Thursday, November 20, 2014

Just How Much Homework Is Enough?

Ugh (I say that a lot here, don't I)...  

That title -- or the article I borrowed it from -- certainly conjured up some long ago memories.  Darn, but I can still see my grandson slumped over his paperwork at the kitchen counter, his shoulders shaking, and tears running down his cheeks.  I'm talking about a 6-year old here, and already a pretty dedicated little guy who always aimed to please (and who was destined to go on to gain his MBA).  He wasn't being pushed by us, either.

Anyway, the current theme stems from an article I stumbled upon in the Bridgewater State University alum area on LinkedIn.  "How Much Homework Is Too Much?" was authored by Thomas Bresnahan, an Assistant Principal in the Millbury (MA) Public Schools system. 

Now, to begin, Bresnahan seems as though he'd have sympathized with the way I felt watching my grandson that night (although he might not agree with my thoughts to strangle a teacher).  So, at least for awhile, he supported by premise with, "There have been several studies on the efficacy of homework and most state that at younger ages, homework does not show a definite correlation between the homework and improved test scores or improved academic achievement..."  My words:  "Thank blankin' God!"

From there, though, I'll suggest that Bresnahan starts brownie-ing up to his fellow educators, offering that, "The positive aspects of homework are it can help students learn responsibility, practice skills learned in class to help maximize learning, students learn to use more resources like reference materials, the internet, and libraries. Homework can also help students become more independent when they work on assignments on their own. Parents can become more involved in their child’s education by helping them with homework assignments and also seeing what they are learning in school. These are some of the positive aspects of homework." 

Hmmmmmmm...  I don't think there's a parent (or even a student) on earth who would disagree with a single one of those benefits.  Not a one. 

He goes on to explain that he's changed his point of view with time " a result of looking at relevant data and the proverbial 'Big Picture.'”

Bresnahan then cites one of my all-time favorite groups... Ya, "The NEA (National Education Association) created some recommendations for assigning homework. It basically stated that a student should receive no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level a night."  Well, if you missed something in there and felt good for a sec, it might have been the part about "per grade level".  For, he goes on to give as an example, "... an eighth grader would have no more than 80 minutes assigned in a night."  (Before ending this segment, let me tell readers that I was joking about the NEA being one of my favorite groups.  In reality, I think their purpose is more as a Political Action Group -- and justifiers of all things related to public education in the US -- than one concerned about the education of our kids.)

Now, although not every student engages in after-school, extracurricular activities, a good many do.  And, I'm guessing that more of those who are thinking about college do than don't.  What I'm getting at is that something like five junior high or high school courses -- times 80 minutes -- just about prevents a kid from having a life, not to mention the proper amount of sleep. 

Thankfully, though, Bresnahan seems to come back to his senses with I paragraph I feel compelled to paste in here almost in total...  "What is the negative impact of too much homework? I believe students need to go outside and play, be active, and socialize with their friends and family. Excessive homework can stunt a student’s growth in these areas. We want students to develop in many different areas not just in rote memorization. Also, is the homework equitable? What if several students don’t have the support at home to help with their homework while others do? Will this homework be graded? A family of well-educated parents certainly have an edge over those without, but all students are held accountable for the same graded homework. Something to think about! Should the majority of homework assignments even be graded or is it more about the effort in the process of completing it? If a student doesn’t understand the homework, won’t they just be performing the same imperfect tasks over and over which can be detrimental? Wouldn’t it be beneficial for the homework assignment to be based on areas that need work from class that a teacher noticed during some kind of formative assessment? What if the teacher also provided a link on their web page to help them work through the problems, material, or skills? Just a thought!"

No, Mr Bresnahan, that's more than just a thought.  In fact, it's pretty much my belief, and I'm guessing it's also pretty close to what most of my readers believe.

Unfortunately, that article left me wanting for more.  I mean, I don't think Bresnahan did any more than state both sides of the problem.  Oh, I won't totally fault him, because he's at least raised a more than worthy subject.  It's just, I guess, that he never did seem to land on either side of the issue.

I'm a hard bitten old hockey coach, though, and I've gotten to the point where I dare to speak my mind (so long as Brenda first checks my daily mail for firebombs).

Before going on to my idea, let me suggest one other benefit I see in homework.  Just pardon me for relating it to hockey, as well as to my Phys Ed & Coaching training, and especially to my favorite college course, the Principles of Motor Learning".  For, that's where I discovered a number of valuable teaching methods, including the Theory of Mass versus Distributed Training.  In that one, it's suggested that doing a given form of training for short bouts can be extremely effective, as those short bouts add up over time.  Think something like the hockey slapshot here, where it might be better to give players a break just before they become bored with that drilling, and then bringing them back to it when they're (mentally) refreshed and more receptive to further learning.  In many instances, that might suggest that I use a specific drill for 8-minutes tonight, for another 8-minutes at the next practice, and so on.  I usually take that a step further, though, by having my kids work on something like their slapshot for 3- or 4-minutes, call them in for some sort of tip or demo, send them back out to practice for another short bout, and then repeat the shooting one more time.  Going back to homework, then, consider that reviewing what students learned in the day's classrooms likely gets reinforced with some later short bouts of study.

With all that, here's a thought on homework...  In all honesty, I don't think it would take too much studying to arrive at a maximal time FOR ALL NIGHTLY HOMEWORK, taking into consideration all the negative things Mr Bresnahan noted about.  In other words, seriously consider the things a kid needs in order to eat right, sleep lots, and in general have a life.

Arriving at such a limit on homeward, I'd next suggest that each school course be given certain nights to assign an estimated x-minutes for their assignments.  In other words, maybe the math department can assign and an estimated 20-minutes of work on four nights per week, and 40-minutes on one night.  The English department would be on a different schedule, the Science department on another, etc.  Said yet another way, only one department would have Mondays for their long assignments, another would have Tuesday nights, and each of the other nights could be assigned to the other departments.  If you think about it, even that amounts to a lot of nighttime work for a student carrying a normal workload.  But it would conform to the idea of Distributed Training, and also include a touch of sanity. 

PS:  Over time, I've written a couple of articles on growth spurts in hockey players:  "Growth Spurts in Hockey Players" and "The Effects of Growth Spurts on Hockey Players".  One of those included a poll, asking if parents noticed their kids growing more during the summer months than during the school year.  Are you thinking there's a correlation here?  I surely do.  For one thing, kids get to sleep in more often during the summer; for another, I think most of them are also subjected to less stress during that period.

PPS:  One of the most popular posts within this Diary is also an entertaining one entitled "Do schools kill creativity?"  (I tend to believe so.)

Your thoughts on all this?  I'd love to hear them down below.