That ‘No Homework’ Letter

During the last month, an education issue that has long caused debate sprang to the attention of the world when a simple short memo from an American teacher to the parents of her class went viral across social networks. Here’s some reporting on what she wrote, and how the story unfolded;

Cristian Science Monitor – Should Second Graders Get Homework?

Understandably reactions varied widely and some were pretty extreme. Many educators quoted educator Alfie Kohn in support of the teacher’s perspective. His writings and analysis of many research studies concluded that there was little or no evidence to prove the usefulness of homework except when pupils were in a year when they were due to take competitive standardised examinations. This suggests that it doesn’t really do anything much for learning, but helps in memorising to pass exams. In fact, some commentators have even gone as far as to suggest that it has negative effects because it undermines motivation to learn – thereby becoming a negative influence on learning.

The final line of the teacher’s letter reminded me of the admonition to parents – “Make your home a place of learning, not a schoolroom.”

There is something a little naive and childlike at times about the internet when such things go viral. It’s not as though this teacher is the first person to advocate (or even to act on feelings against homework) elimination of homework. Even when working with Indian parents in both India and Sharjah, I’ve been able to support teachers who wanted to minimise the relevance and significance of homework. These, after all, are considered to be very traditionally minded parents with a penchant for hard work and a belief that academic outcomes must be striven for in the extreme.

It was no surprise to me that when the teacher in question, Brandy Young, chose to explain herself and provide more context she chose to emphasise school-home partnership and collaboration in the best interests of the child and their learning. I find it slightly disturbing that both these articles and some others I’ve read appear to see this teacher as an individual working in isolation.

I would very much hope that the project-based, collaborative approaches she espouses are schoolwide policy and not merely an issue of chance for parents as to whether their child is in her class or another teacher’s. Also, if the consistency isn’t there children are the first to recognise that they appear to be the victims of fuzzy thinking and inconsistent treatment. They then have to adjust to the different ideological bases of the different teachers. Teaching leaves ample scope for individual creativity, flair and style within the context of key standard expectations and approaches that should be school wide policy.

Huffington Post – Why I Did It – The No Homework Letter

In her explanation the teacher highlights her use of Classdojo as an alternative to homework. Whilst I believe she’s completely right to stress that homework as a means for parents to check on children’s learning is a weak justification, I’m not wholly convinced that Classdojo is the answer. Whilst some of the features, such as instant sharing of pictures etc, can be beneficial in building home-classroom connection, Where I’ve seen Classdojo used, I’ve been concerned that it became a distraction in the classroom, that the carrots and sticks approach of praise and negative feedback that will all be visible to the parent every day does not build self-regulating children with a growth mindset.

I’m very interested to hear what educators and parents think on the issues of homework and home-classroom collaboration and partnership. Please share thoughts in the comments box below.

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The Expat Magazine – Interview

Here’s a link to an interview I did recently for ‘The Expat’ Magazine.

The Expat Magazine – August Edition

(The article is on page 67)

Talking ‘Bout A Revolution

I’m fast coming to the conclusion that i’m part of a generation in which the majority of people, on hearing the word ‘future’ have the first reaction of, “don’t let it come during my working life, because I’m not ready for it.” Now, my generation, a little portlier than in the past, grayer at the temples and longer in the tooth can maybe be forgiven for this reluctance to face the full implications of the future. However, what scares me far more is the proportion of much younger people sharing that same viewpoint, and maybe worse the numbers of educators who hope they can finish out their working lives in the teaching profession before real change has to happen.

I can’t be that way. Those young people prepared best for a rapidly changing world, those who can adapt and deliver the kinds of creativity that others will value will be the winners. Others may find that they are increasingly marginalised as the world is willing to pay less and less for what they can do (or worse, will conclude that new technology does the same but far more reliably, with a lot less fuss and at ridiculously low costs)

Here’s an article and a short video from a conference that took place in Denver, USA a few months ago, under the banner of the International Society for Technology in Education. The keynote address was delivered by Michio Kaku, a renowned theoretical physicist and futurist.

Edtech Magazine – Michio Kaku Says Education Needs a Revolution

He clarifies some of his thoughts through this short video interview:

Edtech Magazine – Michio Kaku On The Value Of Technology In Education

His message is very clear – the changes in the world, the changes that are being brought about by technology, globalisation and the pressing need to address issues of inequality are coming and fast and require significant change in education now. Failure to address these needs will see the education systems of the world further and further removed from relevance in young people’s lives – we will be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

One of his biggest points is clearly that with access to facts and knowledge becoming more and more ubiquitous, the need is to emphasise learning time on the skills to learn, collaboration and creativity skills through mastering principles and concepts.

His ideas require far more from us than merely sage nodding. We have to be ready to challenge and question those aspects of what we do that fail to meet these needs.

Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Things Teachers Do

Here’s an interesting blog post that i came across quite some time ago, that I share here because i found it particularly intriguing;

Edutopia – What Doesn’t Work – Literacy Practices We Should Abandon

The writer makes a number of suggestions where practices have gone on for a very long time, passed down from teachers to new teachers and carried out without question, but where there’s evidence that shows and suggests strongly that the practices really don’t work.

Perhaps the one that stood out most for me was the weekly spelling tests – consuming enormous amounts of time. As an aside, through my own learning from NLP, when he was about six i taught my son how to spell by getting visual recall pictures of words in his head. The result – he never dropped a single mark on spelling tests and barely spent any time preparing for them. But still, what a silly waste of time for him and all the other children in class.

The point about withdrawing recess as a form of punishment also struck a chord with me. In similar vein I also get troubled when children lose access to some of their favourite learning periods such as art, music, drama or PE in order to undergo remedial classes because they’re not making the desired levels of progress in ‘core’ subjects.

If i take issue with one aspect of the article it is the sense it conveys that teachers and children have no time to ‘just pass time and learn’, but must always be on a quest to save a vital few minutes to cram in yet more learning (slaves to the standardised tests systems). It almost seemed like it wanted to see the ‘time and motion’ men of the 1970’s workplaces with their stopwatches timing how long people take for their washroom breaks so that they can squeeze out a tiny fraction more of productivity.

Sometimes, it makes sense to not do things that don’t contribute in the classroom, so there’s more time to do other things – but not because we’re hellbent on delivering ever more bloated syllabus to stressed out learning-weary children.

Sometimes, some of the best learning happens at its own pace, and we shouldn’t forget it.

Learning From The Olympics

Ryan Lochte

It saddens me when educators believe they are so hidebound by the syllabus that they don’t have the time or momentum to open up the enormous learning that can come out of real life events and the things which are capturing the imagination of children in the world around them.

Most decent schools today espouse desire to educate the whole child, to provide holistic education and to inculcate the habits and mindset of lifelong learners. However, sometimes we need to hold up a harsh mirror to ourselves and ask if our actions match the words – are we walking the talk?

The Olympics come around only every four years. However, for two weeks i find that they provide one of the most mesmerising and powerful sets of stories that are laden with massive learning opportunities (way more powerful and valuable than vast amounts of the standard schools’ syllabus!) This time, even in the run up to the games there were fascinating issues around drug use, performance enhancement and questions of whether those who receive bans should be allowed back in to competition. This time around there was even the possibility that an entire nation would be banned from the Games. Ultimately, Russia were allowed to compete in most sports, but almost all their athletics participants were barred from competition and they have been banned from the Paralympics due to start in a couple of weeks time.

This raises fascinating moral issues, but also the grey areas about what is or isn’t a legitimate action to seek to enhance performance to out-compete others. When is ‘win at all cost’ legitimate?

There are also fascinating issues for discussion with even quite young children about sponsorship and the involvement in a festival of physical prowess such as the Olympics from companies who sell junk food and carbonated drinks. Children can engage in thoughtful debate about how they respond and react to the messages they are receiving through the media.

Then, in the Olympics that just got over there were the issues of sport and politics that came to the fore when one country’s athlete in Judo refused to shake hands with his competitor at the end of a bout, reflecting long term animosity between their countries.

And then, the most challenging of the negative stories coming out of this Olympics – the Ryan Lochte and the US swimming team story about ‘what happened at the petrol station, the effects of lying and all sorts of other questions. There have been fascinating conflicting views and stories like this give children wonderful opportunities to debate and explore issues that are far from black and white, but contain subtle nuances where they may need to see multiple sides to an issue to arrive at a viewpoint. They may even wonder about whether the case is seen differently because he was a high profile multiple medal winning athlete as opposed to a lower acxhiever.

For those not so familiar, here’s the story from the BBC about the aftermath of the whole saga:

BBC – Ryan Lochte Sponsors Withdraw Support

How many children will really get the guided, structured opportunities to explore these kinds of issues flowing out of a major news story related to this massive sporting event? I fear, not enough.

The Voice of Youth

It was International Youth Day on August 12th. That will have passed most people by, seeing as they’re so busy hurtling along in the present, living their own lives “of quiet desperation,” to keep up with the Joneses, to consume, have and possess their way to happiness – so who cares what the youth think? And besides, nobody took any notice of us when we were youth, so why should it be any different now?

Well, here are some excellent reasons as set out in a statement by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon:

The Malay Mail Online – A Call To Empower Youth – Ban Ki-moon

Mine was a generation of ‘angry young men’, a generation that was pretty disdainful of the world we were inheriting from those older, who vowed to do a lot better and who claimed that we were going to put a lot of things right. When we look at the world today, we have to say we came up short in so many ways. As time went on, we lost the anger that fired us to want to change the world and fell, way too often, in to individual selfish narrow blinkered worlds obsessed with having, acquiring and using.

Just today I read a statement suggesting that in the last 50 years humans have consumed more of the earth’s resources than in all previous history. I also learned recently that in 2015 more people in the world died as a result of wars and conflicts than in any of the previous 25 years. Mankind cannot go on like this and if our generation is incapable or unwilling to think beyond short-term narrow interests, then it’s high time we gave scope for the voice of youth to be heard far stronger. Otherwise, they risk becoming a generation bowed down by cynicism and negativity and they will be no better than we were – instead of finding solutions they will just take over from us making things worse.

There has to be a better way.

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