Sunday, September 27, 2009

Homework & School Reform

This is a post that I've been wanting to write for a while. The title combines two things that are not usually discussed together. Usually we talk about homework and school reform as two separate and polarizing issues. My intent is to avoid the polarization while sharing some thoughts about how the two can be related.

Some background info first. This post was initially motivated by an op-ed piece in The Atlantic by David Shenk. This article certainly helps polarize the debate and I will admit that I fall on the side advocated by Shenk. However, it is this quote that stirred my thoughts:
The new thinking is that, instead of piling on onerous, rote assignments, homework, kids ought to be encouraged to use their after school time to explore their own curiosities, read books of their own choice, to play, and to get adequate sleep.

I shared the link to this piece, even highlighting the same quote, with my fellow teachers where I teach. One colleague responded with the following comment:
Problem is... human nature does not always have learning and discovering as our number one desire. Unless that is instilled as a small child through their home life , they in most cases become students who want to do only what they have to to pass or make it in life. If you give a child a choice between discovering something new or developing a skill they have and just "playing around" most will pick the "playing around" if that desire to learn has not been taught to them early in life. Not all children at an early age are "educated" that way to become life long learners. Sad.
A great point. However, I do believe that human nature DOES always want to succeed. The path of least resistance is usually chosen because it is the quickest path to success. That could range from acting as the class clown, refusing to do school work to appear cool, or simply pretending school does not exist so that one is not reminded of his failures.

This is where school reforms comes in. I'm not going to address the political aspects of standardized testing, accountability, merit pay, or any of the other hot issues. There are lot of people out here who can address such things much better than I. I want to talk about reform in terms of a practical solution for the student my colleague has brought to our attention. What if we were able to encourage such a yearn for learning? What if we could get real creative and partner with community groups, afterschool programs, etc. to help facilitate providing access to the resources necessary to satisfy such a yearning (internet, library, etc.)? What if we became part of that after school solution and learned with our students about those interests and discovered they really did learn our content more readily because of its sudden relevance and applicability? If there are not afterschool programs already in place that could help, what community groups can we contact to begin one?

There is always talk about differentiation in instruction. We have students in our classrooms with a wide range of modifications including modified grading and modified assignments. How could we begin applying such a philosophy in the life of the student whose parents are divorced but only one parent really makes sure that homework gets done? Do we get the custody schedule and assign the major projects only on the weekends that parent has the child? What about the student who cannot stay awake in class because he shares a bed with two younger siblings and every night there might be two other siblings in the house? Can we modify his load so that it can be completed everyday in the afterschool program he attends?

You see, I don't think reform lies in the political or administrative machinery. I believe reform lies in reaching those students. Our job is not to teach. Our job is to ensure that students learn. What will it take to accomplish our job? What will we have to reform within ourselves to make it happen?