Thursday, October 6, 2016

Common Sense and Homework

Nothing gets teachers, parents, and students fired up more than homework. One of the reasons for this is the contradictory research findings that seem to suggest that homework both supports and prevents learning, both encourages and discourages effective habits, and is both emotionally healthy and emotionally destructive. As intelligent people who all want the best for our kids, what are we to believe?

Great book!
We believe decisions about homework should consider these three things:
  • The research about the brain and learning.
  • The research about child and adolescent development.
  • Good old fashioned common sense.

The research about the first two can be found fairly easily (we suggest James Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain, Eric Jensen’s Teaching with the Brain in Mind, and Thomas Armstrong’s The Power of the Adolescent Brain), so in this blog, we are going to focus on the third.

Common Sense and Homework:

Quality:  Common sense tells us that at certain levels or ages, homework could very well have a positive impact on learning.  However, we also know that for learning to be positively affected by homework, it needs to be high quality homework. All homework is not created equal. And let’s be honest...we all think our work isn’t busy-work. But if our homework isn’t created or assigned based on what we know about learning, and if it isn’t directly used to inform instruction, then there’s a pretty good chance it is, in fact, busy-work.
  • Rigor: More is not better. The classes that give the most homework are not the most rigorous. This is a huge misunderstanding, one it’s time we stop perpetuating. More does not equal harder; difficulty is not the same thing as complexity.  (The Critical Difference Between Complexity and Difficulty)
  • Standards-based and Differentiated: If we are in a standards-based class, then homework needs to be standards-based. And if we are in a standards-based class, then we know precisely what each student needs, and therefore, we know that homework needs to be differentiated. Yes, this is difficult. Here’s a link to a handout about Homework in a Standards-Based Class.

Time: For years, we have heard that students should have 10 min of homework per grade. So a first grader should have 10 minutes, a 7th grader 70 minutes, and a 12th grader 120 minutes. While the simplicity of this rule is seductive, does it make sense?
  • We know that learning is not time-dependent. For some students, a task that we intend to take 30 minutes will actually take three times that. For others, less time. So if we are going to play by the 10 minute rule, we need to be assigning tasks that are not time-dependent. In other words, we need to tell students that finishing a task is not the goal (and then we need to stand by that, not punishing or rewarding students based on what they have finished--not taking away recess or free time because a task we assigned for homework is incomplete). For example, asking students to read for 25 minutes is okay; asking them to read 4 chapters may not be. Also, this rule does not mean 10 min per class, per grade. It’s total. That means if a student in 9th grade has 8 classes a day, then each teacher should be expecting just over 10 minutes for their individual class; in a 4 block day, that means about 20 minutes of work per class.
  • We know students are busy outside of the traditional school day. Kids have family responsibilities, jobs, chores, sports, music, clubs, and after-school programs. All of these things enrich our students’ lives, and provide avenues for them to learn incredibly valuable life skills; we want to encourage these activities, not have students opt out because they’re too busy. But a typical 6th grade child may attend school from 7:30 to 3:00, go to an afterschool activity until 5:00, get home and settled by 5:30, then be in bed by 8:00. That leaves a possible 2 and a half hours of awake time in the entire day that is not school controlled. That’s absurd. Add dinner, chores, and 60 minutes of homework...and those hours are gone. As teachers we often lament the lack of creativity and imagination in our students, and yet we allow so little time for them to be imaginative outside of our classrooms. Kids need time to be kids. They need time to play and imagine and be bored. And brains need time to consolidate—which means time to play and SLEEP!  (TED Talk on the relationship between the brain and sleep)

Habits: Despite pockets of research that say homework teaches students to have effective habits, common sense says this is probably just not true.
  • Teaching v. Evaluating: Homework more often rewards or punishes existing habits, and sometimes speaks more to the habits of the parents than of the students. If our goal is to help students learn time management and organizational skills, there are many ways to do that that are way more effective, measurable, and equitable than homework. In addition, what we know about child and adolescent learning tells us that humans do not fully develop their executive functioning skills until their early 20s (Armstrong) asking students to be good at these at age 8 or 12 or even 17 may be developmentally inappropriate. Here’s a blog that discusses these issues and makes suggestions about how to instruct habits: Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?
  • Preparing students for the “next level”: In the middle schools, we say we need to assign homework to prepare students for high school, and in high school we say we need even more to prepare them for college. The best way to prepare students for the rigorous work and complex thinking they will encounter in the future is to teach them how to ask questions, how to think to learn. We don’t need tons of homework to do this. In fact, we can do this much more effectively within our classrooms. Side note: The average college student spends 15 hours a week in class, and 15 hours outside of class doing homework (citation). The average high school student spends 35-40 hours in school each week, not including homework. Hmmmm…..seems to us we could use this time more effectively, rather than just adding on to it.

You can find research to back up your opinion about homework, regardless of your beliefs (unless you teach K4, in which case there is growing consensus that homework is not beneficial). While all this contradictory information could be viewed as frustrating, why not view it as liberating? Let’s use what we know as professionals--not what was done to us or what we’ve always done--combined with our common sense to develop a homework policy or belief system that we (and our families) feel good about. We need to make sure it supports what we know about learning, respects our students as young people, and maybe most importantly, makes common sense.

Still want to see research about homework? Okay. We get it. We have spent hours reading it all as well. Here’s a great resource from Brandon Blom called “If We’re Going to Do Homework, Let’s Do It Better”: there is a really comprehensive list of resources at the end!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?

Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?

Habits of learning are important. We know that students are more successful as learners when their habits are effective. But what makes habits effective? Why do some students seem to be more successful than others? Why do we keep fighting the same battles over and over and over? Why can’t they just be more responsible?!

In all of our time teaching and working in schools, there seem to be two types of habits of learning that most concern teachers: those that focus on compliance or behavior, and those that require executive functioning skills. Yes, these overlap at times, but it’s helpful to look at them through this simple lens in order to allow us to focus on what’s most important: learning.

Habits of Compliance or Behavior: Often, when we talk about responsibility and preparation and participation and self-direction, we are really talking about compliance or behavior. We want students to do X because, frankly, it will make our lives easier (and yes, with large classes and little time to plan during the school day, our lives being easier often leads to us being better, more efficient teachers). Here are some examples of habits of compliance or behavior:
  • Coming to class with a pen or pencil.
  • Turning the homework in on time.
  • Walking in the hallways.
  • Being on time to class.
  • Not having phones out in class.
  • Raising hands to talk, or not talking out of turn.
  • Staying on task.

While these behaviors may help students be ready to learn, they really have very little to do with learning directly. To be clear: we are not saying these are not important behaviors, and we are not saying we don’t want to encourage these in every way possible. But they are not really habits of learning.

In order to improve these behaviors, we need to determine what’s most important to us, come to terms with ourselves about why it’s important, and then develop structures and systems that help students comply or behave, and minimize the environments and situations that encourage behaviors we don’t want. A few years ago, we wrote a blog post about this called Cleaning the Counters: Changing our Habits to Improve Theirs, which focuses on problems such as turning work in and timeliness. These are student behaviors we can improve by changing our own behaviors, systems, and structures.

One side note about these habits. Next time you are at a faculty meeting or at an inservice, note how many adults tick off the above list. Note the number of adults who are late, those who have their phones out, those grading papers, those having side conversations; and ask your administrators how many of the adults in the building turn in their paperwork on time, or their reflections, or even their grades. And if you ask these adults why they are late or why they are checking their phones or why they are grading papers instead of focusing on the task, they will almost all say that what they are doing is important. They will cite trouble at home for the phone use, an important meeting with a student for why they are late, and not enough hours in the day for why they have the stack of papers on their lap. All good reasons. All legitimate, perhaps. But no more legitimate than our students’ reasons for the same behaviors. Saying “kids these days” lack responsibility is usually not true, and allows us all off the hook.

Executive Functioning Habits: True habits of learning are often related to executive functioning skills. These are actual skills (as opposed to behaviors). And here’s a shocking, horrible, and unbelievably important fact: executive functioning skills don’t fully develop until humans are in their early 20s. Yup. In mid adolescence, age 15-16, most students can function fully in what’s called “cold cognition” other words, in a vacuum. In “hot cognition” environments, or any times there are other teens around, the functioning is compromised. In middle school, there’s not even full functioning in that vacuum (Jensen). What does this mean? It means we can’t expect students to be good at things that their brains are not developmentally able to be good at!

But this also means that we should be instructing executive functioning, modeling it, and allowing students to practice it in a safe, supportive environment. We should NOT be taking points off, punishing or rewarding students, or expecting the improbable.

Here are a few common examples of executive functioning skills:
  • Organization
  • Time management (planning and prioritizing)
  • Self-monitoring
  • Task-initiation
  • Perseverance

These are all things we often expect students to be good at, but developmentally, most of them are not there yet. Because of this, it’s easy to spend crazy amounts of time and emotional energy focusing on these as problems, when we should be looking at them as opportunities to develop and practice these skills.

What can we do to help students develop these skills?

Model effective habits of learning and be intentional about instruction: the more students see what these habits look like, the more models they have to imitate. Letting students see a variety of strategies can help them choose one that will work for them.  Here are some examples:
    1. For time management: When you are giving directions, model how you break down a task and keep track of the steps.  In addition, provide time estimations and periodically stop tasks in order to have students check these estimations and set individual time goals.  If we want students to become self-aware and effective time managers, we need to teach and monitor these skills in class, where we have the ability to control and adjust as necessary.  Task sheets can be really helpful for this.   (Side note: Homework does not teach time management.)
    2. For organization: If using Google Classroom, take 15 minutes once a week to model how you organize your inbox; with all of those emails coming in, students need to learn to prioritize, organize, and occasionally purge technologically. If students keep binders, spend time each week in school (not for homework!) showing them different ways to organize these.
    3. For perseverance and self-monitoring: teach students about zones of proximal development, and provide them with a system to self-identify their challenge level. Recognizing levels of challenge is the first step to being able to self-regulate, and it encourages perseverance. Here’s a video of 2 students explaining how to use Red, Yellow, and Green cards to self-monitor.

Intentionally articulating, modeling, instructing, and providing feedback on habits will help students improve. But too often we stop at articulating, telling students what we want them to do or how we want them to behave without using what we know about their brains and development to help them get better. If we are going to report about student habits, we have the responsibility to do more than just reward or punish. Putting these habits and behaviors on students--expecting them to take the responsibility to improve--may not only be developmentally inappropriate, but may distract us and them from the learning that is most important. There’s only so much time in our day...let’s use it responsibly.

Helpful resources about child and adolescent brain development:

Power of the Adolescent Brain by Thomas Armstrong

Monday, March 21, 2016

Just Tell Me How to Get an A: One Teacher's Journey to SBL

Written by Guest Blogger Justin Chapman, English Teacher at CVUHS

I move around the room handing back a batch of “summative” assessments, as we’ve now learned to call them.   Each of these has a cover sheet that lists the skills we’ve targeted for this particular unit – and since I teach English, these skills are always centered on communication, critical thinking, and creative problem solving.  I give the usual schpiel: these are individual assessments... please focus on your own... we all have our strengths and weaknesses…  Each student is invited to revise her work, so these scores are malleable, a snapshot of the process, not something etched in marble.  Each skill is measured on a four point scale, and each level comes with a brief descriptor, what that skill should look like when executed.  A “3” is the grade-level “target” – the level at which we expect sophomores to perform.  Still, when I hand back these assessments, some of these students are busily converting their 3s into percentages: 75%, a C.  I can feel the collective angst.  Seems we can’t shake the old 100 point scale.

And it’s no wonder.  We’ve been working with essentially the same educational system since the Industrial Revolution.  Meanwhile, our school has begun the shift to standards-based learning (SBL) and standards based grading (SBG) – different sides of the same coin.  SBG means a lot of things, not least that we don’t average numbers.  Rather, we take the latest performance as the measure of a student’s progress on a skill.  One of the biggest differences between SBG and traditional system is that we don’t count homework, we don’t give (or average) zeroes, and we don’t factor students’ “habits” into a grade.  This means that no matter how much I like a kid, and no matter how hard she works, I measure the skill, not the student’s ebullient personality.  There is no easy way to institute systemic and institutional change – but after almost two years of standards-based education, I am convinced that we have to try.  

Change is hard for any human.  I’ve been teaching high school for almost twenty years, the first seventeen in the traditional sense, with the traditional grading system.  For most of my educational life, I’ve been subject to and subjected kids to the currency system that is the 100 point scale, where grades are dispensed like cash in return for effort.  I am convinced, however, that SBL is more humane, more accurate, and ultimately better for students’ (and teachers’) souls.  But there’s a certain type of student particularly ill-adapted to this system.  This type needs constant external validation in the form of A’s.  I’ve started calling this the “A-fix” – and the A, for a certain type of kid, is as strong a drug as heroin.  They need to be told, in very clear terms, how exactly to get an A.  And if you don’t tell them, they can get pretty surly about it.

I understand where this pressure comes from.  Students, particularly in our affluent district, are driven to succeed.  They have successful parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings.  They equate placement at an elite college (whatever that means) with future success.  They are often intelligent and affable – yet quite uncomfortable with 3s, especially the kids who’ve been able to game the system up until now.  Worse, they are uncomfortable with collaboration and open-ended assignments which require creative problem-solving.  Rather, they tend to like black and white assignments with right and wrong answers.  

The biggest problem with that attitude is that college is no longer a guarantee of future success, like it was for decades, right up until I went in the early 90s.  Worse perhaps, we don’t really know what students will need to know in the future.  While the factory model has served us well (enough) to this point, technology has changed the game immensely.  These issues are outlined clearly and succinctly in the new film Most Likely to Succeed by Greg Whiteley (, which should be required viewing for any educator at just about any level – and maybe any American who pays taxes for education.  The movie confirms what many of us in secondary education, and particularly the humanities, have been working toward for years: an emphasis on critical thinking, collaboration, and creative problem solving.  The film reinforces the idea that depth is more important than breadth.  

The antithesis of this idea are AP (Advanced Placement) courses, and its purveyor The College Board -- two of the most negative forces in education today. I see the College Board as that creepy guy in the van trying to get the kids to try candy– except that they peddle success.  Success for the College Board still means competing for seemingly rare spaces at elite colleges.  Competition, to my mind, has no place in a good education system.  Education should not run like a business, and A’s are not some precious treasure to sit on and guard.  Along with manufacturing a sense of competition, AP courses, by design, emphasize rote memorization and breadth of “knowledge” rather than depth.  Not surprisingly retention of the “facts”, even just 30 days after AP tests is dismal.  Kids often take AP courses just to pad their resumes, because it looks good on their transcripts – and that transcript is the ticket to the next level of the game.  This suggests that the only selling point for AP courses is that they’re a rung on the ladder to success.  And students and parents have bought the snake oil for decades.  

Are we emphasizing the right things in schools?
For me, the biggest issue with this type of student is their abject fear of failure.  They need the A-fix, and they need it often to be validated as people.  Consequently, they are often unwilling to take risks or to be creative.  Matthew Syed outlines this idea in an op/ed piece for the BBC called “How Creativity is Helped by Failure.”  He examines several successful organizations and how each cultivates a community where failure is a part of the process on the way to success.  “Organisations [sic] like Google… and Pixar have developed cultures that, in their different ways create the conditions for empowering failure.  They have become living ecosystems of the imagination.”  Without testing ideas and examining their flaws, he argues, we cannot develop innovative solutions to problems.  When we don’t allow students to struggle through a difficult problem-solving task, we stifle creativity.  While we don’t know what the workplace will look like in ten or twenty years, we do know that critical thinking and creativity will be essential skills to develop.

Last year, one of my students wrote on his final reflection, “SBL is OK once I figured out how to get the A.”  While this is annoying, it’s also understandable.  At present, our system is a hybrid of old and new.  We still convert SBG assessments to traditional grades.  Colleges still want the old ACT/SAT scores.  No cultural shift takes place overnight, but I am excited about the possibilities.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s not the kids’ fault that they want As – it’s the system and the culture around it.  The more we envision a system where students and teachers collaborate for success and mastery of particular skills, where content doesn’t necessarily drive the course but skills do, where we seek to make interdisciplinary connections and to foster collaboration – and the more we see that college is not the single determinant of one’s success in life, the more we have to conceive of our educational systems, not as a factory, but as a functioning ecosystem of the imagination.

Images from: 
  • Most Likely to Succeed Trailer:
  • Schleicher, Andreas. "Building a High Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from Around the World" 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

It's exam you know where your students are?

Over the past month we have met with many teachers to talk about midterm/final assessments. With the move to standards-based learning, the purpose and design of these assessments often shifts, and teachers are working to develop experiences that reflect that shift. In a standards-based class, exams and other final assessments are designed to confirm or determine where our students are on our course targets. Determining student location not only allows us to communicate learning to students and parents, but helps us reflect on our own teaching.

So what are teachers at CVU doing? Here are some examples from this year and last:

Target-based exams: Some teachers want to confirm what their students know and understand through a test. By organizing each page (or section) of the test beneath the actual target scale, teachers are able to look at the evidence of learning in a way that is efficient and “targeted.” By organizing and formatting the test in this way, the expectations are more clear to students and more efficient for teachers to assess. Re-organizing tests by target also force us as teachers to be precise and intentional in our questioning. We need to think about the types of questions that will provide evidence of learning at all levels.

Target-based exams with individual targeted reassessment options:  Along with the above option, many teachers are adding an individual reassessment option to this exam.  Teachers have made the choice that ALL students will be assessed on certain targets during the exam, but once done with those, students can choose 2-3 more targets to reassess. Prior to this exam, teachers have made sure that students are aware of where they stand with each target so that individuals can make informed choices on what they want to reassess during this time.  This has been a very effective way for teachers to make sure to get evidence on a select number of targets, while allowing students to show improvement in areas of need and choice. Figuring out how to manage and organize is the biggest challenge here, but teachers have come up with some great options including color coding and personalized packets.

Target-based Reflection: Some teachers are using the time to have students reflect on their achievement from the first semester. One team has students going through summative portfolios (kept on a blog) that are organized by learning target. Students are thinking about strengths, areas of growth, challenges, and ultimately, setting targeted goals for the second semester. This allows students to be more aware of their learning, and ultimately to be more in control, while at the same time allowing teachers to gather important information about students’ differences and needs. Another teacher has students write letters to their parents about targets of greatest strength and need, as well as habits of learning; this letter serves as a reflection, a form of parent communication, and a writing assessment.

Target-based Conferences: In an effort to have a one on one discussion with students, many teachers are holding target-based conferences with individuals during the two hour block. During these conferences, the students/teachers are looking at evidence of achievement of the course learning targets, and collectively setting learning goals for the upcoming semester. While similar to Reflection (above), these conferences allow dialogue about the learning. Teachers have a variety of ways to use the time for the other students, including starting work for semester two, reflecting on work from semester one, or completing an independent project or exam.

Because of the unique exam week schedule, many teachers are also looking at alternative ways to use the two hour blocks. While we are required to have our students, we are not required to hold cumulative exams or assessments, and often there are activities or experiences or formative assessments that would benefit from the longer period of time, such as guest speakers, simulations, performances, galleries, or discussions.

One of the things we keep hearing from teachers who have transitioned to standards-based learning and grading in their classrooms is that student anxiety around midterm assessments has gone way down. And this is not because assessments have gotten easier. It’s because students and teachers know prior to the assessments where they are on the targets, so the assessments become a confirmation of learning rather than something to get stressed about. There shouldn’t be any surprises on midterms/finals. We, the teachers, have evidence of learning; we know what our students know, understand, and can do prior to the assessment. They, the students, have evidence of learning; they know what they know, understand, and can do prior to the assessment. That clarity of understanding makes exams feel less intimidating, and more inviting.

One teacher told us last week that her class asked her to give her exam early because they were ready for it--they knew where they were because their learning had been so transparent leading up to this point. How cool is that? And it came as no surprise to the teacher that her students were right: they nailed the exam.