Does FLIPPED LEARNING increase workload? Probably

This weekend the strategy of flipped learning has been a divisive one on Twitter. Greg Ashman implored that it is an inequitable strategy, with errant student motivation inevitably playing too large an influence in it being a reliable teaching strategy. Similarly, Adam Boxer posited that when learning is expected to happen outside the classroom we potentially increase the achievement gap, again due to the loss of control of who is doing the learning. Conversely, Freya suggests that flipped learning offers an opportunity for student responsibility, as does Tom Sherington here, adding that a well controlled flipped learning strategy can facilitate independent study skills, and that not providing such opportunities through fear of a few not doing the work is playing to the lowest common denominator.

Both sides have convincing arguments, but I believe that there is a larger more pernicious issue at hand. Flipped leaning increases teacher workload.

The most obvious example is if there is any expectation of learning to be done outside of the room. This is different from revision, which I’ve written about before. Flipped learning has to be assessed in some form before the teacher could confidently deliver the next section in the sequence of learning: pre-reading, viewing videos etc. This increases the teacher’s workload.

The other cited reason for flipping learning is to set up a pre-lesson scenario, where students are exposed to content in preparation for the teaching of it the next day. The issue with this, assuming we have a completely equitable and motivated learning environment outside of the classroom, is that is provides more time in the classroom. How can this be an issue I hear you ask? Is this guy losing his marbles?

More time in the classroom can only have one outcome when viewed by boards of education: fill it with more content. We would assume that the extra time would be left for deeper understanding of the current content, but this is not how it plays out. The amount of content expected to be covered in curricula has increased significantly over the years because ironically, teachers keep finding clever ways of finding more time to deliver it. We don’t get rewarded for such innovation, but punished for it with an increased workload. I’ve written about this type of thing before, discussing the idea that the better we become at teaching our students, the higher the grade boundaries go, so the harder we have to work.

So, whether flipped learning has a benefit to students or not, it may have a long term detrimental effect on us as teachers.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general education resources.

COMBINING the Knowledge Organiser with Retrieval Practice

Once a text has been studied, and content is well understood, the application of the knowledge to essay writing is usually the expected path. Here’s how the team and I at South Devon High School help students develop their essay writing. Huge thanks to Katie Babbs for helping design this.

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  • The grid is presented to students. Across the top are possible essay questions, and down the left hand side are the scenes from the text.
  • Students populate the squares if they feel the essay question is represented in the particular scene. Students decide whether they go along each row with each scene, or down each column with each question. I suggest going down each column as it helps reinforce the text’s plot multiple times, which significantly strengthens their knowledge of the text as they continuously revisit the scenes and quotes.
  • I model the process of justifying the choices. At this point, students will probably argue that a square should or shouldn’t be included, which is perfect as the explanations help other students come to terms with the task. Depending on the group, you may have to populate the first few rows/1 column to get things moving.
  • Next, students need to understand the requirements of the exam/assessment task: how long they will have to write, and consequently how many examples would constitute a strong response, bearing in mind that the beginning, middle and end of a text needs to be discussed.
  • Students then begin the planning process for each essay question by going down each question and prioritising scenes and relevant quotes to suit the time allowed in the writing.
  • Students then practise writing the essays. This is where they will realise how many examples they can discuss in the allotted time, and suitably adjust the number chosen.
  • I encourage students to choose questions, or I decide topics that have examples from different scenes. Ideally, students would complete at least 4 of these essays so they can produce responses with a range of scenes. Of course, there will be a great deal of overlap, which serves to consolidate the knowledge of the text a great deal. The advantage of this also is that multiple exemplars are produced that can greatly assist students who are either still unsure about particular essay strands, or who will become inspired by the thinking of other students.

The development of essay writing is a strong feature of this activity, but almost crucially, the students’ knowledge of the text is significantly strengthened as they continuously revisit the scenes and quotes, and we know how powerful retrieval practice is. You can have students write their first 2 essays from the grid, but then take away the ability to see the quotes, or the scenes, and then all of it, as their retrieval capacity becomes increasingly secure.

The template works for a range of texts, and can have space assigned to add context if necessary. Here is the doc for you to use and adjust to suit,

Here is a completed one for a few Macbeth questions. Adjust quotes, choice of scenes and choice of questions as required.

Here is one for A Christmas Carol.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

HOMEWORK is a new strategy

Forget about all the negative past conceptions of homework.

When set properly, HOMEWORK is a new strategy to improve learning.

With the changes in curricula across the world, characterised by increased content demands, and many courses moving to exam based summative testing, the retention of knowledge by students has become paramount to achievement. To maximise success in such a context, teachers need to ensure 2 main things: the content taught is secure in students’ minds; the content taught can be recalled easily when required. Homework can help. 

1. SECURE THE CONTENT

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To assist in the consolidation of learning within the classroom, teachers can use homework as a means of strengthening the knowledge students have been taught. Often, these tasks will be in the form of practice, with questions or exercises designed to master skills. Such tasks should be 20-30 minutes in duration, and precisely matched to the content just taught.

The research is clear in tasks being extremely relevant: Redding (2000) states that homework should not be given on topics that have not been taught, and Cathy Vatterott (2010) is emphatic when suggesting that teachers should not assign homework as a matter of routine, rather, only when there is a specific purpose (both cited by Carr 2013). The most effective tasks provide cleared precise instructions, and provide an example of a question or exercise as a model for students to get the ball rolling. When a model and clear instructions are given, students are less likely to invalidate the homework process by outsourcing the learning, to either Google, or a parent/carer.

2. RETRIEVE THE CONTENT

The underlining premise of retrieval practice is that information that a student has stored in their long term memory needs to be recalled several times before the knowledge could be deemed to be completely secure, and retrievable at later stages. By actively ‘working’ on the memory, the memory is strengthened.

As retrievalpractice.org state, struggling to learn – through the act of “practising” what you know and recalling information – is much more effective than re-reading, taking notes, or listening to lectures, and so the opportunities that homework present to aid this process are significant. 

Just because a student has learnt something in a lesson doesn’t mean we should be content with that. If a student can’t recall the knowledge at a later date, then they effectively haven’t learnt it. This is incredibly pertinent if the knowledge learnt is a requirement for the next learning sequence, as most school learning is.

What is happening in the video?

  1. When information is presented to students it is processed in the working memory.

  2. If it is understood, it moves into the long term memory (LTM).

  3. However, if we don’t do anything with it when it is there, it potentially gets lost. What we need to do as teachers is to ‘work’ on the knowledge in the LTM, by retrieving it,

  4. so that it becomes semantic memory, memory comprised of schemas that we can recall easily.

  5. Once that is achieved, when new information is presented, students have the previous knowledge ‘at their fingertips’. 

Retrieval practice greatly assists in reducing cognitive load: as the learner becomes increasingly familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory (Sweller 1988).

Homework presents a wonderful opportunity to develop retrieval. The very nature of time in-between the lesson and the subsequent engagement with the material satisfies one of the important characteristics of the concept: the element of forgetting the information. The research by Bjork is clear that the memory is strengthened if the student is challenged to remember it, a likely process if distractions occur between engaging with the content.

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HOW TO CREATE THE MOST EFFECTIVE RETRIEVAL HOMEWORK TASKS 

Tasks should be 20-30 minutes in duration, test like in nature, and should be a mixture of previous learnt material. Ideally, the majority of the tasks would focus on knowledge learnt very recently, with some percentage of exercises based on knowledge from a few lessons ago, with a final addition of a task based on something from much earlier in the year (or even from previous years). This exploits the concept of interleaving, which suggests that by chunking revision the likelihood of remembering the knowledge increases: again the 20-25 min task works well here, perhaps 20 mins on English, then 20 mins on Maths.

USE HOMEWORK as a teaching and learning tool.

See here for how best to manage homework.

REFERENCES

Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).

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click to view Carr’s research

Analysis of results for Homework Survey

View the survey responses here

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Context

As a teacher (via student grumbles) and parent (via direct observation), it is apparent that when homework is assigned to students, it is done so without the knowledge of how much homework they already have from their other teachers. The central concern of this context is that students can easily become overloaded with work, which can have both academic and emotional consequences. This survey seeks to achieve two things: to ascertain whether these assertions are valid; and if they are, how willing or able educators are to rectify the issue.

Homework of course has always been around, but has recently gained more attention as schools have become more conscious of the benefits of establishing strong relationships between the school and the home. Besides parent teacher evenings and termly reports, homework is by far the greatest opportunity to connect parents with what the child is learning and the progress they are making. As a result numerous online notification tools have established themselves in the market. But in effect, these tools have simply become technological planners, with information previously written down by students now available online for a parent to view. Of course this is a preferable scenario to the planner, removing the battleground for parents trying to ascertain what homework the child has to complete. But the improvement is marginal, largely because it still doesn’t solve the issue of the potential overloading of students, and quite frankly, in today’s world, reasonably uncreative considering the potential that technology can offer this issue.

Results and Discussion

Q 2 – Do you agree with the statement: ‘At home, students have a limited time to complete homework.’

Q 3 – What is an appropriate amount of homework per night for a student in Yr10

Questions 2 and 3 were designed to engage educators in thinking about what constitutes appropriate amounts of homework for year 10 students, considering their home-life context. Once the respondents had quantified this in their own minds, question 4 was designed to encourage reflection on some possible consequences of that time being overrun.

Q4 – What are some possible ramifications for the school if students are given more homework than they can complete in the appropriate time? E.g. lower performance on tasks, teacher time following up etc.

The average time indicated by respondents for a student in Yr. 10 to complete homework was just over an hour a night, a figure that most students and parents would understand as being extremely conservative. This notion is reinforced by looking on any school website that advertises its homework policy: a year 10 student, on average, is required to complete no less than 1 ½ to 2 hours per evening. This suggests a disparity between what teachers and school leaders believe is an appropriate amount, and how much is actually being given.

Answers to this question could be separated into four key themes: ability to cope, motivation, time, and performance.

  • Coping – of the 70 respondents one in six cited increased stress levels as a consequence of overloading students. Linked closely to this were comments about feelings of inadequacy, lowered self-esteem, depression, burnout, and mental health concerns. Another respondent suggested students experience a sense of injustice when teachers were unaware of how much work they had already been given yet added another task.
  • Motivation – an equal number of respondents cited demotivation as a consequence of overloading. As one teacher stated, students either sink or swim. This is an interesting observation, and draws attention to how imperative it is that students are not only given appropriate amounts of time to complete homework tasks, but are also given tasks that have been expertly designed in terms of how much independent work they involve. One respondent stated that students lose enjoyment in studying as pressure is increased.
  • Loss of time – several respondents discussed the loss of time in having to chase up homework that wasn’t completed, with some stating that the resultant detentions become a barrier to motivating students from then on. One educator stated that homework was simply used to fill in time, an alarming but not uncommon comment, to say the least.
  • Decreased performance – some educators correlated the loss of time with poor performance in that the reduced quality demonstrated in tasks due to overloading rendered them pointless to mark. Many respondents expectedly suggested that overloading resulted in: lower performance on tasks; lower grades; and, directly related to the motivation aspect, feelings of being disadvantaged in class from not being able to complete the set work. Several respondents cited students being ill prepared for the next lesson as an issue directly related to overloading. One teacher stated that there would be less opportunity to see whether the student could handle the learning independently: a perceptive and important observation.

Q5 – Please indicate which best describes your position in relation to the statement: ‘Parents observing their child having too much homework sends a message that the school’s homework policy isn’t organised.

This question was meant as a direct follow-on from considerations about overloading. Of the responses (not including those whose school uses a schedule), 62% suggested that parents would receive a negative message about the efficiency of the school’s homework policy. 16% stated that it would send a very negative message, with 22% stating that it wouldn’t send a negative message. The question’s primary purpose was to raise teachers’ and other educators’ awareness of parents’ perception of the school in regards to homework setting. The rationale is that schools pride themselves on promoting organisation, and certainly encourage students to become very good at it, and yet potentially drop the ball when it comes to transmitting an organised homework policy.

Further questions could explore what led 22% of the respondents to suggest that it had no adverse effect on a school’s perception in the community.

Q6 If you use a schedule: Would you say that your homework schedule strategy is effective?

 Of all surveyed, 17% indicated that they used a schedule to manage their homework distribution. This equated to 12 respondents. 8 indicated that their schedule strategy was okay but could be better; three suggested that it was working well, and one respondent stated that teachers didn’t stick to it. Of course it’s a small sample, but those believing that their strategy could improve dominates these figures. Q7 was designed to validate anecdotal evidence suggesting a possible reason for dissatisfaction with schedules was due to teachers having to set meaningless tasks to either keep up appearances or for fear of missing a designated slot. However the results did not concur. There is a possibility however that the question itself threw respondents off, as so few people answered this at all. Again, more questioning would be needed to ascertain the cause of dissatisfaction, but another anecdotal reason could include the inflexibility that accompanies a schedule, which leads to tasks not being set in real time.

Q8 What would prevent your school from adjusting its homework policy if it became aware of a tool that helped teachers to spread out workload by letting them see how much work their classes already have?

 The final question was designed to investigate two contexts: whether an educator would be willing to adjust their homework policy having identified negative aspects of its current use; and whether it is true that schools are becoming more reluctant to take on new technology because of the enormous influx of Edtech companies advertising themselves to schools and teachers.

  • In terms of the first point, because there was no direct question asking respondents whether or not their school was experiencing the alluded to issues, any response in this question could not be tied to previous answers. This is a shame, but the inevitable price of poor survey design. Having said that, many of those who indicated that their use of a schedule was okay but could be better, also indicated that no adjustment was needed to their policy. I would be keen to explore what appears to be an inconsistency here.
  • It was pleasing to note that there was only one response indicating that their school may be overwhelmed with the amount of edtech being pushed towards them. Of course the nature of the respondents, being generated mostly from Twitter users, slightly skews the perception of edtech, but the question was generic enough for respondents to presume the attitude of their school. Some stated that time invested in the existing platform would be a barrier as well as time needed to retrain; some stated cost, and interestingly a few stated a required cultural shift, not only including converting teachers to technology, but also ensuring that there was a parity between subjects in the setting of homework. However, very few people added their email address for me to be able to directly communicate the results to them, perhaps a sign after all of wariness to increased unsolicited communication.

Conclusions and recommendations

Whilst the survey didn’t explicitly ask respondents to state whether or not they believed overloading was an issue in their school (because they have no way of knowing anyway), a distorted perception of the amount of homework given by educators versus the actual amount being given can be deduced from the survey’s results, and certainly something that needs to be addressed, given the consequences of overloading.

The disparity is certainly understandable because teachers are effectively working in silos in terms of homework communication, and set tasks based on their own instincts. A possible explanation is as follows: when a teacher sets a task, it is hard for him or her to imagine that their students already have 1 ½ – 2 hours work to do on the same night. This may be for two reasons: firstly, as most respondents indicate, teachers don’t believe that close to two hours is an appropriate amount of time to be completing homework after a school day and so naturally don’t presume that they have already been given this much work. Secondly, because they are working in isolation, their subject takes priority, and if a task is required to be completed it tends to cloud consideration of other subjects’ tasks. Of course this is not how it should be, but I would be surprised if teachers disagreed with this.

This situation is highly inefficient, resulting in the ramifications cited in the responses. Teachers need a tool that can tell them how much work they already have before they set another task, and take the guessing game out of it.

This scenario raises another very relevant question: how many teachers would be aware of what constitutes an appropriate amount of homework per night for a student of this age? I say this not just in terms of a school’s policy, but more so in terms of the developmental considerations of the student. Is it appropriate to suggest a specific amount of time that applies to all students within a year group, knowing just how different students can be in terms of their cognitive and emotional development within a year, let alone their home contexts? Is the recommended time based on current research or simply a school’s expectations? These are important questions, because as this survey demonstrates, students can be enormously disadvantaged if they are put under undue pressure. Unfortunately, there is little research related to this aspect of homework setting.

The central calendars offered by the leading tools in the homework distribution market do little to alleviate the issue of overloading. The reason is because even if tasks that are set are pinned to the central calendar, teachers have no way of knowing if the tasks affect the students in his or her class. The teachers certainly don’t have time to try and work it out, and cannot ask the students and expect accurate answers. The result is that homework setting is carried out in a random fashion. In a busy classroom, the teacher needs to be able to click a button and be told right then and there how much work his or her class already have.

The alternative to random assigning is the schedule. Whilst the survey didn’t validate anecdotal perceptions that the inflexibility of the schedule leads to reduced quality in homework setting, the lack of answers to the relevant question keeps this notion open for further investigation. The basis of the theory is that when teachers are only allowed to set a task on a designated day, the task is usually pre-planned and can therefore not be representative of real-time learning. There’s plenty of research suggesting that the most effective homework tasks are those that are closely related to current learning. Therefore, whilst the schedule can prevent overloading, in teaching and learning terms, it would not be as effective as a technological tool that could not only prevent overloading but also provide flexibility in setting tasks.

The result of very few respondents being perturbed by the introduction of a new tool to alleviate the issue is indeed encouraging. The one final question now then for the respondents to this survey is the one that should have been asked to improve the validity of question eight:

Q8a – Considering the implications of your answer, are you aware of how much work your students have already received?

I would like to thank all the respondents for helping me to produce this research. Their generosity in the giving of their busy time was certainly well noted, and appreciated greatly.

Ensuring HomeWork is Outstanding

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Click the image to go to one of the most extensive resources created about all things to do with Homework. The site focuses on

  • the pedagogy behind homework setting,
  • tips to help ensure you set appropriate and quality homework if you decide to set it, and
  • critiques on the latest tools that distribute homework

The resource will help you to ensure you only set OUTSTANDING HOMEWORK.

Should students be able to sue if their school teaches to the test?

Should students be able to sue if their school teaches to the test?

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If in teacher training teachers are expected to consider childhood development in designing suitable teaching and learning activities, and if there is indeed enormous amounts of research validating the different cognitive and emotional capacities of different age groups, could it be argued that a parent could sue the school for denial of learning if the school’s curriculum is exam focused rather than developmentally focused?

 

Sometimes when I am talking about the importance of being able to prevent overloading students with homework, I will hear some educationists say that it is not such a bad thing if the student is overloaded. They believe that there’s value in the pressure created, as it will help to prepare them for the examination period, a period where students may have more than one exam on the same day. The issue with such a strategy though is that it forgets that students are continuously developing.

As a teacher you know what it’s like to have to come home having taught all day and then having to spend up to 2, possibly three hours preparing/marking for the next day. We hate it, are exhausted by it, and quite rightly complain about it continuously. Yet rarely do we speak out when we become aware of 15 to 18 year olds under the same pressures. We just expect them to knuckle down and get on with it. We expect that because we believe it is preparing them for when they leave school. But not only does it seem like a strange thing to be promoting (to feel the same anxieties that we feel by having to work for long periods outside of work), it is assuming that a teenager can cope with the same pressure. It is assuming that developmentally they can cope.

How many of us are aware of how much pressure a 15-18-year-old can actually handle? Where have we got our numbers from? How conscious are we of the developmental needs of a student of this age? I’m not sure anyone can say we are if this Psychology Today article is correct. What if the increased pressure we now apply due to the new more difficult curricula is not appropriate to this developmental period, and in fact only stunts progress through it? The idea of developmental stages is hardly refutable, with countless renowned theorists espousing, albeit with minor variations, distinct stages characterised by increasingly complex cognitive and emotional capacities. A 13 year old doesn’t have the same tolerance for pressure as a 16 year old, nor does the 16 year old compared to an adult. Yet as teachers, because of external pressures to demonstrate progress, we are driven to prepare students for the next developmental stage, by providing contexts that are from it: by teaching to the test, and by overloading them with homework.

 

The perils of teaching to the test

Teaching in the upper grades practically demands a seriously strong focus on examinations and their content. The pressure to succeed in such a context is enormous, and not only for the student. Many teachers fall into the trap of immediately teaching to the test. Taking direct examples from past examinations and designing lessons around them is common practice. Yet there isn’t any level or key stage around the world that is not categorised by what the student should achieve by its end. The examination at the end of this stage should be characterised by a building of skills up until perhaps the last month or two of that stage. When teachers begin the course with questions on a par to what they would receive in the exam they actually deny the developmental process to take place, and inadvertently dampen the students’ ability to succeed to their potential.

Take for example a students beginning an English GCSE course. They could hardly be expected to produce a sufficient response to a 10 mark analysis question if on the very first day the amount of time given to complete such a question was the same that they would expect to have on the examination day. The chance of success is minimal. In fact they would, at worst, undoubtedly lose motivation to continue, and at best usurp valuable energy to overcome the pressure. Many students will of course pull through, but at what price? Have they become significantly stronger people, or have they just persevered through an unnecessary, never to be reclaimed period of their lives? The amount of exhaustion that I see in students in the upper years seems to prove the latter. The building towards skills process is absolutely necessary, and it requires an incredibly experienced and skilful teacher to always be guided by a child’s development rather than the schools performance table.

And analogous situation is the increasing trend of English faculties beginning to cover GCSE texts in year eight and nine. What a teacher must carefully consider however is whether or not that aged student can cope with the type of skills that are required in the examination, let alone the emotional capacities for such texts. For example, the very strong focus on analysis in the English GCSE examination is a skill more suited to someone on the verge of adulthood compared to a young teenager. The mental capacity has just not been developed yet, and so the insistence on an analysis focus becomes merely just robotic learning rather than meaningful learning. Consider also emotional variances in the year eight student compared to the year 11. Are we actually destroying the love of English by presenting themed texts to the wrong audience? An ultimate irony perhaps in our focus on audience?

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development urges the teacher to carefully plan activities based on cognitive capabilities. The zone of proximal development surely applies to emotional capabilities also; that is after all why there are age restrictions on viewing certain films and television programs. Pitching tasks to a student who’s not capable of handling them is a waste of time.

 

The perils of setting too much homework/revision

 Setting more homework and revision tasks when students already have sufficient work for that developmental age does not therefore serve to strengthen the students and prepare them for a future pressurised context, but actually weakens them. The random assignment of homework, a process that happens in every school that doesn’t have a strict schedule, creates such a context. By doing so it denies recognition of developmental theory, and therefore has a lot to answer for. The inevitable consequence is a compromise in the performance and the quality of the tasks undertaken, and an inevitable effect on the student’s well-being.

 

Backlash? It all makes me wonder. Could we potentially face a time when a parent could actually sue their school for failing to provide adequate learning for a specific developmental age? If a student is highly demotivated by the schooling process, or emotionally exhausted, preventing them from succeeding in the final examination and thereby affecting their entire future, wouldn’t that be grounds for a class action?

Setting independent homework ain’t easy

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Knowledge-based homework versus independent study

A Teacher setting homework must be conscious of the difference between these two types of tasks. The reason being that once students are on their own with the task the potential for success is greatly correlated with the size of the jump they need to make in their thinking processes.

 

Knowledge-based tasks require practically no jumping. These types of tasks may include drill and practice activities that usually help to consolidate classwork and strengthen skills. Shaun Allison and Chris Runeckles’ admirable determination to take homework setting seriously led to the formulation of the term ‘embedding’ to describe such a context. Students should be able to begin and complete such tasks by relying on what they have already learnt in class, and without having to refer to any assistance, except perhaps information in their books. Consequently, the only obstacles to setting successful tasks in this environment include getting the amount of time the task should take to complete right (something that needs more attention in schools), and ensuring that the task is relevant to the learning at the time (something that also needs more attention in schools). But it is when homework is set to make students jump from what they know to develop independent learning that significantly more thinking by the teacher is necessary in the design of the task.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is an interesting theory that suggests that people are willing to challenge and stretch their thinking up to a certain point, before deciding to give up. The theory certainly explains many moments in classrooms in my early years of teaching where I encountered students disengaging from a task because it was simply too difficult for them. Of course we learn as teachers, continuously, and I quickly realized that in order to promote challenge I had to first of all understand the level a student was at, and then carefully calculate how large a jump they could then make on their own. Some students can be stretched further from the same place as other students, and some students are more resilient if it all goes awry. Getting the balance right is indeed an art form. Fortunately, when setting such tasks in the classroom the teacher can intervene if necessary, and prevent any disengagement by adjusting the level of challenge. It is in this context then that the setting of homework tasks demands far greater attention than perhaps it has been currently receiving. There is no chance of intervention once the student is away from the classroom, and tasks that stretch the student beyond their capabilities can result not only in disengagement from the tasks, but potentially from the concept of homework itself.

With this in mind, it is little wonder that homework has gained such a poor reputation; setting it requires a great deal of attention and equally as much skill, and I think it would be fair to say that, with some notable exceptions (Sherrington, Allison), it has not been an imperative on the agenda of most schools. That may be controversial, and as you read this you may refute it, but I say to you that you only can if your policy adheres to these 3 central principles:

  • The time necessary to complete tasks should be carefully calibrated so it is proportionate to the amount of time students have spare;
  • Tasks must be relevant to current learning and consequently cannot be set too far in advance; and
  • Independent learning activities must be carefully designed to avoid demotivating students in the homework process.

 

TIPS TO SETTING INDEPENDENT HW

 

  1. Differentiation: Teacher Toolkit’s analysis of the situation: ‘I have calculated carefully, that differentiated; targeted and independent homework, followed with targeted feedback, leads to student ownership and improved levels of progress’ led to the creation of the #TakeAwayHmk resource to deliver such outcomes. The underlying premise with takeaway homework is that homework takes on more of a project feel, where students not only choose which task to undertake, but make choices from interesting and inspiring options, options that Mark Creasy suggests lead to self-motivation and independent learning – surely the ultimate goal of education. The options provide a sense of ownership and choice for the student and consequently increase engagement in the activity.

 

  1. Set short tasks: As Teacher Toolkit suggests, there is an important caveat to consider: ‘Make sure each-homework can literally be read there and then, and is a ‘Takeaway’. This means, it requires no further guidance.’ Students must be able to make the jump on their own, and so my advice is to permeate the options list with smaller, more time manageable tasks. Too often well-meaning and excited teachers make the mistake of setting project type tasks that take hours to complete, expecting students to be able to maintain attention for extended amounts of time. Without the supportive home environment, this is practically impossible, but even those with it find this overwhelming – this is certainly the case with my daughters.

Remember too that you will have to provide meaningful feedback on the activity, which strengthens this point.

 

  1. Don’t set it too far in advance! You can’t differentiate meaningfully to reflect where the students are presently with their learning if you set tasks too far in advance, and students will disengage because of the lack of relevance. It may seem like good organization, but it’s impossible to know where your class’ learning will be 2 or more months in advance, and so setting tasks like this is pointless. The latest fad and promotion of the recycling of homework shares a similar outcome; it is work set that is not relevant enough, and thus not respectful of the commitment that home learning demands. The irony of it advertised as a means of saving time is felt most heavily by the teacher who has to chase the incomplete work.

 

Homework setting is a complex business, but like all good teaching and learning practices, when it’s done well, it’s a powerful thing. Take your time in considering what type of homework you will be setting, and your students will gain from it enormously.

Classroom Tech Adds Value – if used correctly

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I understand the concerns raised by many educationalists about poor technology integration. Technology used without pedagogical justification is, like any other method, pointless, and eventually damaging. In this regard, and considering the prevalence of edtech now, teachers need great skill in sorting the ineffective from the useful, but this is no different to having to wade through the huge amount of content and information about all aspects of teaching and learning. The point is not to give up because there’s so much stuff, but to search with the expectation that your teaching will improve.

The Argument for Tech

Tech tools that improve the teaching and learning space come under two categories: disruptive tools that invent something new to the environment; and tools that take an existing pedagogical practice and improve its efficiency.

Disruptive categories: these are tools that create a new context for the classroom. They facilitate opportunity for students to engage in learning in a unique and beneficial way, and improve learning. Take for example the invention of a digital shared learning space. A student and teacher being able to see what other students in the class are thinking presents an incredible opportunity for immediate assessment for learning. Ideas shared around the room are eventually funnelled into an agreed response or interpretation, and the process continually stimulates the need for each student to justify thinking and choices, a process inextricably linked to most higher order thinking activities. It is practically impossible for every student to see the thinking process of their peers in a traditionalist classroom; of course movement around the classroom is desirable and possible, but not to the extent it would have to happen for the students to continually share, and I don’t just mean on their immediate table.

Tools that facilitate such a learning space include @goformative, @padlet, @socrative, @peardeck @nearpod. There are others that i will add to this list as i become aware of them.

I have also invented another disruptive tool called Degrumbler. Of course i am aware of the flagrant conflict of interest in discussing it, but the tool is free for teachers, so i thought it would be ok. Since high school began, when teachers have set homework they have had no way of knowing how much work the students have already been given throughout the day by their other teachers, or on any other days. Teachers set homework blindly, and ultimately randomly. Notifying parents of homework is important but doesn’t solve the issue of potential overloading. Degrumbler fixes that; in real time, teachers can see how much work students have before deciding to set some more, by clicking on an icon. This radically changes the learning space because the work being assigned is likely to be completed to a higher level if it doesn’t have to compete with other tasks. If you imagined that students only had the equivalent of a lesson and a half’s time to complete homework, imagine halfway through the English hour Mathematics popped in with the a similar amount of work, 10 minutes later Science did too, immediately followed by Geography. Expectations on the student remain, but the possibility of success is exponentially reduced. Solving this issue is a case of tech benefiting teaching and learning significantly. Without the use of this technology in the classroom teachers are left with the overload issue and have no way of being able to address it efficiently, thus reducing the majority of students’ success in completing the tasks.

Improving existing processes: Time of course is every teacher’s enemy and any process that can be streamlined to save time is important, and ultimately necessary as it seems that my workload is forever growing.

Take for example two of the leading tech platforms being used in the UK presently: Show My Homework, and ClassCharts. Both of these platforms are used extensively throughout schools. They don’t disrupt an aspect of teaching but they certainly help streamline processes of notifying students and parents of receiving information about aspects of their schooling: general information, homework, academic and behaviour progress. They improve the learning space by making it more visible to people more easily. Most LMS’ come under such a category, unless, their user experience negates any intended improvements. This can also happen when platforms try to do too much and create functionality that isn’t needed, or conflate their prerogatives.

Conclusion

Teaching and learning is indeed an art form, as well as a science. Finding the right technology to use in the classroom is just as important a decision as finding the right resource. The poorest use of tech is a massive distraction, as well as a waste of valuable cash and/or time. But tech used with strong pedagogical justification serves to benefit the teaching and learning experience significantly, and if solutions exist that disrupt the space, they must be employed.

Disclaimer: i am the inventor of Degrumbler. I know there is a potential conflict of interest in promoting the product, however the tool is free for teachers, and my motivation behind building the tool was purely to better the education of students, and am at peace with the potential conflict of interest, as I can’t really see another way to spread the word about fixing the issue of poor homework distribution. 

It’s time to treat homework like any other lesson

It’s time to treat homework like a lesson

hw-as-a-lesson

Imagine observing a lesson in which you see a teacher give the students 2 or 3 or 4 times more work than they can handle in the lesson time. You’d be scratching your head. You would walk out of the lesson disappointed, perplexed at the lack of quality teaching happening. But worse, as you wander the school you observe the same thing happening in every classroom you enter, even in the rooms of your best and most experienced teachers. Alarm bells would hardly be the appropriate metaphor. A grand inquiry would follow, and understandably so.

The number of areas for concern would be many, but needn’t move past these two: how can students progress in the tasks if they can’t dedicate suitable time to complete them; and how can students maintain motivation in such a context.

Well this is what potentially happens every time teachers set homework for your students. The amount of time a student can dedicate to homework is not infinite. It is limited. So assigning too much on a night is like giving too much work in a lesson. It’s unproductive, and just flat out poor teaching.

 

So why does it happen? No teacher in his/her right mind would allow such a scenario to exist surely? Of course not, but it does because your teachers don’t have the information to prevent it from happening. They don’t know how much work their students have already been given as they enter the classroom. For example, a Maths teacher thinking of setting a homework task has no idea what work her class have already accumulated in their previous classes. She may turn to the centralised calendar for hope, but alas, it becomes a pointless exercise, as she realises the fact that many of her students have come from different English and Science classes, as well as various electives. So her only option is to set the task blindly, randomly if you will. She won’t be able to take the grumbling from the students that they have too much work on already as evidence, as she may not believe their motivations for their protests. The very same situation occurs when the students leave the Maths class, separate, and venture to their next subject. The inefficiency of the situation is startling, and it’s incredible that it has persisted for so long in schools all over the world.

 

As a teacher and parent of 3 schooling daughters I decided to do something about this ubiquitous schooling issue. I invented a tool that solves the problem. The tool is called www.degrumbler.com and it lets a teacher see what work her or his class already has been given before s/he sets more, thus preventing overloading students, and getting more productivity out of tasks assigned.

how_degrumbler_works
Teacher sees her own tasks….then those set by other teachers.

The tool also greatly reduces stress on students, an often-overlooked aspect of homework assignment. Of course it has all the notification qualities you’d expect to keep parents and students always in the loop, but because it forces teachers to consider the amount of time students have spare to complete tasks, it reimagines the whole notion of homework, and how teachers should begin to see it in a similar fashion as to any normal lesson, a lesson in which overloading has no pedagogical place.

 

Disclaimer: Whilst I am really proud of designing the tool, I know that talking about it could be construed as simply a means to market the company. However, the tool is free for teachers, and I know the motivation behind building the tool was purely to better the education of students, and am at peace with the potential conflict of interest, as I can’t really see another way to spread the word about fixing the issue.

 

3 issues with current homework policies

Homework reform

The inefficiency with homework setting is scandalous.

overload-stats

In a culture so heavily invested in progress, the anomaly of unattended and unmoderated homework assignment seems scandalously peculiar. To say it is one of the strangest contradictions in education is an understatement, with the random assigning of homework making a total mockery of the level of detail and fine-tuning that goes into every other teaching and learning policy a school is defined by. Despite a new surge in notification tools, homework assignment still remains a lawless enterprise, with even the best of willed teachers being reduced to mavericks, having to set work for their students with no idea of how much work they have already been set by other teachers. The teacher cannot tell if they may be overloading them, and this results in a range of issues.

  1. Loss of performance – How much work a student has to negotiate is obviously going to have a direct impact on the performance in those tasks. When teachers assign too much work, the students have to make choices about how to disperse their time and attention. Which task/s should they complete with full commitment? Which should they leave? Or should they half invest in all of them? Whatever the choice, the compromise inevitably results in a loss to learning potential. That potential is significant for every student, especially when the compromise above relates to assessment revision. The number of times that schools set major tests on the same day is incredible, and it results in an inaccurate representation of student performance.

On the school level, as the above graphic illustrates, the combined loss over a school year is nothing short of astronomical. The only explanation for this must be the notion of out of sight out of mind, but with senior leadership meetings becoming increasingly dedicated to analysing and using data to find causation to a lack of progress, or ways to enhance progress, the above figures are the very large elephant in the room.

  1. Reduced wellbeing – Students spend a long day at school, and the amount of energy it takes to then have to work at home and carry on the effort should not be underestimated. Students who are overworked face the very real possibility of burning out, either physically, mentally, or probably both. So why then does every school that works very very hard to ensure that their students’ wellbeing is at the forefront of every policy that directs its rationale, allow students to be susceptible and vulnerable to unnecessary stress caused by random assigning of homework?

Schools in fact have an ethical responsibility to its students to ensure that this very thing doesn’t happen, and that most certainly means a rethinking of homework policy.

Many educators would state that the answer is homework schedules: a schedule that assigns specific days for subjects to set homework, and specific amounts. Whilst schedules do serve to prevent unnecessary stress to some degree, that degree is minimal, because the schedule often ironically forces teachers to set tasks even if they aren’t justified, so they don’t miss their slot or chance to have students doing homework. When you consider that the average high school student has up to 10 subjects to study, resulting in 2 subjects per night, and that often Maths, English, and Science often get more than 1 slot, students need to become machine like to cope. Added to that are a range of other arguments that derail the schedule myth.

  1. Bad vibes – Another issue that stems from overloading students is the creation of a negative attitude towards homework. Understandably, getting students to buy into the policy is impossible when the overarching perception is that the process is unfair, inequitable, and exhausting. Students’ grumbles abound whenever homework is set, but never more so than when students know they already have a lot of work from their other classes. The issue though for the teacher is that they don’t know whether the students are telling the truth, or just complaining at ‘any’ work. The teacher then rarely backs down or compromises with the new task, and the result are feelings of annoyance and distrust permeating the room. A culture of distrust vs a culture of transparency. I know which I prefer to teach with.

Conclusion – Overloading reduces performance, stresses students, and creates a negative atmosphere in the classroom. In an age that worships efficiency and progress, these contexts in a business setting would be unacceptable. The inefficiency of random homework assignment undermines lots of good work done by teachers to develop important 21st century skills in their students. Students become demoralised by the lack of transparency, and confused by the irony of their school’s relentless pursuit and promotion of organisation being a key to success. Of course, many students will power on, but potentially to a lesser pace, and place. Now is the time for schools to renegotiate their homework policies. Now is the time for schools to realise that learning out of sight shouldn’t be out of mind.