This. A Thousand Times, This.


Found on the Shit Academics Say Facebook page.

Poverty and Education

This short letter to the editor by Stephen Krashen raises a critical point about education in America.

When researchers control for the effect of poverty, U.S. students score near the top of the world on international tests. Our overall scores are unimpressive because of our unacceptably high child-poverty rate, now about 21 percent. The problem is poverty, not teacher quality.

How can we expect children to learn when they’re hungry, sick, and stressed? We know that poverty reduces cognitive bandwidth: Survival issues take up more and more brain power when those needs are not being met. So it should come as no surprise that children living in poverty cannot perform well in school.

What’s also distressing is how many politicians approach these problems in such unhelpful ways. Requiring more high-stakes testing is not any kind of solution. Focusing on teacher tenure and performance evaluations isn’t really addressing key problems. Closing neighborhood schools in high poverty areas, thereby forcing children to travel farther to study in larger classes seems counterproductive in many cases. The idea that failing schools should *lose* funding is insane. Of course, throwing more money at schools, per se, isn’t necessarily a solution either. Anti-poverty programs targeted at children might yield better results, along with better funding for things like school meals for needy students and pre-school. Addressing the systemic problems in America that lead to 1/5 of our children living in poverty would also be swell.

UPDATE: Just saw this article on my Facebook feed, talking about the negative effects of poverty on brain development in children. Worth a read.

Do Children Need Homework?

dogatehomeworkHomework is a topic of serious debate among educators and education stakeholders, with little consensus. From my own experience, I clearly remember Korean parents demanding that we give their 6 and 7 year-olds hours of homework each night. We tried to tell them that their kids needed to spend time playing in order to develop things like executive function and a host of other skills. Nope, they weren’t having it. Their tiny little guys and girls needed to become fluent in English and homework was the an intricate part of that. Madness.

This article talks about some research on the topic. Looking at a dataset from a large number of countries, it finds that homework is nearly ubiquitous, though the amount varies wildly. What interests me in this research is that there is little or no correlation between high test scores and the amount of homework assigned. In the Netherlands, for example, there is very little homework most nights, but their students perform extremely well on tests.

The article also noted that the drive for data, the increasing significance of standardized tests, packed curricula, and a host of other factors push teachers to dump work on students not because the teachers think it is meaningful, but because they feel they have to. That’s not a great reason.

This study wasn’t able to look at the quality of the homework or indeed many factors. However, I think it is one more interesting nail in the coffin of daily, look-busy homework.

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“I feel like” and the battle of generations

ifeellikeThere is nothing quite so traditional as the elders of a community complaining about the way young people speak. It’s the hobby of the aged, dating back probably to the dawn of language. No doubt there were silverbacked proto-humans grumbling about how the young proto-humans didn’t grunt the way they were supposed and how the language was deteriorating.

It’s such a tired critique. A cursory understanding of how language words would teach these pundits that language doesn’t – more-or-less can’t – deteriorate. It can change, yes, and evolve, but it’s always forward, never backwards.

A few generations ago, it was quite common to say “The house is building.” meaning that “The house is being built.” Today, we would find that construction hard to decipher and erroneous. Heck, English used to have gendered nouns! Thank the universe that it ‘deteriorated’ away from that!

Try to go back and read English texts from the 17th century. A fair bit of the language used would be tedious, awkward, or indecipherable to most readers today. Why? Because language evolves, natch. Had the pundits in any era had their way, we’d still be speaking Proto-Indo-European with its vast array of strong verbs.

For one contemporary example of this phenomenon, check out Molly Worthen’s New York Times article about millennials’ love for the phrase “I feel like…” and how it’s the embodiment of  everything that’s wrong with that cohort. Then, you can read this post from NPR’s Geoff Nunberg about why the phrase  is not anything to get worked up about.

Education Myths

I ran across this blog post about myths that persist in education a couple of days ago. It raises some good points; there really are a lot of notions that, despite being discredited or without evidence, nevertheless remain prevalent in education. She identifies 6 culprits:

  1. duck-quackThe Cone of Learning / The Learning Pyramid
  2. Learning Styles
  3. Right-Left Brain
  4. Brain Gym
  5. Brain-Based Learning
  6. Multiple Intelligences

Interestingly, we discussed multiple intelligence theory in my ICELT class a couple of weeks ago. My impression of the topic was that sounded more or less like astrology: vague, broad statements that could easily apply to almost anyone. While its primary proponent, Howard Gardener, has research to support his claims, and it may well be real, the only practical consequence for the classroom, I feel, is to make sure your lessons are varied and utilizing multiple modalities. Which, as we know, is just good practice anyway.

How Much Homework Is Too Much?

Let’s get this out of the way first: there is little correlation between homework and school performance.

Students in America and elsewhere are receiving more and more homework every night, too much homework. In charter and magnet schools, it’s not uncommon for students to be expected to two, three, five hours of homework a night, and more on the weekend, while students in Finland, one of the finest school systems in the world, only average 30 minutes. But why?

Photo R. Nial Bradshaw

One reason is initiatives like No Child Left Behind and ever greater reliance on standardized tests for funding, teacher reviews, and everything else. Teachers are expected to cover vast numbers of objectives in order to meet the state-mandated curriculum. If they have any hope of checking off each objective, they have to give a lot of it as homework. There’s little time left in the school day to do practice and drilling, so that goes into the homework pile, too.


Parents aren’t blameless either, no matter how much they may be railing against the strain of homework now. For decades, helicopter parents viewed idle time as wasted time and viewed teachers who understood the value of free time as mediocre. Charter schools, magnets and the like often view mass amounts of homework as a badge of honor, a sign of the effectiveness of their curriculum. When I taught young learners in Korea, the parents would often call the school and complain if we didn’t give their kindergartners or first graders an hour or two of homework a night. They didn’t care if it was just busy work; they insisted that their kids study at all times.

This article in The Atlantic paints a pretty clear picture of just how much homework kids are getting these days. After seeing how much homework his daughter was getting, he decided to try to do her homework every day for a week. In the author’s own words, it nearly killed him. He raises a number of great points about homework. It’s worth reading.

How much homework do children need? From a Washington Post article:

Harris Cooper, professor of education and psychology at Duke University, who is probably the best known researcher on the subject, has concluded that:

• Up until fifth grade, homework should be very limited.

• Middle-school students should not spend more than 90 minutes a day on homework

• Two hours should be the limit in high school.

Beyond those time limits, he has said, research shows that homework has no impact on student performance.

Homework can be beneficial in some cases, but only if it is well thought-out and meaningful. A teacher should very, very carefully think about whether an assignment is actually needed, or if they’re just assigning it to be assigning something. And, teachers need to have a good handle on what other teachers are assigning as well. Letting students have free time to play, hang out, and do things that are interesting to them is valuable. More valuable than another worksheet on irregular verbs.

The Learning Style Myth

Ask many teachers and parents, and you’ll likely find a great deal of belief in learning styles, or more accurately, learning preferences. It’s an appealing, intuitive idea: when learning some new material, different students will respond better to differentiated lesson styles. Yet, the evidence for this is surprisingly thin. In fact, a number of studies have found quite the opposite.

Most relevant studies show that while students may indicate that they have a learning preference (audio, visual, kinesthetic), that preference has little relation to their learning outcomes. In fact, most people benefit for a variety of different lesson modalities; retention is much better when more than one method is used to reinforce a lesson’s objectives.

This week’s episode of the Skeptics Guide the Universe discusses some of the issues in the topic, in their “Spot the Logical Fallacy” segment. Of particular interest here is how so many trained educators are willing to ignore observational-based research in favor of their own anecdotal evidence, which unfortunately is subject to confirmation bias.


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