Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Teaching Teachers about Homework

On Saturday, I presented my model, The Homework Trap, at the Voorhees Public Library. I thought it was my most well-received speech so far. It certainly came across better than my last one, where I had a teacher in the audience who was dead-set on emphasizing the fact that her second graders should be doing their homework, and if they don’t, they would have to stay in for recess and lunch. Apparently, one student who had forgotten to do his work one time stayed in for recess one time and from then on, got his work done. She held onto this model despite the fact that she, predictably, has another student for whom her approach simply meant ostracizing the child over and over again.

As I typically do, I looked at my presentation and changed it slightly. Early in the speech, I asked the audience to ponder five statements of Homework: Fact of Fiction.  They were:

1.       Homework is a teaching tool that is well supported by research and tradition.

2.      Homework has intangible value.

3.      Teachers are well trained in the practice of giving homework

4.      Homework is accepted throughout the world

5.      Homework is harmless.

I tried to answer these questions as honestly, and unbiasedly as possible, referring to the positions of homework advocates as well as homework critics. As those who have followed my writings know, my main point is that homework is harmful, at least to homework-trapped children and their families, so my last question segued well into what I typically say.

I’m sharing this because I strongly believe that “being right,” is not as important as being effective, and that a primary frustration for parents who oppose homework is that they feel powerless over the system. I recall a friend who told me about his efforts to get his son homework relief (a boy who, by the way, excelled in college despite the fact that he had difficulties with homework as a youth). He came to school with mounds of information documenting the problems with homework. He ran into an unmovable wall. Being right did not help his son.

I think teachers, like most people, get their backs up when parents and other non-teachers (like me) tell them they are wrong, and that a major piece in effecting change is to highlight the sense that we are on the same side. You don’t get there by categorically challenging an individual’s deeply ingrained beliefs, particularly when they relate to the person’s professional field.

I don’t know that I’ve offered the perfect “facts or fictions” that parents can use to turn people around, and it may be that the long term solution lies in convincing others to devote teacher development days to training in the theory, research and practice of giving homework. It can be a tough sell to get teachers to think of homework as an area for continuing study. Several months ago, I mentioned the fact that I had read a question posed the Scholastic Teacher Facebook page asking teachers what they would consider their ideal teacher development day program. My comment was close to the 200th given and I noted that, although I’m not a teacher, I was struck by the fact that among nearly 200 comments, not one teacher suggested homework as a topic for further development.

Considering all the conversations I’ve had with teachers over the years, it seems to me that the most convincing point I ever make is when I point out to teachers that they were never taught to give homework. Before I make this point, a typical reaction I hear from teachers is that I am wrong. Once they realize that they are being mandated to do something they were never taught to do, it creates cognitive dissonance and a shift in the way they think about the topic.

As a parent, you’re in an odd position trying to teach teachers about their field. Yet, teachers are in an odd position being required to do something they actually know very little about. I think progress in the homework debate will come from honoring the fact that teachers want to be good teachers, that they believe in education, and that they have been unfairly deprived of training in giving homework.

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 



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