My daughter’s 3rd grade homework assignment this evening was completing the following “Listening for Syllables” worksheet.
Sarah has a fantastic teacher, and my perception of the value of this homework assignment is not reflective of my perception of the overall quality of the educational experiences I think she’s having regularly in her public school classroom.
I do think, however, that this particular homework assignment is worthless and a waste of everyone’s time. When do people of any age, outside of a classroom, ever need to “count syllables” of words? They don’t. We don’t. This is not an activity of literate people. This is not an assignment which encourages the activities of literacy: reading, writing, speaking, thinking, and communicating. This is a fake, silly, and time-wasting activity representative of some of the kinds of activities we ask students to do at home because we have misplaced faith in the value of busywork.
Will homework assignments like this improve my daughter’s levels of achievement on standardized tests? Will it help her learn more about Charlotte’s Web, the book from which these vocabulary words are taken? Will dutifully completing assignments like this night after night at home after school help her develop self-disipline (which Kohn defines as “learning to manage freedom”) both at home and at school?
I think not.
Alfie Kohn, in his outstanding book “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing,” addresses this question on pages 51-53:
The most common nonacademic rationale for homework is that it, like competition, has character-building properties. Specifically, it’s said to help students “take responsibility for school work… to build ‘study skills’ through homework assignments to develop students’ perseverance, ability to follow directions, neatness and completeness, and overall level of responsibility.’ Others have asserted that homework promotes “self-discipline” as well as “initiative” and “independence.”
…So does homework have such an effect? No one has a clue. As far as I can tell, no experiment of either type has ever been conducted to investigate common claims about responsibility, self-discipline, and so on. To that extent, no evidence exists to support those claims.
Kohn’s book was copyrighted in 2006.
What is the effect of worthless worksheets like this which are sent home as homework? They WASTE our time. Time is one of the most precious resources each one of us has, whether we are 38 or 8. Time is limited. We never get our heartbeats back once we choose how to spend them. Did my daughter take a long time to complete this worksheet? No, she did not. But there WAS a real temporal opportunity cost to this homework assignment. Sarah could have been playing outside with one of her friends. She was prohibited, I will note, by my wife (and I don’t hold this against her since finishing your homework before you go out to play is a rule in our house) from playing with a friend who came over after her theater practice this evening, prior to dinner. Sarah had homework which was assigned, and regardless of what it was, she had to finish it before playing outside. Had she NOT had the homework assignment (or had we looked at this assignment and made a decision analogous to that of a conscientious objector and said “Forget that assignment, don’t worry about it. It’s silly…”) she would have been able to play outside before dinner for awhile with her friend.
So, what is a father and educator to do in such a homework quandary? Merely write a complaining blog post after the kids have gone to bed? Of course not! We spent about an hour together planning and sharing a short VoiceThread reflection about Charlotte’s Web tonight that she posted to our family learning blog.
Here’s a little background about what we did to create this. I estimate we spent about 30 minutes planning this together (mainly at dinner while we were eating) and 15 minutes actually recording and creating the VoiceThread.
I first asked Sarah about writing a post on our family learning blog about Charlotte’s Web. She has never seen the movie, and so far they’ve just read the first three chapters of the book in school. I love many of E.B. White’s books (especially “Trumpet of the Swan” which was a big favorite of mine growing up) and am glad Sarah is having a chance to experience Charlotte’s Web. She was NOT eager, however, to write a blog post about the book and her perceptions of it. Sarah is not yet an adept keyboarder, so this response is not entirely surprising. Like many young learners, Sarah has more ideas and is able to communicate them more capably when she is able to verbally communicate rather than when her expressive options are limited to text-only formats.
Rather than force her to go ahead and write a blog post (something I admittedly DO at times) I gave her some choices. “Would you like to record your ideas with a microphone?” Her response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”
Giving students and our own children CHOICES about the ways they express their ideas and demonstrate their mastery of knowledge and skills is not just fun, it’s an educational best practice. Part of differentiating learning should mean providing students with different options about how they express themselves and communicate. Will Sarah need to learn how to proficiently keyboard an essay before she graduates from high school? Of course. Would forcing her to type her ideas about Charlotte’s Web tonight at age 8 have effectively accomplished the learning goal of encouraging her to think summatively as well as reflectively about what she’s learned so far by reading the book? I don’t think so.
Alfie Kohn cites research from the 1970s which supports this idea that the best teachers provide the learners in their care with CHOICES about how they express themselves and show what they know. On page 44 of “The Homework Myth” Kohn writes:
…back in the 1970s, New Jersey educator Ruth Tschudin identified about three hundred “A+ teachers” on the basis of recommendations, awards, or media coverage. She then set out to compare their classroom practices to those of a matched group of other teachers. Among her findings: The exceptional teachers not only tended to give less homework but also were likely to give students more choices about their assignments.
As a parent as well as an educator, I think differentiated learning is something we should do together at home as well as at school in formal learning settings. Thankfully, we’re on the digital side of the digital divide with access to multiple computers, microphones and cameras at home. Just HAVING digital tools is not enough, however. It’s critical we invite others to USE them imaginatively to create, collaborate, and communicate. These were some of the learning goals I had in mind for Sarah as a homework activity I thought could be much more meaningful and valuable (both instrumentally as well as intrinsically) than her worthless worksheet which was sent home today in her class folder.
I started to think about different web 2.0 services which allow direct audio recording with a computer microphone to an immediately web-published, Flash-player embeddable media file, and didn’t have any luck locating some initially. I tried to remember the website “Springdoo,” which like Bob Sprankle I miss and lament in its passing, but at the time couldn’t find it, think of it, or locate similar websites. I knew we could use VoiceThread, but I really wanted to just record AUDIO and not use any images.
Eyeing my Sony flash-based video camcorder, Sarah asked why I couldn’t just shoot a video of her sharing her reflections, transfer that to the computer, and then she could put that on her blog. This led to a good discussion about “the Internet safety worst-case scenario nightmare,” which would be someone seeing her video and then deciding to kidnap her. I don’t know that anyone has ever been kidnapped because of a video reflection about Charlotte’s Web that they posted to the Internet, but at this point I do still think it might be wise to use some discretion publicly posting videos of my kids online. So, the search for a web 2.0 site that allows direct microphone audio recording and publishing continued.
Over dinner, we brainstormed a “planning sheet” for her recorded reflections which broke into two parts. First, she would summarize what she remembers happening in the book in the first three chapters they’ve read. Second, we’d brainstorm together (as a family) several “thinking questions” which would not have easy, factual answers. Sarah started out writing a rough draft, but I volunteered to write for her as we brainstormed at the dinner table. This is what we came up with. Some of the “thinking questions” were contributed by my wife and 10 year old son:
After a short walk in our GLORIOUS Oklahoma fall weather after dinner, Sarah and I got my MacBook Pro and my M-Audio Producer USB microphone and found a quiet room to do some recording. I posted a question to Twitter seeking help with a website to record directly to the web with a microphone. Liz Kolb suggested EarFl, which I had never heard of and looks interesting. Its tagline is:
Record, preserve and share your audio stories today.
The audio stories which are shared DO appear to all be linked to an image, however. That is not a bad thing, of course, given the power of visual literacy, but in this case I wanted to use an audio-only web-based tool.
Lauren O’Grady shared a tweet from Melbourne (at least I assume that’s where she was tonight/tomorrow morning) and suggested using Utterli, another tool I hadn’t encountered previously. Its tagline is:
Talk amongst yourselves: Sign up to start a discussion from your computer or phone.
In the end, Sarah and I settled on VoiceThread. You have to admit, the two Creative Commons Attribution-Only licensed photos we chose to use (using the Flickr CC search interface) are SUPER cute and make for a more interesting media experience while listening to Sarah’s chapter summary and “thinking question” responses. 🙂
Will Sarah be assigned more worthless worksheets as homework this year and in the years to come in public school? Sadly, I’m sure she will. Will her parents force her to do them all before going outside to play before dinner? I’m not sure. Next time I may ask first, “Can you please show me your homework assignment?”
I’m going to email Sarah’s VoiceThread on the first 3 chapters of Charlotte’s Web to her teacher tonight, along with the link to her post on our family learning blog. I’m not expecting this will earn her any extra credit, but hopefully it will help her teacher see a worthwhile and practical use for collaborative, publish-at-will, web 2.0 sites and tools like VoiceThread and WordPress to support authentic learning.
Now if we could just convince the Edmond school board of the same thing, we’d really be moving forward. I still have heard ZERO responses from our board members as a result of the video I mailed each one of them as a DVD this summer. I’m not too surprised by that, nor am I losing sleep over it. Instead, I’m continuing to conspire with many peers and friends to creatively, constructively and powerfully disrupt traditional patterns of teaching and learning in our state and across our planet! Think I’m kidding? Think again. The learning revolution is underway. 🙂
Learners: Bring forth thy stories!
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- Jack Berckemeyer: Opening Keynote at Qatar Academy - 2011
- Marketing Flyer for the 2010 K-12 Online Conference #k12online10 - 2010
- Tools to simplify meeting scheduling - 2009
- Is technology at school an event or a tool set? - 2008
- K12Online discussions on EdTechTalk - 2007
- Turning to YouTube for an Origami Tutorial - 2007
- Meaningful professional development via book studies - 2007
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