Only in the United States, do we find single people, parents, and especially politicians demonize teachers as self-entitled, lazy, and “the biggest problem with education.” (NPR, 2010) We also continue to be faced with parents and teachers trying to introduce non-science as science, i.e. Intelligent Design vs. Cosmology vs. Evolution. The rest of the world looks at the United States as suffering from some form of psychosis due to the ongoing prevalence of religiosity in our public schools.

Homework for an Educator’s Assessment

I had an interesting in-class conversation with a student. I like having these conversations in-class as I’m not sure students really get a very good perception of all the “backstage” details of being an educator, or what goes through the mind of an educator. Thus, I frequently entertain questions of, “Why do we need to do .” One student, “Henry,” asked near the end of the semester, “Why don’t we just do a map as our final. That would be sweet [“cool”].” I responded thus:

“I have often thought about doing this, having student make a map as the final. I talk myself out of this for a few reasons I think are pretty valid.

“First, we have only two hours for a final. To make a decent map, you’re going to need more time than that. If we go from start to finish, the map I would need to see would take the best part of a morning. For instance, I just wrapped up some mapping for an office on campus. Just one map, 24 inches x 18 inches, with simple text took me about six hours. I would be very hard on grading and most likely few of you would honestly pass a map final, based on what I’ve seen so far.

“I also have to answer to the department. This course is one part of our core content. The faculty decided the best aspect of the course to assess would be the presentation. Thus, the presentation is extremely important as part of our department’s assessment protocol.

“You need to know how well you understand the material. The final in the course is comprehensive; everything we covered in the course you need to know as you will be expected to be able to do these activities in the field, in the office, or on the road. The homework was specifically designed to introduce all of these concepts to you, and help build and maintain skills.

“Finally, I need to know how well you understand and absorbed the material, for both your benefit and mine. I need metrics to know if I am getting through or not. If I am, great; if I’m not then I need to figure what I need to do to adapt, modify, and improve what I am charged with in order to advance you.”

I give long answers, and I try to be honest and up-front.

I find 99% of students are very appreciative of the long answers. In big classes, usually one cavalier student will attempt to undermine my logic with some logical misstep they perceived I made. And in typical fashion other students usually tell the person to sit down and shut up.

Educators need a way of assessing their own teaching. Homework is a way for us to figure out which students are getting it and which aren’t. Herein lies another rub.

Our schools are too crowded. Our school buildings are designed by the same people designing prisons. Visit a new jail or a new prison, then go visit a new school, and other than the school colors and mascot these buildings are not too dissimilar. Generic and antiseptic, our schools today have too many students, and too many students per teacher. Early, I mentioned “Barbara.” The fewest students Barbara has in her middle school classroom is 25-26. The most students she entertains is about 34. One day, she had 37. Other teachers send her their problem students so she can have a bunch of kids in a classroom designed for about 24 students. Of these students, perhaps 30% have an IEP, an “individual education plan.” In a class of 24 students 30% is about 8 students. Eight students each requiring individual attention. In a class of 24 students I think she also has at least one Special Education student. Thus, we have 9 students each requiring special attention. No teacher aide. A couple of days a week the Special Education teacher makes an appearance. She has a number of Special Education students to keep tabs on and she is spread thin. If you are keeping track, we have 9 student who each have unique learning programs, leaving the balance, fifteen students, to be taught as a single unit. In my thinking, we now have 10 unique “students” in one classroom, led by one teacher.

Screw that, honestly.

How is any child going to get a fair and proper education in that environment? Oh, and before I forget, the school is just two years old. The school district knew the building was going to be over-capacity  during construction, too.

My friend, “Barbara,” is very good at what she does, and has drawn the attention of her principles and the school district. The school year has taken a toll on her, as you can well imagine. She needs details on how each of her students are doing. She needs evidence, lots of evidence. Evidence to provide the student, a curious principle, a concerned administrator, or a worried parent. A single homework assignment is not enough. Her workload is such she can’t really stretch all good students as much as she would like. Her workload is such she can’t give students having troubles attention. But, she gives enough homework to see how each student is doing, to see if they are absorbing her message or not. If they are, great; if not, let’s try another strategy. Let’s introduce some color, some music, some math, some art until we find a message which sinks in.

Homework gives a good educator a way of not only checking their student’s ability but also a means to check themselves.

  • Am I doing a good job?
  • Am I asking the correct questions?
  • Am I asking the best questions?
  • Could I ask the question a different way?
  • Where are the strengths in the material?
  • Where are the weaknesses in the material?
    • Is the weakness based on my communication?
    • Is the weakness based on lack of student effort?
    • Why are students lacking effort?
  • Does the homework address current or relevant topics?
  • Am I effectively communicating material?

These are just a sampling of reflections educators should ask themselves. My impression is too often educators assume, “There is no way my questions are poor; the students simply are not thinking things through.” Maybe so, but we can’t fall victim to our own hubris. Actually, we don’t. Our hubris doesn’t injure us; our hubris injures those we strive to educate. If you are standing in front of adults pontificating on some esoteric topic to stroke your own ego, you are in the wrong field, really. My philosophy is you should be having a conversation with your students about your topic, engage them in thinking and contemplation and examination.

Conclusion

Neil deGrasse Tyson wrestled, plays the piano, and is a world-class cosmologist. Something tell me even he practiced.

 

Homework, when properly assigned, is more than rote memorization. Assignments sent home are meant to introduce new skills. Assignments can maintain old skills. Teachers may use them to ensure mental pathways are maintained. Parents can use homework to keep tabs on their child’s progress. Students should understand homework is a necessary part of knowledge-building. Teachers can use homework to ensure they are accumulating evidence of skills while checking themselves to determine how well their message is being received.

Michael Jordan practiced lots of free throws. Homework is toeing the line, shooting 50 free throws. Homework is the batting cage. Homework is the putting green and driving range. Homework is the scrimmage and the tackling dummy. Homework is the workout bag. For the brain.

Because, teachers are coaches. Teachers don’t play the game, not any more. We try to help other play the game, to practice before playing, to prepare players for defenses and offenses, to prepare players to anticipate changes and new sets of opportunities.

PAX

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