Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

Yes, School Funding Does Matter

The tweet gave me pause when I first read the headline:

I followed this link retweeted by Frederick Hess, contributor to Education Week, to a US News & World Report opinion piece titled More Money, Same Problems. It was written by Gerard Robinson (the source of the tweet) and Benjamin Scafidi. Robinson is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “a conservative think tank” (Source: Wikipedia). Scafidi is a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University.

The authors acknowledge that “public education is important to the economic and social well-being of our nation”. They go on to point out that there are some students who are successful in public education and far too many who are not. You have no argument from me. Robinson and Scafidi also concede that an adequate level of “resources matter to education”.

Their commentary then gets into the the problems that they believe plague public education:

– While student school enrollment increased 96% since 1950, public school staffing increased 386%.
– Since 1992, public school national math scores have shown little growth (click to their source).
– Today’s graduation rates are only slightly above what they were in 1970.

Robinson and Scafidi follow up with their ideas for improving student outcomes in public education:

– Better involvement from parents
– State control of failing public schools
– Charter schools (a result of state takeovers)

While I appreciate their passion for providing a better experience for students who do not have access to a high quality public education, I take issue with their ideas for improvement.

First, parent involvement. While it can have an impact on student learning when the involvement is positive, it is often not something we as public educators can control in our settings. My experience tells me that the best public schools focus the majority of their efforts and resources on the limited time that they actually have with students. Dr. John Hattie’s research on what works regarding instruction places family involvement on the lower end of the effective educational approach spectrum. It can be effective, but there is a ceiling.

So what’s on the higher end of the spectrum? Everything that Robinson and Scafidi failed to mention, including:

– Formative assessment
– Feedback strategies
– Self-assessment
– Vocabulary instruction
– Classroom discussion
– Response to Intervention

In fact, one of the least effective practices for improving student learning outcomes are…charter schools. According to Hattie, charter schools have around the same effect size as ensuring students had appropriate amounts of sleep and altering classroom/school schedules. My time is important, so I will let charter school and school choice proponents wrestle with these findings.

What I do want to point out is that the most effective instructional strategies require generous amounts of school funding. Here’s why: Teaching is one of the most challenging professions. To do it well, educators need consistent and effective training in the areas of curriculum, assessment and instructional strategies. This requires funding and support for job-embedded professional development. Dollars should be allocated for training, time, resources, and opportunities to apply these new skills in a low risk/high success environment. If this sounds like a lot of money for this type of work, please remember that teaching is a profession. I am sure you would agree that our students are worth it.

Citing graduation rates and flatlining test scores might serve to perpetuate the opinion that public education is broken. However, this argument is a generalization of our system as a whole. Yes, there are ineffective schools and there are effective schools. No one would dispute this. Yet each school is an individual learning community. They each have specific strengths and needs, and should be assessed with valid and reliable measures. To paint a broad stroke over public education with data that is questionable at best (see here and here) is a disservice to the hard work and dedication that all public educators put in every day on behalf of our students.

I won’t argue that public education needs to improve. We do. It is the work that we should be engaging in every day. The least that people outside public education can do is to ensure that they consider multiple perspectives on a position they support and provide valid and reliable evidence to back it up.

Technology for the Sake of Technology: Consider the Why and the How

For many reasons, technology is very tempting to embed into classrooms without a lot of thought behind our intentions. Its newness piques students’ interests, it connects learners with the wider world, and it can provide a seemingly limitless number of resources for communication, information and entertainment.


But does it lead to learning? It depends not on what a teacher is using, but how it is used and why it might be needed. In my recently published book, I highlighted the conditions John Hattie found in his research about effective use of technology in schools, from his seminal resource Visible Learning: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Routledge, 2009, p. 221-227):

  • When there is a diversity of teaching strategies
  • When there is teacher training in the use of computers as a teaching and learning tool
  • When there are multiple opportunities for learning (e.g. deliberative practice, increasing time on task)
  • When the student, not the teacher, is in “control” of learning
  • When peer learning is optimized
  • When feedback is optimized

Beyond these situations, I also suggest that teachers make the purpose for implementing new technology into classrooms to revolve around some type of real world project or to address a community problem. For example, one of our teachers wants to replace her desktop computers with Chromebooks. 

Here were two ideas we discussed for this integration:

  1. Create an official Howe Elementary School welcoming website via Google Sites for new students and their families, where maps of the school, informational videos, and important information would be posted and kept current.
  2. Train the students to teach residents at an assisted living center how to use Google Apps for a variety of reasons, such as communicating via Gmail and Hangouts with family members who don’t visit them often enough. 

As I think about these possibilities, I feel a sense of enthusiasm for what could happen in this classroom with access to mobile technology. But just bringing in Chromebooks: Not the same. It is so easy to state “I need technology in the classroom” without thinking about the why and how. The shiny new pencil tends to lose its luster when its potential is not realized. We can do better.

What One Resource Would You Refer to for Teaching and Learning?

I was asked this question, in so many words, by a guest touring my school today. My response was, “Uhh, well, uhmm…”. I obviously didn’t have an immediate answer. There are too many great resources out there to make an easy selection.

I threw this question out on Twitter.

Here were the smart responses.

As you can see, there were a wide variety of responses. If this were an election, Twitter would be the winner. Several online resources were also mentioned. I was a little surprised that more actual books were not suggested. For me, I referenced Visible Learning by Dr. John Hattie (Routledge, 2009). What’s great about education is that learning is complex enough to allow for a variety of responses with this type of inquiry.

So what is your go-to resource for teaching and learning? Please share in the comments.

Twitter for PD? Yes! Twitter to Replace PD? Not so much

I see these types of posts once in a great while and I just shake my head:

To be transparent, the article itself nicely details a process for helping staff become more connected. I suspect the tweet was used to grab attention. Well, you got me, hook, line, and sinker…

I like Twitter. A lot. In fact, I take purposeful breaks from it (see: tech sabbaticals) just so I can clear my head and reflect on all that I have discovered from my personal learning network. It’s an awesome resource because of the number of educators on it, all sharing specific areas of expertise and conversing about best practice. I wish I had Twitter when I was teaching – I would have been so much better than I was.

But Twitter replacing professional development? No. I am surprised that I keep hearing this line. There are just some things that cannot be left to chance.

When moving a building forward in their collective instructional capacities, the only method I have found to have a profound effect on student learning is when everyone is speaking the same language. The proof is in my school. The last three years, we engaged in a reading-writing connection residency. This series of modules and activities have put us all on the same page with respect to the best ways to teach and to help students monitor their learning. This year, we are engaging in specific writing strategies for informative/explanatory texts. No one opts out. Our kids deserve the very best in what we can offer.

This would not happen via Twitter because I believe you would have a hodgepodge of practices implemented at extreme levels of fidelity, with limited ability to have deep conversations with colleagues. Everything shared in this forum is not top notch. In addition, I very much doubt that every educator would engage in professional learning via Twitter at similar levels of depth. Some educators aren’t interested, and we have to respect that.

When a community of learners participates in strong, evidence-based training, it builds trust and raises expectations. It says, “If I am going to implement this in my classroom, I want to see results, both now and in the future.” This only occurs when students get strong, consistent instruction year after year. As John Hattie found in Visible Learning for Teachers (Routledge, 2012), there are five practices that expert teachers use to profoundly effect student learning (pgs 28-32):

  • Identify the most important ways in which to represent the subject that they teach.
  • Create an optimal classroom climate for learning.
  • Monitor learning and provide feedback.
  • Believe that all students can reach the success criteria.
  • Influence surface and deep level outcomes.

While I agree that there needs to ample room for personal learning, it shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring what the research shows. It’s not fair to kids.

A while back, a teacher on Twitter asked what digital resource is a must for all educators. I replied that the tool doesn’t matter – it is who is on the other end of the connection and the types of conversations that occur that make the difference. This led to more conversation about the power of Twitter, how it connects the world, how you can follow anyone, etc., etc. Preaching to the choir! But what if Twitter went defunct a la Google Reader? Are we versatile enough to apply the concept of connected learning to other tools, such as Google+? If we truly are life long learners, then the answer should be yes.

Why I Take Class Size Research With a Grain of Salt


photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc

John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning, found through his synthesis of many research studies that class size has only a .21 effect size on learning. According to his findings, class size is slightly more effective than charter schools and slightly less effective than comprehensive teaching reforms. Hattie considers the hinge point for a practice to be strongly associated with student achievement at a .40 effect size. Class size does not make the cut.

I can understand these findings. Poor teachers will use poor instruction regardless of the number of kids in their class. Great teachers can move a group of students forward regardless of the odds stacked against them. So why do so many teachers and parents believe class size is crucial to the success of students? Because class size does matter. I am not talking about the research from thousands of classrooms. I am talking about a classroom on any given year.

Calling back to my teaching days, one of my best years I had was with 28 5th and 6th graders in a multi-age classroom. We were a cohesive group of learners. We could have in-depth conversations about the books we were reading or the math problems we were working on. Conversely, there was a year where 21 students gave me a run for my money. The combination of certain personalities made that year a lot more challenging. That classroom of 21 students felt more like 31 students on some days.

You read this and maybe think, “That’s proof that class size really doesn’t matter.” However, I think my example is the exception that proves the rule. First of all, Hattie’s research takes into account hundreds and thousands of studies. This is where social science research is limited; the human factor. As most teachers can attest, one person can change the entire dynamic of a classroom setting. Second, the more students you have, the more closely you follow a script. Group work becomes both physically and socially more difficult when class size gets larger. Hattie acknowledges this (p. 87). He goes on to point out that class size research could largely be based on the fact that teachers don’t readily change their practices when class sizes fluctuate.

The final reason for my skepticism is the research doesn’t acknowledge the long term effects on the teacher. There is a difference between conferring with 20 students and conferring with 30 students. Grading 30 papers is a lot more time consuming than grading 20 papers. Getting 30 students to walk orderly in the hallways is more of a… okay, you get the idea. These little differences, all of these stressors, can add up to larger effects on a teacher’s health and well being. I would wager that there is research out there that shows teachers who regularly have large class sizes are more likely to seek employment elsewhere.

This post is not to question Hattie’s research, but to point out what could happen when people only look at the numbers. My biggest fear is that administrators and school boards will look at this data and say, “You know what? We don’t need that extra teacher. The research says it doesn’t matter all that much.” It does matter. I’ve been there. I suspect that those who disagree have never had to teach in a classroom with 30 students.

The Facts About Ability Grouping

There have been some recent posts in Education Week that discuss the use of ability grouping in classrooms. You can read these articles here, here, and here. It is unfortunate that this outdated practice continues to rear its ugly head. This post is the comment I left on each article, in hope to correct any misconceptions.


Photo Credit: Sean Rogers1 via Compfight cc

I think flexible grouping and ability grouping are getting confused. Ability grouping is defined as putting students into groups based on their perceived overall ability and intelligence. It is not effective. It has an effect size of .12 on student learning. This practice is #121 out of 132 teaching practices (Hattie, 2009). It has shown to have the same impact as a student’s gender and their diet. Knowing this, ability grouping should not generally be used in schools. It is noted by Hattie that ability grouping for gifted students does have a stronger effect on these specific learners (although acceleration is a much more effective practice).

Flexible grouping, on the other hand, is something every classroom should be using. It has its roots in formative assessment (0.9 effect size) and Response to Intervention (1.07 effect size). Flexible grouping is when we continuously assess our students, determine what they need, and response to their needs strategically. This happens in small groups and individually. It is a fluid process. The workshop model, used by expert teachers such as Cris Tovani and Donalyn Miller, allow for flexible grouping to naturally happen. It is harder work, but the right work because it has been shown over time and through many studies to have the most impact on kids. If we believe all students can and want to learn, there is no need for ability grouping anyway.

To apply a quote by Mark Twain to this topic, the difference between flexible grouping and ability grouping is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.


Hattie, John (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge.

Miller, Donalyn (2009). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tovani, Cris (2011). So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.