Thursday, September 27, 2012

Busywork Blues

This was written by a student (and friend) involved with Challenge Success. We appreciate his wlllingness to share his personal story with us.

In the living room of my parent’s house there is a table worn smooth from the weight of books and spotted with flocks of pen tip indentations. This of course is the dreaded “Homework Table,” which sustained nearly two decades of use by both me and my older brother. It is from this table that I would often depart early in the morning, only to return again later—after school was out, after tennis practice was out, well after sundown.

Although I explicitly remember spending what constituted a significant portion of my adolescence at this table, I am hard pressed to recall the specifics of any of the actual assignments. Granted, this retrospection is a few years removed, it still brings up an interesting question: if the overwhelming majority of homework is busywork, why assign it at all?

While each of the papers that I have been assigned in college requires critical thinking and provides flexibility to reward intellectual curiosity, high school assignments rarely encouraged me to go beyond what I had to do, and were simply a means to an end—frequently appearing to be assigned more out of habit than of help. More often than not, they would simply be a nebulous batch of problems lifted by my teachers from the back of the book. These blitzes of questions had little real-world application, and were alarmingly tedious—often generating more frustration than actual learning. One particular high school teacher was notorious for his rigor—his assignments would often be supplemented by a short worksheet which unsurprisingly operated under the title “Drill It and Kill It.” The instructions for this exercise were to set an alarm for a designated amount of time, and race through as many problems as possible. While his efforts to hone efficiency could be seen as admirable, these overly-repetitive tasks did not encourage understanding, and placed too much of an incentive on isolated instances, instead of the larger picture. While seemingly harmless, over time this sort of assignment creates an attitude where too much of a reward is placed on the immediate, which can lead to narrow-mindedness and overshadow the far more important goal: long-term learning.

And it is with this sort of busywork that the issue of homework becomes inseparable from that of academic integrity. On a great many occasion, I would walk into school dazed and bleary-eyed from an exhaustive night of homework to see my classmates huddled in the back of the library covertly copying the solutions down in the few minutes before the bell rang. If it takes a scant handful of minutes to copy down an assignment, how can it really be beneficial? By assigning homework without a strong relationship to course content and emphasizing that the answer is all that really matters, teachers are creating a scenario in which critical thinking isn’t really worth it and cheating really does pay.

Admittedly, not all homework is evil, and I am very thankful for many of the hours I sat underneath my fluorescent lamp on that old dining room table. But I cannot help but look back with at least some regret—at all the hours of work which really didn’t amount to any purpose, and of all those assignments which were at best misguided. The mindless work piled before me did nothing in the way of strengthening my critical thinking skills, and it left me ill-prepared for the project-based learning I would later face in college. I was a part of a system that just didn’t make sense—and long hours were spent grinding away, as I struggled to find the meaning behind what I was learning.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Homework? And How?
by Stephanie Rafanelli

As ‘Back To School’ evenings are being held across the country, I know that homework has resurfaced as one of the most hotly debated topics among all constituencies – students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

In my opinion, here are the three essential questions to ask of every piece of homework:
  1. What is the point?
  2. What is the timeline?
  3. How will it be assessed?
  1. What is the point?
  2. Is this a skill-building exercise such as writing practice or balancing chemical equations? If it is, and has been designed to help a student build what Teresa Amabile calls ‘domain skills’ so that the learner can move toward richer, more complex, and creative work, how can it be effective for all learners? Each student does not need the same, standardized amount of practice to master every skill.

    Is the work needed to prepare for the next class? I have wrestled with this question for years. For a long time, I believed that it was essential for my middle school students to spend thirty minutes thinking about and preparing for upcoming lab experiments through pre-lab hypotheses and explanations. When I changed the assignment to a ten-minute “Read over the lab and try to decide why we are doing it” task, one that my students immediately renamed the “So what?” of every lab, I found a noticeable difference. Students came to class already connecting the activity to something important in their own life or dying to explain how it was utterly unimportant. In both instances, students arrived noticeably better prepared and more engaged.

    Is this homework primarily exploratory? Is it used to allow the student to create or nurture an authentic connection with the curriculum, to experiment with a new idea or technique, or to share a personal interest with the class? Where can the learner be given autonomy regarding the topic, the method of exploration, the manner of recording any learning, and the process of presenting his/her discoveries?

    If the work is neither for basic skill building nor class preparation nor for student-driven exploration, why do it?

  3. What is the timeline?
  4. How far in advance of the due date is the student able to work on the assignment? This will vary by assignment, by teacher, and by developmental stage, but it is still a critical question for every task. As a majority of students participate in a number of extracurricular activities, students need as much lead-time as possible to complete any homework. Last year, our fourth grade son had a ‘Wednesday to Wednesday’ set of tasks. He knew each Wednesday what all the weekly assignments were and was able to do each at his own pace. Middle and high school students, in particular, are learning how to look at the week ahead, predict which days will be packed and which may be free, and should be allowed to work on tasks in their own schedule.

  5. How will the work be assessed?
  6. This may seem ridiculous, but will the assignment be assessed? I am disheartened to hear so often from teachers that many assignments are never even glanced at, once turned in. Teachers in some schools are asked to hand out such a high volume of standardized sheets that they cannot possibly keep up with the paperwork. Why in the world did the students have to complete the task?

    Do the learners know exactly how the assignment will be assessed? Frequently, students have only a vague sense of the grading scheme for each class and develop the idea that assessment is semi-arbitrary and out of their hands. Ideally, as we prepare our students for their future years, we are helping them build the skills to self-assess. The underlying goal of the assignment ought to be crystal clear. They should have practice creating assessment rubrics and grading systems. They can have input into the revision policy and determine point losses for certain deadlines. They should be empowered to contribute to the assessment of each undertaking.
No matter to which constituency you belong (for the record, I belong to three of the four groups this year), I urge you to ask the questions of every piece of homework. Teachers, given that you are hopefully following reasonable homework guidelines to begin with, can you dig a little more deeply into the “so what?” of every assignment? Students, work with your educators to understand the idea behind the task and participate in the assessment. Parents, observe your learners and help them communicate how their process is going with their teachers. Administrators, create faculty work time to discuss the research surrounding homework and learning.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Monday, September 10, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Want to Avoid the Homework Wars? - Here’s How

School is back in session and parents everywhere are bemoaning the return of the dreaded H-word. Homework.

Yes, kids are coming home loaded down with math worksheets to compute, reports to write and projects to do. By the time they’ve slogged through it all—and done the extracurricular du jour—it’s bedtime. In fact, it’s past bedtime. Forget relaxing. Forget hanging out with friends. Heck, forget a sit-down meal with the family.

In general, kids have too much homework these days. The amount of time students in high-achieving schools spend on homework has dramatically increased over the past 30 years or so, and guess what? Their lives haven’t gotten any simpler during this time frame.

Not only does too much homework not foster academic achievement, it can actually hinder it. What’s more, it may harm kids in countless other ways. (For more info on this subject check out our research on homework at

Excessive homework can put major stress on kids which can lead to anxiety and depression. It can prevent them from getting the sleep they need. It has been shown to make some kids gain weight (you can’t exercise when your nose is buried in a book all evening!). It can crush their love for reading.

Mostly, though, it eats up all their free time—time they should be spending on fun activities (not just extracurriculars chosen as college application fodder), family time or just hanging out with friends.

Down time, which includes time spent in unstructured play, is where the real “work” of childhood takes place. This is when kids learn about the world and their place in it and develop the critical sense of self they’ll carry throughout life.

Think of child development as a three-legged stool. One leg is cognitive and academic, one is social, one is personal. When all of a child’s time is spent on the academic leg, he never has the chance to learn get-along skills, or contribute to household chores, or figure out what’s interesting to him.

The irony is that the very skills kids need to thrive in a global economy—collaboration, innovation, problem-solving—are the ones that get neglected when the sole focus is on academics.

So what can you do if your child seems to be overburdened with homework? A few suggestions:

First, know how much is too much. For the average child (keeping in mind individual kids may be exceptions to these guidelines), an acceptable amount of homework per night is as follows:
- Elementary school: approximately 10 minutes or so per grade level
- Middle school: an hour or so
- High School: 2 to 2-1/2 hours
Any homework beyond these limits is no longer providing any advantage, and is probably cutting into those things that do provide advantages like adequate sleep and what we at Challenge Success call “PDF”– that is, play time, down time and family time.

Do a little digging. Maybe the problem isn’t what you think. Watch your child carefully as he does his homework. Does he buckle down and get it done? Or does he take frequent “breaks” to doodle on his paper, fiddle with toys or even turn on the TV? Maybe he needs fewer distractions or some pointers on time management. In fact, if you speak to the teacher you may find what he’s calling homework is actually classroom work he’s failing to get done because he’s too busy talking to his neighbor.

Help your child let go of the perfectionism. On the other end of the spectrum, some kids may take longer than they need because they want the homework to be “perfect.” Your child might be agonizing over that tough extra-credit math problem for an hour when she should probably just let it go and go to bed…or studying for five hours for an exam when two would probably suffice.

Such kids may need to lighten up a little. Perfectionism can be a precursor to depression. Life is filled with imperfections and failures and that’s okay. (Remember this the next time you start criticizing any grade less than a B.)

Ask yourself if he’s taking too many tough classes at once. If he has three or four AP classes in the same semester, that’s likely to be overload. The homework associated with these classes can be intense. Insist that next semester he take fewer tough classes and let the chips fall where they may. Winning the academic rat race is not worth your child’s psychological health and happiness, because ultimate success rests on far more than just grades.

Join forces with other concerned parents and approach the school. It’s true there are certain groups who routinely argue that schools aren’t rigorous enough. (Think “Tiger Mom” types.) But there is plenty of research citing the negative impact excessive academic pressure has on overall health, happiness, social adjustment and, yes, learning. Go ahead. Build your case, get together a group of likeminded parents and go make some noise.

Finally, get yourself out of the homework game. It’s fine to be concerned about the amount your child is doing, but beyond third grade or so, don’t get involved in the content (unless you’re invited, that is). You’re her advocate, not her night teacher.

In fact, if you find yourself needing to check behind your child on every assignment, constantly “reminding” her to do her homework, and so forth, you’re not doing her any favors. She needs to be internally motivated, and every time you get involved, you interfere with that. You do your job and let her do hers. Twenty years down the road you’ll be more likely to have a kid who is confident, resilient and enthusiastic about learning!