Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Time to Ditch ‘Gifted’ Label? Every Child Should Be Challenged in School

Ron Turiello’s daughter, Grace, seemed unusually alert even as a newborn.
At 7 months or so, she showed an interest in categorizing objects: She’d take a drawing of an elephant in a picture book, say, and match it to a stuffed elephant and a realistic plastic elephant.
At 5 or 6 years old, when snorkeling with her family in Hawaii, she identified a passing fish correctly as a Heller’s barracuda, then added, “Where are the rest? They usually travel in schools.”
With a child so bright, some parents might assume that she’d do great in any school setting, and pretty much leave it at that. But Turiello was convinced she needed a special environment, in part because of his own experience. He scored very high on IQ tests as a child, but almost dropped out of high school. He says he was bored, unmotivated, socially isolated.
“I took a swing at the teacher in second grade because she was making fun of my vocabulary,” he recalls. “I would get bad grades because I never did my homework. I could have ended up a really well-read homeless person.”
Turiello, now an attorney, and his wife, Margaret Caruso, helped found a private school in Sunnyvale, Calif., exclusively for the gifted. It’s called Helios, and both of their children now attend the school, which uses project-based learning, groups children by ability not age, and creates an individualized learning plan for each student. For Turiello, the biggest benefits to Grace, now 11, and son Marcello, 7, are social and emotional. “They don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not,” says Turiello. “If they can be among peers and be themselves, that can really change their lives.”
Estimates vary, but many say there are around 3 million students in K-12 classrooms nationwide who could be considered academically gifted and talented. The education they get is the subject of a national debate about what our public schools owe to each child in the post-No Child Left Behind era.
When it comes to gifted children, there are three big questions: How to define them, how to identify them and how best to serve them.
1. How do you define giftedness?
One of the most popular definitions, dating to the early 1990s, is “asynchronous development.” That means, roughly, a student whose mental capacities develop ahead of chronological age. This concept matches the most popular tests of giftedness: IQ tests. Scores are indexed to age, with 100 as the average; a 6 year old who gives answers characteristic of a 12 year old would have an IQ of 200.
But there are problems with this framework. No 6-year-old is truly mentally identical to a 12-year-old. He or she may be brilliant at mathematics but lack background knowledge or impulse control.
In addition, IQ tests become less useful as children get older because there is less “headroom” on the test, especially for those who are already high scorers. “It’s like measuring a 6-foot person with a 5-foot ruler,” says Linda Silverman, an educational psychologist and founder of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development.
Recent intelligence research de-emphasizes IQ alone and focuses on social and emotional factors.
“There’s research that these other things like motivation and grit can take you to the same exact academic outcomes as someone with a higher IQ but without those things,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist who studies intelligence and creativity at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book Ungifted. “That’s a really important finding that is just totally ignored. Our country has a narrow view of what counts as merit.”
Of course, as the definitions get broader, the measurements get more subjective and thus, perhaps, less useful. Some centers for gifted children put out checklists of “giftedness” so broad that any proud parent would be hard-pressed not to recognize her child. Things like: “Has a vivid imagination.” “Good sense of humor.” “Highly sensitive.”
2. How many students should be designated gifted?
It can be useful for education policy purposes to think about giftedness as it relates to the rest of the special education spectrum. Silverman argues that just as children with IQ scores two full standard deviations below the norm need special classrooms and extra resources, those who score two standard deviations above the norm need the same. By her lights, the population we should be focusing on is the top 2.5 percent to 3 percent of achievers, not the top 5 to 10 percent.
Scott Peters disagrees. He’s a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who prepares teachers for gifted certifications. He says the question that every teacher and every school should be asking is, “How will we serve the students who already know what I’m covering today?”
In a school where most children are in remediation, he argues, a child who is simply performing on grade level may need special attention.
3. How do you identify gifted students?
The most common answer nationwide is: First, by teacher and/or parent nomination. After that come tests.
Minority and free-reduced lunch students are extremely underrepresented in gifted programs nationwide. The problem starts with that first step. Less-educated or non-English-speaking parents may not be aware of gifted program opportunities. Pre-service teachers, says Peters, typically get one day of training on gifted students, which may not prepare them to recognize giftedness in its many forms.
Research shows that screening every child, rather than relying on nominations, produces far more equitable outcomes.
Tests have their problems, too, says Kaufman. IQ and other standardized tests produce results that can be skewed by background cultural knowledge, language learner status and racial and social privilege. Even nonverbal tasks like puzzles are influenced by class and cultural background.
Using a single test-score cutoff as the criteria is common but not considered best practice.
In addition, the majority of districts in the U.S. test children for these programs before the third grade. Experts worry that identifying children only at the outset of school can be a problem, because abilities change over time, and the practice favors students who have an enriched environment at home.
Experts prefer the use of multiple criteria and multiple opportunities. Portfolios or auditions, interviews or narrative profiles may be part of the process.
4. How do you best serve gifted students?
This is the biggest controversy in gifted education. Peters says many districts focus their resources on identifying gifted or advanced learners, while offering little or nothing to serve them.
“There are cases where parents spend years advocating for students, kids get multiple rounds of testing, and at the end of the day they’re provided with a little bit of differentiation or an hour of resource-room time in the course of a week,” he says. “That’s not sufficient for a fourth-grader, say, who needs to take geometry.”
While this emphasis on diagnosis over treatment might seem paradoxical, it’s compliant with the law:
In most states the law governs the identification of gifted students. But only 27 percent of districts surveyed in 2013 report a state law about how to group these students, whether in a self-contained program, or pulled out into a resource room for a single subject or offered differentiation within a classroom. And almost no states have laws mandating anything about the curriculum for gifted students.
In addition to a need to move faster and delve deeper, students whose intellectual abilities or interests don’t match those of their peers often have special social and emotional needs.
“I believe that every single day in school a gifted child has the right to learn something new — not to help the teacher,” Silverman says. “And to be protected from bullying, teasing and abuse.”
Helping gifted students may or may not take many more resources. But it does require a shift in mindset to the idea that “every child deserves to be challenged,” as Ron Turiello says.
That’s why, paradoxically, many of the gifted education experts I interviewed didn’t like the label “gifted.” “In a perfect world, every student would have an IEP,” says Kaufman.
As it happens, federal education policy is currently being reconfigured around some version of that idea.
“The whole NCLB era, and really back to the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s, was about getting kids to grade level, to minimal proficiency,” says Peters. “There seems to be a change in belief now — that you need to show growth in every student.”
That means, instead of just focusing on the 50 percent of kids who are below average, teachers should be responsible for the half who are above average, too. “That’s huge. It’s hard to articulate how big of a sea change that is.”



AS A BOY, I PULLED OUT DOZENS — perhaps hundreds — of survey stakes in a vain effort to slow the bulldozers that were taking out my woods to make way for a new subdivision. Had I known then what I've since learned from a developer, that I should have simply moved the stakes around to be more effective, I would surely have done that too. So you might imagine my dubiousness when, a few weeks after the publication of my 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, I received an e-mail from Derek Thomas, who introduced himself as vice chairman and chief investment officer of Newland Communities, one of the nation’s largest privately owned residential development companies. “I have been reading your new book,” he wrote, “and am profoundly disturbed by some of the information you present.”
Thomas said he wanted to do something positive. He invited me to an envisioning session in Phoenix to “explore how Newland can improve or redefine our approach to open space preservation and the interaction between our homebuyers and nature.” A few weeks later, in a conference room filled with about eighty developers, builders, and real estate marketers, I offered my sermonette. The folks in the crowd were partially responsible for the problem, I suggested, because they destroy natural habitat, design communities in ways that discourage any real contact with nature, and include covenants that virtually criminalize outdoor play — outlawing tree-climbing, fort-building, even chalk-drawing on sidewalks.
I was ready to make a fast exit when Thomas, a bearded man with an avuncular demeanor, stood up and said, “I want you all to go into small groups and solve the problem: how are we going to build communities in the future that actually connect kids with nature?” The room filled with noise and excitement. By the time the groups reassembled to report the ideas they had generated, I had glimpsed the primal power of connecting children and nature: it can inspire unexpected advocates and lure unlikely allies to enter an entirely new place. Call it the doorway effect. Once through the door, they can revisualize seemingly intractable problems and produce solutions they might otherwise never have imagined.
A half hour after Thomas’s challenge, the groups reported their ideas. Among them: leave some land and native habitat in place (that’s a good start); employ green design principles; incorporate nature trails and natural waterways; throw out the conventional covenants and restrictions that discourage or prohibit natural play and rewrite the rules to encourage it; allow kids to build forts and tree houses or plant gardens; and create small, on-site nature centers.
“Kids could become guides, using cell phones, along nature trails that lead to schools at the edge of the development,” someone suggested. Were the men and women in this room just blowing smoke? Maybe. Developers exploiting our hunger for nature, I thought, just as they market their subdivisions by naming their streets after the trees and streams that they destroy. But the fact that developers, builders, and real estate marketers would approach Derek Thomas’s question with such apparently heartfelt enthusiasm was revealing. The quality of their ideas mattered less than the fact that they had them. While they may not get there themselves, the people in this room were visualizing a very different future. They were undergoing a process of discovery that has proliferated around the country in the past two years, and not only among developers.
Read the rest of the article:

How should learning be assessed?

There is already a strong backlash against politicians and school administrators because of high-stakes standardized tests, and the way results are used to justify school closures. Some parents and educators have encouraged families to “opt out” of tests, such as those related to the Common Core State Standards, as a way to protest these practices and the effects they are having on children, families and communities. However, Yong Zhao, education professor at the University of Oregon, recommends that parents, educators and policy makers go a step further, and use the moment to re-examine the role of testing—and the issue of accountability—more broadly.

Tests are just one form of assessment, he points out, and limited in what they can accurately measure. Important qualities such as creativity, persistence and collaboration, for example, are tricky to measure because they are individualized and situation- or task-specific (someone may collaborate well in one group setting but not in another). And no test can measure whether children are receiving “a quality learning experience that meets the needs of individual students.”High-stakes tests concern Zhao the most, because he says they represent more than misspent time and money. He faults them for suppressing creativity and innovation, and creating narrowed educational experiences, because everything that is not measured becomes secondary or is dismissed entirely. Moreover, “constant ranking and sorting” creates stress and makes students less confident.

By contrast, feedback that avoids needless comparisons among students can be very useful, and doesn’t require much time or money. When it’s clear which skills and content need to be mastered (such as the ability to conjugate verbs in order to become proficient in a foreign language), low-stakes tests can help learners direct their attention to filling in the gaps in their knowledge. More helpful still are explicit written assessments that describe an individual’s progress. The key to good assessment, says Zhao, is to ask: “Whose purpose does this serve? Is the learner trying to get better using assessment, … rather than just using it to judge?”
Parents seeking assurance that their children are learning can look at their children’s engagement level, and notice if they’re exploring topics or pursuits that interest them, and improving in their areas of interest.

Steps for Identifying Needs
As for how to evaluate schools, he recommends that parents and community members ponder some key questions. “First of all, ask if the school is really personalizing learning to meet individual needs, with a broad and flexible curriculum,” he says. Children interested in music, for example, should have equal opportunities to develop that skill as to develop literacy.The next question he would ask: “Is school an engaging place—do students want to go to school? If the more they go to school, the more they hate it, that would be a horrible place,” he says. Analogies with taking bad-tasting medicine fail, he adds, because there’s no disease involved, and “children don’t need to be fixed.”

And finally, “Do the teachers care about the development of the whole child?” he asks. “If a teacher just helped a student who had lost hope because of a personal problem, that should count for something. Teachers should be human mentors. Children can take ownership of their learning, but inevitably they will encounter setbacks. Do teachers help develop their social, emotional and physical well being, and challenge them and push them forward?” On a broader societal level, educational equity can be gauged by whether schools in low-income jurisdictions receive comparable resources to invest in good teachers, professional development, materials, facilities, field trips and other enrichment activities.

Who Should be Accountable for What?
Teaching can be mandated, but learning can’t, Zhao points out; what adults can do is provide opportunities and offer guidance when needed. That’s what we should be tracking, he says—“accountability should shift back to what we do for kids, rather than what they’ve done for us.”In other words, each person should be held accountable only for what he or she can control—the educators for providing an environment that stimulates and supports individual learning, and the community and government for providing sufficient funding to enable them to carry this out equitably.

Even if funding levels are modest (in the first article in this series, Zhao explained how quality can be achieved economically), the best way to ensure that the funds are well spent is to have greater local autonomy. “Locally controlled entities are much closer to their constituents,” Zhao says, and more responsive to pressure to cater to their needs. Those most invested in the schools’ learning environments—the children and their parents—then wouldn’t have to work as hard to get their schools to change direction.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?

At an American Library Association conference in 2007, HarperCollins dressed five of its male young adult authors in blue baseball jerseys with our names on the back and sent us up to bat in a panel entitled “In the Clubhouse.” We were meant to demystify to the overwhelmingly female audience the testosterone code that would get teenage boys reading. Whereas boys used to lag behind girls in reading in the early grades, statistics show, they soon caught up. Not anymore.
We guys had mixed feelings about the game plan: boys’ aversion to reading, let alone to novels, has been worsening for years. But while this certainly posed a problem for us male writers, we felt that we were being treated as a sideshow.
And so we turned from men into boys. Though we ranged in age and style from then 30-­something Kenneth Oppel, a writer of fantasies about ancient beasts (“Darkwing”), to Walter Dean Myers, the 70-­something master of street novels (“Monster”), along with Chris Crutcher (“Whale Talk”) and Terry Trueman (“Stuck in Neutral”), we easily slipped into a cohesive pack. We became stereotypes, smart-aleck teammates — and we were very much on the defensive. It was Us vs. Them.
This is exactly what boys do, in the classroom and in the library, as well as in the clubhouse. If we’re to counter this tendency and encourage reading among boys who may collectively resist it, boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.
Given the rich variety in young adult fiction available today, this might seem easy. Not so. “We’re in a kind of golden age of books for teenagers — in fact, the best ones are more satisfying reads than most of the best books published for adults,” said Donald Gallo, a Y.A. anthologist and retired English professor at Central Connecticut State University, when I spoke to him by phone. “The important question is why aren’t boys reading the good books being published?”
He ticked off the standard answers: Boys gravitate toward nonfiction. Schools favor classics over contemporary fiction to satisfy testing standards and avoid challenges from parents. And teachers don’t always know what’s out there for boys. All true, in my opinion.
There are other theories. On his Web site,, the teacher and author Jon Scieszka writes that boys “don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction. . . . Boys don’t have enough positive male role models for literacy. Because the majority of adults involved in kids’ reading are women, boys might not see reading as a masculine activity.”
But I think it’s also about the books being published. Michael Cart, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, agrees. “We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become,” he told me. “In a commercially driven publishing environment, the emphasis is currently on young women.” And then some. At the 2007 A.L.A. conference, a Harper executive said at least three-­quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires.
Naturally, authors are writing for this ready group. The current surge in children’s literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from M.F.A. programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction. Their novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers. It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.
Children’s literature didn’t always bear this overwhelmingly female imprint. Like most readers growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, before the advent of the Y.A. genre, I went directly from children’s books about explorers to Steinbeck and Hemingway. But my son, Sam, a novelist who grew up in the ’70s, was able to go from “Goodnight Moon” to the burgeoning category of Y.A. literature.
The books that Sam read differed from the current crop in one significant way: They tended not to be gender-­specific. Many early Y.A. writers were women who wrote well about both genders, like the queen of coming-­of-­age lit, Judy Blume (“Forever”). Others wrote under the guise of asexual initials: S. E. Hinton ("The Outsiders") and M. E. Kerr (“Gentlehands”). The better male writers also wrote about both boys and girls: John Donovan (“I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip”), Paul Zindel (“The Pigman”) and Robert Cormier, my hero in the field and author of the 1974 classic, “The Chocolate War.” To me, that book exemplifies what’s currently missing: here was a tale of fascistic adults and teenage bullying at a Catholic boys high school, and, controversially and crucially, it lacked a redemptive resolution, one of Cormier’s trademarks.
But the next spate of Y.A. fiction tended to be simplistic problem novels that read like after-school specials, and soon split along gender lines. Books with story lines about disease, divorce, death and dysfunction sold better for girls than did similar books for boys. The shift seemed to fundamentally alter the Y.A. landscape.
To me and I think to many prospective readers, today’s books for boys — supernatural space-and-sword epics that read like video game manuals and sports novels with preachy moral messages — often seem like cynical appeals to the lowest common denominator. Boys prefer video games and ESPN to book versions of them. These knockoffs also lack the tough, edgy story lines that allow boys a private place to reflect on the inner fears of failure and humiliation they try so hard to brush over. Editors who ask writers of books for boys to include girl characters — for commercial reasons — further blunt the edges.
The argument over boys’ reading is not just about gender. This is business, not prejudice. Why publish books if they never reach prospective readers? That many of the edgy books boys would like to read are either not taught or are banned does nothing to promote the cause.
This is why I felt compelled to describe, at the 2007 A.L.A. conference, my interactions with readers of my 2006 novel “Raiders Night,” a book frequently banned by male principals and superintendents (many of them former coaches) for its depiction of the drug and hazing underside of high school football. But the boys who read it are quick to relate to its touchy subject matter. At one school I visited in suburban Chicago, a female teacher, working with a female librarian, had been slipping “Raiders Night” to dozens of boys, mostly athletes.
These “reluctant” readers were eager to talk to me about their reading experiences. They talked about not trusting coaches who, they said, send you in hurt, and lie about your playing time and play you off against your friends. They felt trapped — they loved the fellowship, the physical contact, the prestige of the game. They even talked, gingerly, about playing because Dad wants you to and how you could be kept in line by the fear of being called a girl or gay. This was hard-core boy talk, but it was also book talk — the fictional characters we were discussing allowed us the freedom to express feelings the way girls do. Would this conversation ever have taken place without a literary impetus?
A number of boys thought the book’s ending, in which the hero makes what I considered the moral choice of protecting the weak and not the team, was “messed up.” A real jock, they told me, does whatever he needs to do to win, and right or wrong has nothing to do with it.
I told them I had a reading list for them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Evening classes that promise to make you happy

Dalai Lama, July 2015Image copyrightGetty Images

The eight-week course, designed by the Action for Happiness organisation, claims to be scientifically proven to increase life satisfaction, mental well-being, compassion and social trust.
The Dalai Lama has given his blessing to a new course of evening classes, available across the UK, promising to make participants happier… and the world a better place.
Entitled Exploring What Matters, the classes will be free - although organisers do ask for a donation to cover costs. Hundreds of people have already volunteered to host the course in locations across the UK.
Launching the course on World Peace Day, the Dalai Lama said he was delighted to see the "work being done to create a happier and more caring society".
"I wholeheartedly support the Exploring What Matters course and hope that many thousands of people will benefit from it and be inspired to take their own action to help create a happier world," he said.
During the course, local groups explore a series of questions including "What really matters in life?", "What really makes us happy?" and "How can we create a happier world?"
The approach is similar to the successful Christian Alpha course, started in London in the 1970s and now run in more than 150 countries around the world. Alpha describes itself as an opportunity to explore the meaning of life.
Action for Happiness stresses that Exploring What Matters is a secular project based on science rather than faith.
Over the past few decades, the study of human wellbeing and happiness has become an established scientific discipline. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics is developing measures of wellbeing so government policies can, in its words, "be tailored to the things that matter". New ONS wellbeing data is due to be published on Wednesday.
The organisers of the new happiness course claim that analysis of pilot courses has proved it leaves people happier and more likely to help others. Some participants say the classes have been life-changing.
"I wouldn't be where I am now without the course," says Jasmine Hodge-Lake, who took part in one of the pilot classes having suffered for over decade from chronic pain which left her unable to work.
"I found there were things I could do that would make a big difference and started to feel hopeful about the future," she says. "I still have bad days and life certainly isn't perfect, but it has really helped me so much."
A class begins with a session of mindfulness, an ancient Buddhist practice during which participants deliberately focus their attention on the present moment, becoming aware of sensations and thoughts. It is an approach now used by the NHS and some schools to improve mental wellbeing.
"Starting each session by tuning in with short mindfulness and gratitude exercises creates a calm and positive atmosphere and encourages friendly connections," says Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness.
"In the modern world we are bombarded with false messages about what makes for a happy life," he says. "Real success has much less to do with what we earn or consume - and much more to do with our inner attitudes, our relationships with others and our contribution to society."
Each class includes information on the science that underpins the topic, including video talks from some of the world's top experts on happiness and wellbeing.
"A good society is one where as many people as possible are able to live happy, fulfilling lives," says Lord Layard, co-founder of Action for Happiness and author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.
"We want to see this course happening in thousands of local communities to help like-minded people support each other in taking practical actions which are not only good for their own wellbeing but also contribute to the happiness of others around them too."
Action for Happiness says it hopes to see courses run in thousands of local communities. As the old song goes, the aim is to "spread a little happiness as you go by".

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Homework: A New User's Guide

It's Homework Time!
LA Johnson/NPR
If you made it past the headline, you're likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer's Last Stand, nailed it!).
Whoever you are, you're surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they're sitting comfortably at the average.
Well, here goes. I've mapped out six, research-based polestars that should help guide you to some reasonable conclusions about homework.
How much homework do U.S. students get?
The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, "How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?" The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.
Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week.
If you're hungry for more data on this — and some perspective — check out this exhaustive report put together last year by researcher Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.
An hour or less a day? But we hear so many horror stories! Why?
The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses. And the latter students are getting a lot of homework. In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That's not a lot of students, but they're clearly doing a lot of work.
That also tracks with a famous survey from 2007 — from MetLife — that asked parents what they think of their kids' homework load. Sixty percent said it was just right. Twenty-five percent said their kids are getting too little. Just 15 percent of parents said their kids have too much homework.
Research also suggests that the students doing the most work have something else in common: income. "I think that the debate over homework in some ways is a social class issue," says Janine Bempechat, professor of human development at Wheelock College. "There's no question that in affluent communities, children are really over-taxed, over-burdened with homework."
But the vast majority of students do not seem to have inordinate workloads. And the ones who do are generally volunteering for the tough stuff. That doesn't make it easier, but it does make it a choice.
Do we know how much homework students in other countries are doing?
Sort of. Caveats abound here. Education systems and perceptions of what is and isn't homework can vary remarkably overseas. So any comparison is, to a degree, apples-to-oranges (or, at least, apples-to-pears). A 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pegged the U.S. homework load for 15-year-olds at around six hours per week. That's just above the study's average. It found that students in Hong Kong are also doing about six hours a week. Much of Europe checks in between four and five hours a week. In Japan, it's four hours. And Korea's near the bottom, at three hours.
How much homework is too much?
Better yet, how much is just right? Harris Cooper at Duke University has done some of the best work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies, from 1987 to 2003, looking for consensus on what works and what doesn't. A common rule of thumb, he says, is what's called the 10-minute rule. Take the child's grade and multiply by 10. So first-graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework a night, 40 minutes for fourth-graders, on up to two hours for seniors in high school. A lot of of schools use this. Even the National PTA officially endorses it.
Homework clearly improves student performance, right?
Not necessarily. It depends on the age of the child. Looking over the research, there's little to no evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many experts I spoke with all said the same thing: The point of homework in those primary grades isn't entirely academic. It's about teaching things like time-management and self-direction.
But, by high school the evidence shifts. Harris Cooper's massive review found, in middle and high school, a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help. But more is not always better. Cooper points out that, depending on the subject and the age of the student, there is a law of diminishing returns. Again, he recommends the 10-minute rule.
What kinds of homework seem to be most effective?
This is where things get really interesting. Because homework should be about learning, right? To understand what kinds of homework best help kids learn, we really need to talk about memory and the brain.
Let's start with something called the spacing effect. Say a child has to do a vocabulary worksheet. The next week, it's a new worksheet with different words and so on. Well, research shows that the brain is better at remembering when we repeat with consistency, not when we study in long, isolated chunks of time. Do a little bit of vocabulary each night, repeating the same words night after night.
Similarly, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Henry "Roddy" Roediger III, recommends that teachers give students plenty of little quizzes, which he says strengthen the brain's ability to remember. Don't fret. They can be low-stakes or no-stakes, says Roediger: It's the steady recall and repetition that matter. He also recommends, as homework, that students try testing themselves instead of simply re-reading the text or class notes.
There's also something known as interleaving. This is big in the debate over math homework. Many of us — myself included — learned math by focusing on one concept at a time, doing a worksheet to practice that concept, then moving on.
Well, there's evidence that students learn more when homework requires them to choose among multiple strategies — new and old — when solving problems. In other words, kids learn when they have to draw not just from what they learned in class that day but that week, that month, that year.
One last note: Experts agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what students learned in class (this is especially true in math). Sometimes it can — and should — be used to introduce new material, but here's where so many horror stories begin.
Tom Loveless, a former teacher, offers this advice: "I don't think teachers should ever send brand-new material that puts the parent in the position of a teacher. That's a disaster. My own personal philosophy was: Homework is best if it's material that requires more practice but they've already received initial instruction."
Or, in the words of the National PTA: "Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

When Educators Make Space For Play and Passion, Students Develop Purpose

Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner has been advocating that we reinvent the education system to promote innovation for years. He’s clear that content should no longer be at the center of school. Instead, he says a teacher’s main job should be to help students develop key skills necessary for when they leave school. He contends there are seven essential things young people need to be successful lifelong learners:
1.      Formulate good questions
2.      Communicate in groups and lead by influence
3.      Be agile and adaptable
4.      Take initiative and be entrepreneurial
5.      Effective written and oral communication skills
6.      Know how to  access and analyze information
7.      Be creative and imaginative
Wagner worries that unless the U.S. starts focusing on cultivating these skills, the nation will no longer produce innovative people who drive job growth. He interviewed dozens of innovative young people and asked them about their experiences in school. One third of those he interviewed couldn’t name one teacher who had impacted them. The other two thirds named teachers, who upon further investigation, were outliers in their schools. Their teaching styles and approaches were at odds with the dominant school culture.

Wagner found that all of these tremendously influential teachers ran classrooms that emphasized interdisciplinary learning, real team collaboration, risk taking, creating learning as opposed to consuming knowledge, and cultivated intrinsic motivation in students. These teachers made room for playful exploration and student passions in the classroom, helping their students to develop the purpose that drives them. He co-authored “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era” with Tony Dintersmith.