In twenty years of teaching high school science, I have come to know the following groups of students by their response to homework assignments.
dutiful do-ers These students do every assignment, whether or not it is helpful and they feel good about doing it. These students will rarely miss an assignment. Occasionally they miss it due to extenuating circumstances, this makes them anxious and only making it up brings relief.
don’t do-ers These students do not do homework on principle. The benefit of the assignment is not considered and all assignments are dismissed without regard to their utility.
skeptical do-ers These students have not given up on homework, but tend to choose to neglect homework that they feel doesn’t benefit them and focus on what is useful to them.
resentful do-ers These students usually do assigned homework, even if they think it is of little use to them. Sometimes they choose not to do the homework because it seems absolutely pointless.
just can’t do-ers These students juggle many balls during their after school hours. They are forced to set priorities and homework is not high on the list.
Students deserve the opportunity to serve an active role in deciding what promotes their classroom success. Will they consistently make the most discerning choice? Probably not, but evaluating what will enhance their learning is critical thinking at its essence. Should homework be optional?
There is a school of thought that proclaims that all America needs is more outstanding teachers. I cannot overemphasize the importance of teacher skill. Excellent teachers are excellent because they can meet the differing needs of the students in their classes. A telling article from the LA Times The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher further elucidates the plight of a teacher working in circumstances that she cannot control and is still expected to get to know each student in order to foster excellence in the classroom. Outstanding teaching is an important factor in quality education, but attention needs to be paid to the multitude of other variables upon which education quality is balanced. Only then will our educational system be improved.
“One error still prevails to a ruinous extent, namely: the neglect of cultivating and developing the powers of the mind, while every thing is attempted to be done by taxing memory with the weight of names and abstractions, allowing no play for thought, and exciting no interest whatever in the child’s mind. It seems as if many of our teachers and book makers, from the highest to the lowest departments, forget that children have minds, and suppose that the only powers they will ever possess, are to be imparted by teachers, whereas the teacher ought to know that he cannot impart a single iota of power. The most he can do, is, to develop powers already in existence, and because the attempt has been made rather to create than to cultivate, the mind of man has, in many cases, been actually cramped and weakened rather than strengthened at school.” – Report of Mr. Lewis, Superintendent of Common Schools of Ohio (1839)
Even 180 years ago, consideration was given by some to the student’s role in education. At this time much of the philosophy of public education was based on the Prussian system, designed to produce compliant, devoted citizens, who live their lives without the ability to think for themselves.
Mr Lewis was a rare exception in cultivating the philosophy on which our educational system is structured. We still mindlessly follow tenets of the Prussian educational system. For example, students sit for long hours, learning to comply with the physical discipline that is expected of them. Memorization is one of the lingering remnants of this system. After decades of mindless memorization and regurgitation, many teachers are starting to question this when confronted with the reality of how information can be procured on the internet.
I teach anatomy and physiology to high school students. For several years, I taught as my predecessor did. Drills, worksheets and memorization took center stage in my classroom. In a school of 800-900 students about 60 students signed up for this course. After a decade of honing my craft and making some fundamental changes, enrollment increased to as many as 225 students registered for this course, I credit this success to following the very same principles touted by “Mr. Lewis” almost 200 years ago.
Homework has been a hotly debated topic in education. How much is too much? What is too little? Is homework necessary? Should homework be optional? Should homework be graded? Questions about homework abound.
I think most importantly we need to acknowledge that the playing field is not level when it comes to homework. I teach high school science. Many of my students work. Some do not have convenient internet access. Some do not have an environment conducive to learning outside school.
There are no easy or universal answers. Homework needs to be relevant. Like any other assignment a teacher needs to answer the question “What’s the point?”. If you can’t come up with a decent answer, you need to question the validity of the assignment. Remember our students are always saying “What’s the point?” whenever they encounter a new assignment.
Currently in my class my students read and take notes on assigned pages of their text. They are then given a 5 question quiz, during which they use these notes. This gives them immediate feedback about the quality of their notes. This also gives them additional exposure to the course content. What’s the point? Students are allowed to use these notes whenever they like, including the test. In the words of one of my students “It’s so worth it!”. I also give additional optional homework, but that will be another post.
In education, we do so many things because it is the way we have always done things. In terms of grading this is especially true. We use the same form of grading that has been used for centuries! We need to examine why we grade and how we grade.
I believe that it is human nature to rank. It helps us to organize. It can be useful and contribute to the “survival” of humans. It helps us to set priorities.
In our schools, we use grades to rank the academic abilities of students. Grades are also used as a form of feedback to students and their parents. I believe that it is the latter goal that makes grading important. Feedback is essential to motivation. Our drive to “do better” seems to be inborn and again, a survival mechanism.
Using letter grades is so limiting, but as least at the high school level, it is the primary way we give our students feedback. At my school we also have the option of a few prewritten comments made available through our grading software such as the classic “good work” or “attendance problem”. All of us, teachers, parents and students “go along” with this system, rarely questioning its usefulness or its veracity. Again I believe this is because “we have always done it this way”. It is also a relatively quick and convenient way to give feedback. It is time to reevaluate why and how we give grades. Why has this system survived for so long? Is it still relevant in today’s learning communities?