A reflection on the place of #homework in school

A couple of days ago I saw a tweet linking to this piece on ‘Five false claims about homework’ and I’ve been wanting to write a piece responding to this, reflecting on it and adding a few extra views I have about the place of homework in school.

The five claims, almost myths, about homework which the author John Spencer sets out are as follows:

  1. Homework builds a work ethic
  2. Homework prepares kids for college (it’s an american piece)
  3. Homework prepares kids for a career
  4. Homework teaches responsibility
  5. Homework lets kids practice skills in their own time

The author doesn’t completely trash all of these myths, acknowledging quite rightly in some cases that homework does have benefits in each of these areas but he makes enough of a case to make one reconsider a number of prior positions one may hold about homework.

So instead of a direct response to each of the five points above I’m going to set out my own thoughts on the place of homework at school.  Some of these points may be strikingly obvious but I hope the sum of them may add up to a convincing argument on homework.

1. Kids should be doing some work at home

I’ll start off by saying, before I start writing about the negatives of homework, that pupils should be doing work at home.  The format and scope of that work may be different from what one would call ‘traditional homework’ but should still largely take place.  Of course kids are also going to be writing essays and preparing for tests and exams but this will go on regardless.

I do not feel that school should immediately be ‘dropped’ from a pupil’s thoughts until 7:30 am the next morning.  Part of a high-achieving school environment is that pupils must be prepared to learn and that will involve some preparatory work or study the night before.  Doing effective and well structured work at home I think should improve how a pupil does in class.  An innovative school will need to consider what the form and shape of that work is rather than asking for homework for the sake of homework.

2. Home though is for other things

I ache when I see a school’s plans which call for excessive amounts of hours in front of a desk at home. I get annoyed when parents seem to expect ever increasing amounts of homework to prove that not only is little Johnny actually working but that we are too.

Teenagers are not full-time working professionals yet.  They do not have the skills and emotional maturity yet to be able to adopt that sort of posture which might be expected of them.  For me the times which I enjoyed the most as a teen and which I feel shaped me more were not the times answering maths questions on topics I have forgotten about but were the times spent with friends, playing sport, being involved in a church etc.  Forcing pupils into working every day of the week is counter-productive.

A homework programme must always take into account that pupils need to ‘switch off’ from school at times.  Although I can’t find much prior writing about the benefits of switching off I think from my own experience it is vital for pupils.

3. Homework should not be an extension to the school day

As an extension to the point above but something which I feel needs to be said on its own I do feel that there needs to be a differentiation between school and home and I wonder sometimes whether homework is set because either things didn’t go well in class and the teacher wishes to catch up or because they don’t trust pupils and feel they need to keep them busy.  Whichever it is I do wonder if homework is sometimes used as a stop-gap solution in which case I would guess no matter what you do pupils will simply not do the homework you set them.  If one is going to require work of your pupils in the evening the class situation needs to be working absolutely effectively before one can expect pupils to do work at home.

Even if things are going well in class requiring pupils to work extra at home does give the message that school is a limitless environment when most jobs (perhaps apart from teaching!) tend to have a well defined cut-off between work and home.

4. A fully functioning homework system is not really possible

I’m going to do some estimation here so forgive me if my stats seem a bit off.  Let’s say a teacher has about 150 pupils (I generally have between about 120 to 150 a year) and they set each pupil a piece of homework which needs to be marked each week.  If each pupil’s work requires at least ten minutes to get open, mark it and enter marks into a book or online system that will take about 1500 minutes which is about 25 hours a week.

That’s a lot of time spent marking, week in, week out.  In amidst the demands of lesson preparation, policy reading (and writing), teaching (!), attending meetings, research and all else which goes on in a school that doesn’t leave much time for marking.

So perhaps the answer is to reduce the amount of time one spends marking each pupils homework?  Well I think no matter what amount of time you reduce it to most pupils will have spent far more time on the work then you will spend marking it and is it fair to give it that sort of short attention?

5. Should homework be optional?

Here is where I am setting out my store about homework.  I think work at home should be required, but structured to avoid some of the pitfalls mentioned above.  What should be optional, and I know this can only work in certain subjects, is the way in which pupils choose to work on the topic and sometimes even the topic itself.  Although Jon Spencer criticises the notion of pupils practising skills badly at home in my subject, computing, as well as many others it is possible for pupils to practise at home.

So give them options, pathways and different tools they could choose to use themselves.  How would you mark it?  This is a tough one and would largely depend on what sort of paths you had given them and whether there was correlation in theory covered across what pupils were doing.  Certainly looking at self-assessment could be a starting point, taking into consideration whether pupils are able to self-assess effectively.

Conclusion:

I don’t think a perfect solution will ever be found for the issue of homework.  I think it is important to obviously be aware of potential pitfalls and design against them.  In writing this blogpost I think I have realised how imperfect most homework systems are and that regardless of one’s position more research will always be needed.

I think regardless of one’s position some points can be drawn out regarding homework:

  • Pupils should be doing homework in some form
  • Homework should not be given ‘because pupils must be doing homework as it’s the done thing!’
  • A teacher should be considering the best form of work at home which suits their subject and might be different from other subjects
  • This form of work at home should be analysed and revised and iterated as much as possible
  • More research is needed – but even in the research I have read I wonder whether it’s possible to account for all the variables
  • Technology can play a part in getting pupils to engage effectively with homework

It’s certainly a vital topic which I have been meaning to write about for a while.  I look forward to any comments on it.

Cultivating success in #Computing

Recently the topic of acknowledging and encouraging success as been discussed amongst some of my colleagues.  It’s an important topic regardless of which school one works in whether independent or state.  The solutions proposed by some staff were that we need to focus our attentions on identifying the best work and scanning it, copying it etc for display in the school lobby.

I feel this misses the point entirely of how one encourages success.  I have heard a PE teacher from another school say that he encourages pupils to come do his subject at GCSE if they are struggling in other subjects and feel they are not that academically gifted.  Great! So this means a pupil may come and do his subject already with the message ringing in their ears that they are not as good as other pupils.

Encouraging success isn’t just about identifying work which looks nice on the school wall but about firstly looking at the things we do as teachers which  might discourage or demotivate a pupil and then seeing what we can do to motivate pupils who are starting off at a lower ebb than their peers.

I have seen pupils get worksheets in subjects like Maths and throw up their hands and say ‘this is hard’ and ‘I can’t do this’ before they have even got anywhere.  My normal response is ‘Yes, it is meant to be tough!’ and ‘It is meant to be challenging!’ and then ‘Here by the way is some knowledge and processes you can use to try and work through it yourself!’.  Whenever a pupil in my Computing class gets a bit frustrated when they’ve made a simple mistake I normally say ‘Fantastic! Now let’s unpick why it went wrong and work out what you can do next time to make it work right the next time.’  

Computing is a fantastic subject for encouraging a mindset of success through the content and practical work which pupils undergo.  I’ve had pupils who play music get upset if their algorithm didn’t work right the first time and I ask them if they have ever played a music piece absolutely right the first time.

We don’t need extra lessons focussing on how to focus and be determined and be motivated to succeed (Or whatever damn-fool idea Labour in particular dream up next).  Our subjects contain the means to encourage that in pupils through the work they are set and the knowledge, skills and processes they acquire through challenging, rigorous work.  Succeeding in that is the excitement of learning.

We can also encourage success by showing pupils what they can do with what they are learning now.  When I was teaching ICT I never had a single A-Level pupil go on to do an ‘ICT’ related degree.  Although I will only be starting A Level Computing in September 2015 I am already thinking about how I can encourage the girls I teach to go further in Computing.  Although I don’t personally believe in focussing only on Oxbridge (Any Russell Group university seems a perfectly fine aim) I will be taking my year 10 girls at the end of March to a Women in Computer science taster day at Oxford University where they are going to find out what it’s like to study at Oxford and what sort of work is being done in the field of Computer Science.

All it comes down to is …

  • Aim high
  • Give them the knowledge and skills to get there

A newish computing teacher’s take on #yearofcode @ukcoding

It seems like ages ago now but once upon a time I was sitting down to watch a Newsnight program which someone on Twitter had suggested I take a look at.  Up came a woman by the name of Lottie Dexter to introduce @ukcoding and a campaign called a Year of Code.  Cue the usual disbelieving, I’m going to play the ignoramus card, approach by Paxman and a set of largely disastrous responses from Lottie and a whole host of viral tweets, images and blogposts were born slating @ukcoding just as it got out the starting gate.

I was one of those writing some fairly cynical tweets largely because of my own path to this point as a newish computing teacher but also because from a layman’s perspective this campaign seemed rather badly put together to begin with.  Considering the quality of people involved this should have been started better.  I know that many startups have rocky starts but surely the people involved would have known that nowadays the speed of internet reaction on social media can kill a project before it even gets going.

So without hopefully rehashing too much what other people have said here is my take on the issues so far related to @ukcoding and some suggestions as to what they could possibly do.

It “duplicates” other efforts

I accept that there can’t only be ‘one’ organisation pushing computing in schools and beyond but there are already a number of well-established, successful and reasonably well-known projects going.  Computing At School, Code Club, Codecademy etc are already up and running and achieving some success (despite what the DfE twitter account might say).

I understand that @ukcoding is trying to ‘cheerlead’ other efforts but why is this absolutely necessary especially if it has no real further value to offer.

It has no advisors on its board who teach, work in charities, NHS or who do Computing research etc

The advisors are by and large drawn from tech firms in London. It’s a massively skewed set of very capable individuals who don’t seem to have any experience of the sector which is going to produce future batches of programmers.

They therefore seem to ignore the sectors which are vital to this country such as charities and NHS and the fact that they as well as the London tech scene are going to rely on future generations of talented software and hardware engineers.

I looked at the 98 people @ukcoding is following on twitter and myself and Mike Britland seem to be the only UK teachers they are following and therefore in some way listening to. I might be wrong on this but if so I would be keen to hear why.

They seem to have a skewed perception of ‘coding’

Despite the talented techs on the advisory board this campaign has a very skewed view, albeit one represented only so far by Ms Dexter, of what it means to code.

This is where my own journey becomes relevant. I have been teaching ICT for a number of years, with a scant and perfunctory knowledge of actual computing and programming, and in 2011 I saw the Damascene light and begun hauling myself round to the idea of Computing. I have therefore in a sense been on the ‘year of code’ already and as a result like many other ICT to Computing converts I saw Lottie’s ‘Oh you can learn to code in a day’ as an incredibly short-sighted and off-hand way of describing a long, but very rewarding journey one can take in moving into the field of computing.

I understand coding to be simple ‘slinging code’ i.e. hammering it out in software development environment in order to meet a goal. Programming is a far more broader term including not only the process of coding but also the concept of computational thinking, thinking like a computer thinks in order to design and develop programs which work efficiently and quickly.

Codecademy and Code.org are two of the best resources I have come across for getting pupils to develop their programming skills and it’s to these two sites I’ve been turning to help get pupils going.

Some suggestions therefore …

  1. Get some educationalists from primary, secondary and tertiary on the board of advisors quickly
  2. Find a way to provide some value or unique product for those who might turn to @UKcoding in the first instance whether it is …
    • getting into the open badges market by linking with some of the existing players or …
    • providing ideas of pathways for teenagers or even adults to follow e.g.: If you want to get into CGI do the following or if you want to get into Computing research do this
  3. And finally, develop a better message and quickly

I know my list of suggestions might not be very long but I think sometimes taking focussed action in only one or two places might yield the changes required.

EDIT: after a response from @ukcoding I have removed references to them receiving funding from the DfE. This is incorrect.

The Pre-History of the Web – Web Science MOOC from @futurelearn

Stupidly I’m doing another MOOC alongside the Teach Computing one I am also doing.  Still, it’s an awesome topic so let’s see what happens.

This MOOC starts with a valid point – that understanding the Web is not possible through the lens of one discipline but instead we need to use many disciplines.  Understanding the web also comes down to figuring out how something which Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed to solve a single problem ended up taking over the world.

To do that the MOOC is taking us through a pre-history of the web.  The rest of this post is therefore a reflection on some of the things I’ve learnt from the lecture on the pre-history of the web.

To begin with the birth of the web is described almost using a cosmology analogy.  It started off small and compressed (the idea Tim Berners-Lee had and the initial web server at CERN it resided on) before inflating rapidly to become the constellation of computers and information we have today.

However the conditions of the early web, just like the conditions of the early universe were essentially spread out in the exact same way  to where we are now.  So because scientists at CERN weren’t concerned about privacy or IP theft that much this is why we have these problems today.  This is a useful way of understanding why technology for the protection of privacy and IP has had to be forced into the structure of the web.

So now we have a web which appears as if it is a ‘single’ entity to us but which needs to server a society which is highly diverse whether along the lines of culture, wealth, nation or needs such as privacy or data protection.  Having an entity which expanded from CERN to wide-scale adoption in most of the world has meant that multiple and differing demands are being placed on the web.

Figuring out these issues, for example those raised by Edward Snowden, is going to occupy computer scientists and policy makers for years to come.

Week 2 of #FLteachComp on What Children Learn in Computing and How?

Week 2 of my first MOOC and to be honest I’m already struggling with motivation.  But the topics seem really interesting so I am looking forward to what this week brings.

The first video after the introduction is on computing and the workforce of the future.  Before I get onto the video I should just state that I’m not one of those teachers who believe that education is about preparing pupils for jobs one day.  I think that education is about preparing pupils to eventually give back to society one day, which does mean getting ready for work, but seeing the end outcome of education as being able to give something back rather than turning up for work is I think a better way to approach the topic.

I have also have been following the #yearofcode debacle since last week.  One of the assertions made by the CEO of Year of code, Lottie Dexter, was that companies are crying out for young programmers.  In the last few days I’ve spoken to a couple of people in either computing jobs or who work in computing research and I’ve heard conflicting statements about whether programmers are in short supply.  Now I know one or two people can’t negate what is being said about computing jobs but it does raise the point that uncontested stats to do with jobs can be misleading and that we should also not just see computing in school as preparing pupils for commercial computing jobs but also showing them that computing research is just as valuable.

Finally onto this weeks material.  The first video interview with Tim Whitly of BT was pretty good.  He gives a good perspective on applying technology, harvesting information (NSA!) and delivering insights that are useful to humans.  I like this approach that we should be seeing computers as not just about slinging code but using a computer and what it can do to change our lives and other peoples lives.  Getting pupils to understand how the world of computers works is therefor vital to ensure this might happen.

The next video was on ‘How to get pupils to think like a programmer (or a computer)’.  I really liked this video.  The teacher giving the lesson makes a very valid point that whereas we as Humans can make decisions based on incomplete information or processes, computers cannot do this at all.  This is why computers require complete instructions in their step-by-step algorithms.  Miss one and a computer will either not work or do something else entirely.  Pupils may therefore write a program assuming that the computer will be able to itself assume what to do.  This may lead to a logic error.  Pupils need to think like a program and essentially learn to think like a computer acts.  Pupils need a mindset which is similar to the actions of a CPU and read the lines of a program very literally.

I was then asked the question as to how pupils learn in my lesson.  I would say that pupils learn in my lesson either through following examples through sites like Codecademy or Code.org.  I also encourage pupils to try and hack and modify pre-written examples through systems like Scratch.  Also this approach may not be the best it provides I think the best opportunity and way for pupils to explore what they can do through code.  Through this they are developing their digital literacy through their ability to read, understand, compare and contrast information online.

I also really need to setup some debugging exercises!  What is also called ‘pupil to pupil learning’ which some might call paired development also seems like a good idea to push forward.

 

 

 

#FLTeachcomp thoughts on Teaching the Computing Curriculum wk1 #MOOC

So I’ve signed up for a MOOC.  MOOC is such a great word, it sounds like a cow with something stuck in its throat.

I’m ignoring any issues or concerns about the efficacy of MOOCs in general and will be giving this my full attention and application partly as it’s relevant unlike a MOOC on let’s say ‘Medieval Tapestry’ which isn’t that relevant to me.

The MOOC I am doing is ‘Teaching the Computing Curriculum’ being delivered by the University of East Anglia through the Future Learn platform.  So far I am very impressed.  There has clearly been a lot of effort put into this and one feels going through this that there is a strong ‘human’ element to the course, that you are not just doing a set of glorified tutorials online which someone posted and then forgot about but are instead doing something which can be supported by other people.

The content on the course this week started by covering the basics of a MOOC and how to use the Future Learn platform.  It then moved onto some background by Simon Humphreys from CaS on how that fantastic organisation came to being.

The first content where I felt I might be ‘learning’ something came through a video on lesson objectives in computing.  I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with these as although I can see the point of them I’ve found that with many lessons the objectives get tossed out the window.  I think setting overly detailed objectives can confuse matters.

I did like the glossary of terms available in the next section after the learning objectives.  Always good to have a refresher.

So all in all a pretty reasonable start and I look forward to seeing how this course progresses.

Setting up Research – some thoughts. (HT @maggiev) #eduresearch

 

In an effort to focus on cleaning up my delicious bookmarks (4300 and climbing) I’ve slowed down on tweeting for a bit and resolved to start blogging, especially on gems I find within my links.

Last year I completed my Masters in ICT and Education through Leeds.  It was a slog, largely for personal reasons, but thinking back on it I enjoyed getting to grips with a number of academic issues as well as the sense of satisfaction of completing the masters.

Although I originally swore I would never do another bit of academic work again I am now seriously thinking about the idea of doing a PhD in Education.  When I would do it, through where and how I would actually afford it are tricky questions I need to answer but I have realised that in order to make sure I am ready for a doctorate I need to keep myself ‘in form’ for what I would face.  Doing that is going to take a fair bit of work as well.

So when I was editing my links I was quite pleased to see the following tweet shared by an educationalist in South Africa.

The CSIR is the Council for Scientific and Industry Research in South Africa and focusses on industrial and scientific development in South Africa. However the research steps outlined in the slide, despite not in context with the other slides, seem like they would apply to educational research as well. Besides the slide does reference the DBE which is the Department for Basic Education so I’m going to guess and say the entire focus of the presentation was educational research.

Here are the questions typed out again. I’ve done this as I would like to reference these questions again:

  1. What is your component name?
  2. What has already been done in this area? (literature)
  3. What major outcome(s) (dependant variable)/deliverable are you interested in?
  4. What intervention (independent variable) are you interested in?
  5. Are you look for differences or a relationship (association)?
  6. To what group (population:teachers, learners, management, district or DBE) do you wish to apply your results?
  7. What is your specific research question?
  8. What answer to your question do you expect to find (the research hypothesis)?
  9. Why is this question important today (relevance)?

I’m not going to unpick these questions now but I think having them typed out may serve as a bit of a base-line for me in thinking about research in the future.  As a fair bit of my masters was literature analysis I do need to get up to speed with research methodology and statistical analysis but I reckon with enough effort as well as making sure I uninstall Minecraft from everything I think I could do this.

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