I rarely feature guest posts from those outside my own school, but when I read my  NAIS & edleader21 colleague Chris Thinnes’ piece about Race to Nowhere and the vexing issue of homework, which I have written about here before, I offered to post it.  Chris articulates very particularly and effectively my similar thoughts about this topic, and I am pleased to be able to share it here. 

Race to Nowhere Has Some Homework to Do

Chris Thinnes is a parent and an educator who lives in Los Angeles. He is the Head of the Upper Elementary School & Academic Dean atCurtis School, a member of the Advisory Group of EdLeader21, and the director of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School (CFEE), which recently brought together educators from 103 schools and districts for “Transforming Elementary Education: An Evening with Sir Ken Robinson.”

In its latest emailed, tweeted, and web-based blitz encouraging schools to ban weekend and holiday homework, an impassioned group of self-styled activists has once again leveraged 21st century tools to provide a 20th century ‘solution’ to a 19th century problem: the overloaded assignment of dull, mechanical, and ineffectively designed homework exercises to millions of our nation’s youth. However, the similarly dull reasoning of their examination, diagnosis, and prescription (a ban, very simply, on weekend and holiday homework) will inevitably provoke irrelevant, unjustified, and blanket contempt for schools’ practices the rest of the year as well.

Race to Nowhere‘s activist arm, EndTheRace.org, swipes any reasonable analysis off the table with its burly forearm, before any of us — educators, parents, and students — have the chance to sit down to talk. In short, this campaign overlooks important dimensions of a complex discussion about the purposes of education and the needs of children, ignores forward-looking strategies about the appropriate design of learning opportunities at school and at home, insinuates a lack of professionalism and responsibility on the part of educators, and threatens further to divide, rather than to unify, educators and parents of children in our nation’s schools.

“The research on homework is clear and unanimous. Most homework does not increase learning, raise scores, or prepare students for the future.” -EndTheRace.org

If this were an accurate assessment of research ‘on homework,’ it would be compelling. However, this statement misrepresents the fact that only research on the overload of homework is ‘clear and unanimous’ in its findings: namely, that homework should be limited to developmentally appropriate workloads of 10 minutes per grade level per day. [http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/homework.html] (more…)

Remarks to Parents at Upper School Curriculum Night:

Good Evening and Welcome to Curriculum Night for the Upper School.

Education is a balancing act, and I think it is helpful  when thinking through our educational goals, principles, and values  to identify where the key tensions lie in that balancing act, and then consciously work to reconcile them as best as we can.

One of these critical tensions is student workload, and particularly homework:  How much is enough; how much is too much?

Last spring, we screened the popular documentary, Race to Nowhere.   That film has many messages, and they are not entirely consistent with each other.  At times, the film seems to say bluntly that there is far too much homework being assigned to students, and that this creates a huge pressure on our kids that is destructive to their social and emotional well being and unnecessary to their preparation.

At other times in the film, the message seemed rather that we should ask students to work hard, but take greater care that what we ask them to do is meaningful, rich in thoughtfulness and creativity, more relevant to real-world applications and allowing for more choice and more student-driven initiative.

For myself as an educator,  I much prefer the second message, and I think we at St. Gregory do a good job at fulfilling this second idea, that work should be meaningful, engaging, rich, inquisitive, and creative rather than exclusively rote, monotonous, and replete of memorization and regurgitation.   But that I think we do a good job doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to do a better job. (more…)

As Tony Wagner argues in his essential book, The Global Achievement Gap, I too think that we need to be very concerned that our secondary and college students are not learning what they need to be learning.   We can be deceived: they may go through the motions of learning, and the bright ones (bright from unique combinations of lucky genes, supportive parents/households, and strong K-8 education) may score well enough on the SAT to convey to us we are educating them.   But are we, and how do we know we really are, succeeding in facilitating their development of the essential critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing skills they most need?

Academically Adrift, the new book which I haven’t read but have read several articles about, is about college students, not secondary, but I believe it has compelling information for us.  From the NYTimes article, How Much Do College Students Learn, and Study?:

the authors followed more than 2,300 undergraduates at two dozen universities, and concluded that 45 percent “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college.” (more…)

Sometimes I think I can be so bizarre in my educational views, or maybe it is just that I am unable to make choices– I love so many things about school.

I can have a hard time making tough choices when people present to me what they believe must be ideological or philosophical or pedagogical either/or options; instead I seek the both/and.

So here I go again.  Regular readers here know of my passion for PBL, project based learning, and I am so impressed and energized by what I see in PBL  in schools like High Tech High and New Tech Networks.   I think PBL is a dynamite way, essential even, for students to develop mastery in the 21st century skills which they so greatly need for their future success; I think PBL is the best way to incorporate technology into learning; I think PBL is the best way to engage students in meaningful, stimulating ways.

But I also love tests, which many of my fine colleagues find surprising.  I think a great test is a great mental event–  not just because a good test assesses students in order that we adults know better whether our students have learned what they need to or so that we have the data we need to improve learning.    I also love tests (good tests, not bad tests), because I think they can be extraordinary learning experiences for our students– that in the very course of preparing for and taking tests students learn enormously.

My own memories of school, beginning in middle school at Milton Academy when I first took “exams,” are of how my mind seemed to accelerate into an entirely higher level of mental activity and stimulation during a good test.  It was almost as if I had greater powers of perception and insight, making sense of things and making connections among ideas that had remained un-recognized until exam day.

The catch, of course, is that the test has to be a good test.

So today’s New York Times offers fascinating corroboration, in a piece called To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques. (more…)

Remarks to students, 12.8.10, revised and expanded.

Exams are next week: how many of you are looking forward to taking exams?   I hope the answer is many of you, because I believe that when a well-prepared mind engages with a well designed test, fireworks can happen inside our minds.   I had many experiences of feeling more intellectually stimulated, engaged, creative and innovative, when taking a well-designed exam than during almost any other time.    My mind leapt to new insights and perceptions, made more connections and inferences, and discovered and constructed original solutions or approaches to vexing problems.   I love taking exams.

But you do need to be well prepared to be successful.    Some suggestions for you to be better prepared.

1.  When you study, don’t just read: write!   Too often we think we are studying when we let our eyes drift over the words in our notes, our textbooks, and our study guides.   That isn’t enough; we must write to remember and develop better understanding.    My freshman year of college I struggled with my midterms, and was quite disappointed with the results.   Come finals, I chose to do something I had never done before: I simply rewrote, word for word, every note I had taken during lecture– and when I went to take my exams I was flabbergasted with how much more I recalled and how much more confident and authoritative I was addressing the questions.    Recopy notes, or write about your notes and texts:  what are the most interesting, more original, most surprising, most confusing, most important, most controversial ideas or informational nuggets in the texts you are studying?  Write these out, and you will be better prepared.

2. Study in groups. When this works well, it is awesome; when it doesn’t work well, it can be a disaster.   The opportunity is great, but effective execution is essential.    When you do it well, the result will be better understanding and retention of key factual content and key interpretations , better anticipation of what will be on the test, and far more breadth of wisdom in how to answer those questions.

Here is my suggested strategy: (more…)

We know that content memorization must no longer the goal of our learning programs; what our goal must be is that students can make the most sense of the voluminous and fast-accelerating quantity of information which will forever be at their fingertips, and about which they must be able to think critically, to select, to evaluate, to apply, and to amend as they tackle challenging problems.

So why shouldn’t our school-tests evaluate our students ability to do exactly this?  Why not structure tests appropriately, and then invite and welcome (and require) our students to use their computers on their tests? Isn’t this real world, and real life, preparation?

Radical maybe, but it is happening.   In Denmark, for instance.

At five to nine, the room falls silent. CD-roms and exam papers are handed out together. This is the Danish language exam. One of the teachers stands in front of the class and explains the rules. She tells the candidates they can use the internet to answer any of the four questions. They can access any site they like, even Facebook, but they cannot message each other or email anyone outside the classroom.

The teachers also think the nature of the questions make it harder to cheat in exams. Students are no longer required to regurgitate facts and figures. Instead the emphasis is on their ability to sift through and analyse information. (more…)