Archive for the ‘Alfie Kohn’ Category

I was recently asked, along with several other educators, to comment on a post dealing with grading homework. The premise on which we were asked to comment involved a teacher grading homework and giving a zero as a grade to those students who did not do the assignment. This is not an uncommon practice amongst educators. I employed this strategy myself for many years. It was and probably still is an accepted strategy, but after decades of teaching, I have grown to a point where i am not a big believer in giving homework. I stated my homework philosophy in this post, Hmwk: Less Value or Valueless?

If homework is to be given by a teacher, students need to believe that the teacher will value their efforts in completing it. Homework requires a sacrifice of personal time on the part of the student. If students observe that the teacher is not at least checking homework, they will not spend time, which is important to them, doing the assignments that are not valued. A mistake often made however, is that rather than assess the work, the teacher records a zero, or a failing homework grade for the student. This would also apply to a project prepared outside of the class that was to be presented at a specific time, a deadline.

I see assessment having two functions. The formative assessment is to tell me how much the student understands, so I can decide to move forward, or if I need to, change my strategy. The summative assessment comes at the end to determine, how much of what I taught, was learned by the student. A zero for a homework grade does not seem to fall into either of these categories.

It would seem that the zero grade is a punishment for non-compliance. Maybe an argument can be made for assessing the student’s understanding of deadlines, but that might be a stretch. That may be more of a work-ethic value and I don’t know how to assess that in number terms. The issue is bigger than zero for a grade of non-compliance. It is a question of the relevance of homework.

If the grade is an assessment of the work, and the student’s understanding, but it was not done, how can it be assessed? If the homework is more important to the teacher than it is to the student, who benefits? The zero seems more like retribution for not finding value in what the teacher values, or has been told to value. It’s more of a control thing, and not an assessment thing. If a student consistently performs well in class, how is it that when assessed on the same skills performed outside the class in the form of homework, the work gets a zero? It is a power issue.

Maybe we need to change the emphasis or at least offer an option for change. We could give control to the students, by giving them a homework opt-out option. Of course the ultimate control would need to be given to the parents, but let us consider this option. Students, with parents’ permission, could opt out of a homework grade for the year. The teacher would give homework assignments to the entire class, but would only be required to assess the work of those who have opted in for it. Students who have opted in, get a homework grade as an extra grade in their overall average. Every student will be given an opportunity to do the assignments, but, the only grading the teacher needs to do would be for those who opted in. If, as the teacher would hope, the homework makes a difference, it should be evident to all in the grades of the students who have opted-in. The opt-outs could still do the work, but it would not be assessed for a grade. Additionally, if opt-in students miss a specific number of assignments, they would be opted-out and parents would be informed. The group choosing to do the homework is now perceived as having the advantage in grading, making it very desirable for all. Of course that only works if the homework is relevant and if it does make a difference. There is a very good possibility that homework may make no difference at all in the students’ learning. In that case, those who have opted out, have not been harmed at all.

I believe homework should be given as infrequently as possible, and only if necessary. It should take no more than brief period of time. If homework is given to students, it must be valued. Their efforts outside of the class should be recognized. If we consider the schedules of our students and value down time, homework becomes less important and class time becomes more valuable.

This topic of homework is often a huge magnet for teachers’ comments on a blog post. For some reason educators feel a need to defend or attack the homework issue as a matter of professional pride. I await those comments.

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As a supervisor of Pre-service teachers, I start my first meeting with my students with a list of do’s and Don’ts, High up on the Don’t list is a very important rule for all new teachers: Stay out of the Faculty Lounge. Although it is a gathering place for educators, it is in reality not a place to professionally develop.

The teacher’s lounge or faculty room is one of the most important rooms in a school building for some teachers. It is an oasis from the stress, a place to blow off steam. Back in the day it was a smoke-filled room. (That is a great example of “what the hell were we thinking” items.) It is a social room for faculty. It is the virtual water cooler where those types of conversations take place. It is a place where teachers can voice opinions about education with colleagues. Some schools offer Department offices providing a mini-experience of the same things for department members only, an exclusive lounge.

Then there is the “Dark Side” of the lounge. It is a place for student bashing, teacher bashing, administrator bashing, and finally a place for parent bashing. It is a place where careers can be torpedoed by individuals publicly ridiculing colleagues. It is a place that can be very intimidating to new teachers. It is a bastion of traditional ideas and stories of those who got away with things that could not be done today.

The reality is that, it is not a place for Professional Development. It is not thought of as the place where one goes to discuss the latest methods or research in education. It is not thought of as the place where one would see the latest best practices in a lesson for professional development, or videos of the latest speakers on educational topics. Marzano, Kohn, November, Gardner, Rheingold, and Heidi Hayes Jacobs are not names bandied about in the Lounge. Most people are not listening to podcasts, or viewing webinars, or exchanging links. The discussion of which apps are best for which outcomes is a rare bird indeed. As a matter of fact, many of these terms, or at least the experience of use of these things would be foreign to many, if not most, in the room.

If you did not recognize this description, because your school has no such room, or nothing negative happens in your faculty lounge it can mean only one thing. After four decades of teaching, supervising, and observing in hundreds of schools, I never visited your school. I guess that I should only say that this is a description of a lounge in many schools I have visited. Of course the names will be withheld to protect the innocent.

If the exchange of educational ideas is not taking place in the areas where teachers gather, it must take place somewhere else. Perhaps the district is supplying a time and place for the exchange of ideas to happen. There is always the monthly or bi-weekly Department meeting that occurs at the end of the school day when teachers are always open to new challenging ideas.

If educators are to be relevant and literate in this digital age, these are the types of things that need to be discussed and planned for. If we as educators are not discussing this now, we will soon reach a point where it will not matter.

We are in an environment of people being fed up with status quo. We are in an environment where expenditures of money are demanding higher accountability. We are in an environment where people want more bang for less bucks, more effort from fewer people, more education with less time to do it, more testing for better outcomes with less time to teach, because of more time required for test preparation. No matter how fast that mouse runs there is always more of that spinning wheel.

As I discussed this with my friend, Dr. Joe Pisano, he pointed out that maybe the walls we need to knock down with technology are the walls of the Faculty Room and the Myth of educators exchanging ideas for Professional Development. The box that we need to think outside of is the school building itself. We need to involve educators to engage others on a global network of educators. We cannot count on Districts supplying the time and place for needed discussions to happen. They are not leading us to the needed reform to maintain our relevance and ultimately our jobs.

We need to share our digital collaborative efforts that have educators involved in Twitter, Ning, Delicious, Diigo, Wikis, and any of the web tools out there now or yet to come. We navigate an information-rich environment. We are collaborating daily. We are using Blog posts for reflection and deep discussions. As Educators on the Professional Learning Network we do all of this and benefit by it daily, yet we are a minority of educators. We represent the smallest of fractions of the Millions of teachers who still rely on the Teachers Lounge for relevant Professional Development.


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If I had to name one educational author who sets educators off, it would be Alfie Kohn. The Educator’s PLN.  http://edupln.ning.com. was fortunate enough to convince Alfie Kohn to talk with well over 250 educators about his views in a live Chat. Alfie is outspoken on a number of educational topics not the least of which is his stance on homework. No matter how Kohn positions it, and irrespective of the research used to support his position, all that some educators ever hear is that teachers should not give homework because it doesn’t improve or in any way positively affect learning. This flies in the face of a traditional tenet of education, “Thou shalt Give Homework”.

Kohn’s positions bring out the best and the worst in some people. One great example of academic debate at its best has been on-going over a period of several days. Two members of The Educator’s PLN, George Haines and Tim Furman have continued the most scholarly, thoughtful, and respectful discussion on the subject of Alfie Kohn that one could hope for. The vocabulary is inspiring. You have to love all those big educational words. All kidding aside, I have great respect for both men and their positions.  It is a refreshing change from some of the name calling and disagreeable discourse that I have witnessed in the recent past.

Now that the Alfie Kohn video has been placed on my class’s Ning site and my students have been assigned its viewing, I need to strategize what they should take away from the experience. I am not creating Minnie me’s. I do not want to impose my will and a homework policy on them to guide them through their careers without them understanding or buying into it. After all, I am not an administrator.

Many of my views on homework were not my views through much of my career. Having my own children in school gave me a perspective that I never had in the first half of my career. I have come to appreciate that a student’s day in school begins at about approximately 8 and ends at 3. Many, but not all, are often involved with extra-curricular events for an additional two hours. This puts kids home between 5:30 and 6PM. Work in a little downtime and dinner and it is 8 pm. Of course the student is now ready to work, because it’s homework time. Each teacher has only assigned about 20 to 30 minutes of work, so each teacher feels that the assignment is not too much. That would be okay if the kid did not have five teachers all thinking the same thing. That could be on a given day two to three hours of homework. It is now 11 PM. I understand that does not happen every night, but I must wonder how often does it happen? I do not know an adult who would work those hours for any number of days in a week for no pay. There are actually departments, schools, and districts that enforce homework policies requiring teachers to give homework each and every night.

I am an English teacher. I know that I sometimes have no choice about homework, if I am to get things read. However, if I assign anything more than 10 pages, it probably will not be read by  the class. How successful will my lesson be the next day when only half the students read the assignment? If I were to do a formative assessment, I should not be surprised that half the class does not get it.  So much for the homework strategy. Another consideration: If I put no value on the homework, kids will recognize it as worthless. I must check it and provide feedback to give it value. Homework without value is more than worthless. It is punishment. Students will view it as working for nothing. How often do we hear “Why should I do that work? He doesn’t check it anyway.”

Skills and drills are important to some teachers and rarely important to kids. Some students might benefit by doing them. What about those who do not need those drills because they have a thorough understanding? How do those students, who do not need the drills, view them? If they clearly understand and can do the work, why are they drilling? Might they feel as if it is punishment? Can we assign the drills to those who need them and not to those who need them not? Is that a question of fairness? How can we say that only some of the students will get homework because they need to drill their skills? Are we calling some of our students dumb (their perspective) ?

I would love for my Methods students to realize that, if homework is important for the teacher to give, it should be important for the students to do. It should be creative and reasonable, because we are requiring overtime without compensation. We would resent that as adults, so why do we expect kids to buy into that concept without pushback? I love the fact That Alfie Kohn, George Haines, Tim Furman and my Methods students all challenge me to think, and reflect in order to amend, or change many of the traditions of education I followed so stringently for so many years in teaching. I only regret that I did not have the ability to do this earlier. That is what motivates me to work with pre-service Teachers. I think I will assign the reading and responding to this post as a homework assignment.



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