14 Lines of Homework

My reflection upon reading Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, and speaking with Cathy Vatterott at the ASCD Annual Conference in San Antonio, TX this March.

When I was in high school, I associated homework with “work” and learning with “class.” I didn’t often complete my homework because it wasn’t until I was back in class that the learning took place. At times, I found practice to be helpful, but I would often choose to stay after school with teachers who would do homework alongside me; other assignments would be left undone or–gasp–copied from friends.

I never liked homework because I was happy to learn through extracurricular practice. I loved Marching Band, Symphony, acting, and even a few sports. I hated doing work that I felt was “filler,” just something to take up my time in the name of being busy.

The perpetual cycle of homework assigning, procrastinating, copying, failing, collecting, grading, re-assigning, berating, complaining about, mindlessly completing, guessing and stressing is one I gave up on a long time ago. When I made it to college, I realized that most of my “homework” was assigned in an unwritten and self-directed fashion that supported some larger goal or project in a course. There was no mass-assigning and grade milling going on.

I neither had the option to pad my grade with busy work nor to fail because of my failure to learn what should have been taught with me. My first job in the professional world (that is, outside of campus and service stations or grocery stores) proved to provide a similar incentive to learn on my own. If I wanted to advance or do better at my job, then I had to take an interest in something on my own time.

My boss would always answer questions and I wasn’t expected to take on extra work, but it was inherently rewarding to do so. The synthetic and tedious practice of using homework as a measure of learning is one that many teachers leave unexamined. It’s done because, well, it always has been and well, gosh I’d be the easy teacher if I didn’t assign homework! If I’m the easy teacher then I’ll lose my professional standing, control of my class, and I’ll end up with a bunch of worthless slackers next semester! Is this really a student-minded reason for either assigning homework or not?

Cathy Vatterott doesn’t think so. Her book examines the cult of homework in schools today. Through the lens of an experienced middle level teacher, she shows us that parents, teachers, students, and administrators have been going back-and-forth on the practice for a century. The debate has been fueled by varied political entities, the media, and maybe even a teacher or student here and there. The most significant shifts occurred during periods of national struggle. The cold war made us fear that we were behind the Russians in the Space Race and so we packed our kids’ bags with science and math books and told them to study more.

In the 1980s, we experienced extreme economic strife and so our malaise and mediocrity were attributed to, of course, the lack of homework and rigor in schools; still, more was piled on without much consideration as to why. In my own comparison, I would liken the increase in homework to planting all of your fields full of tobacco. Short term gains are high, but if there’s trouble and you can’t sell, it won’t feed your family. Homework provides a short term illusion of engagement, productivity (gives teachers and students that “checklist high”), but ultimately it does very little to produce a person who can create new knowledge that is useful to society.

I assigned myself a bit of homework while considering this book’s effect on my practice: a sonnet, 14 lines of poetry (mine has a fairly open meter and no rhyme) ending in a punctual couplet. I also chose to remix one of Shakespeare’s most well known, Sonnet 18.


Shall I compare thee to simplistic rote learning?
Thou art more widely accepted without question
and disproportionately contributory to student failure
than most problems. Hast thou no desire for good?
Rough winds do you keep from childrens’ faces,
those darling buds indoors, no gold complexion
or hope of leasing summer’s date. Thy eternal risk
of rising mediocrity do you warn, by chance our nation
do you serve with rigor, but ’tis it at cost of vigor?
Your policy, with ease is enforced, moving onus
from thee on high, your hot eye–the office–shines
top-down upon complacent workers, suffering virtuously.

So long have these carrots, these sticks taunted
So long lives this–homework–and takes life from thee.

Are there good reasons for assigning work outside of school? Perhaps. “Homework” is mostly a keyword in this book for things disconnected, unsupported, and graded. Vatterott (and I) are condemning the equivalent of unfunded mandates in education. Students shouldn’t be sent home to do things they can’t do without your support.

What do you think about homework?

Moore’s Law

When Intel co-founder Gordon Moore was asked to create a way to predict the market for semiconductors, he never anticipated that what he’d come up with would hold true for the next forty years. What he posited was that–promise me you won’t stop reading as I veer off shortly–the number of transistors placed on integrated circuit boards would double every two years “approximately.” Listening to a story on NPR this afternoon, the laws relevance holds true in more fields than just integrated circuitry. Charles Thacker, winner of the 2010 AM Turing award (often called the Nobel Prize of Computing) explained how Moore’s law guided decisions broadly in his industry.

The idea of Moore’s law as a driving force for smart change is one that Thacker explained took root in his mind. He forced himself to think two years ahead rather than where he was comfortable. Innovation became something more than just a serendipitous event, it was required constantly.

Curiosity and exploration bred the modern personal computer as we know and accept it today. Four decades ago, computers were hulking masses run by teams of people for small focused tasks. Today, the computers we know fit in our pockets, are individualized for each of us based on our needs and wants.

What did education look like four decades ago? I’m not certain it looked very different. Largely, there has been little change in our profession aside from maybe the addition of computers (pardon my generalization). In education too, we need to learn to innovate before it’s necessary and anticipate change. Right now, we aren’t even doing a very good job of reacting to the world around us, much less plan ahead. When we teach our students to be proactive, what kind of model are we providing for them?

Yes, we plan ahead in terms of our managerial duties as educators, but what kinds of transformational change are we planning for? What if education changed drastically every two years like microprocessors? What if parents, teachers, and communities expected continual growth from schools rather than stagnation? I think it’s safe to say people would like continual growth, but there is some disconnect between what we would all like for our schools and what we are doing to get there.

How do you think transformational change can be effected in public schools? Is it possible to foster continual growth on the same 45 degree incline as Intel? Share your thoughts!

Considering Sines of Learning

"I'd like to stick to what I do best--taking tests."

This is my response to The Most Misunderstood Strategy in Education, by Walt Gardner of Education Week.

Yesterday I posted a reflection upon my experiences learning from Yong Zhao about creativity, individually cultivated knowledge, and from Robert Marzano about standards, the removal of time from the setting of school, and measuring skills learned. I suppose what you could call my “blog thesis” was that creativity and standards are not as opposed as I had previously thought. The measurement of learning is not a practice tying you to a pact with the devil of accountability or synthetic evaluation.

As the most insightful comment helped me to consider, we can’t focus completely either on creativity or standards in our practice. Justin, an artist and teacher blogging for Bound Staff Press, explained to me that:

Without creativity, standards based education often produces button pushers who can only follow directions. Without standards, creativity based education may produce daydreamers who are pleased to never produce anything.

The comments section of the Education Week article included mostly deriding remarks (some very well composed and supported) about how standardized testing was ruining teaching. Walt Gardner has yet to respond to the comments, which is a major blogging crime in my eyes, but his points are not entirely dismantled by the commenters. What he is mostly attacking is the nefarious practice of literally teaching THE test (not teaching TO it):

too many teachers have essentially provided their students with an advance copy of the test.

As it is with many politically and emotionally charged ideas, standards-based education has been attacked through a lot of rote-memorization and repetition of buzz words and phrases like, “teaching to the test” which many people can’t defend beyond its emotional appeal. As someone who went through school during the standards boon of the mid-nineties through the early 2000s, I came into college with a somewhat negative view of them myself.

I as consider these complex and significant issues, one core idea that continues to echo in my mind is that of balance. As I grow as a teacher, a professional, a writer, and a person, I seek balance of each domain in my life. I don’t want to spend too much time at work or my wife will be slighted. I don’t want to spend too much time on my own professional development or my students will be slighted. I don’t want to ignore the good work my colleagues are doing, or else I will slight myself and become insulated. There are so many different modes within which we must find balance.

I’m always brought back to Mrs. Erikson’s class in high school when I think about balance. A sine represents some kind of continual repetitive oscillation. The pattern can be manipulated through various shifts in trough depth, length, and height, but the sine continues. It is a pattern seen in nature many times visually and aurally. I try to see it in my personal and professional life in various ways as well, especially when it comes to complex issues which are often expressed as simple extremes.

How can we oscillate between the use of good learning standards and creative cultivation of learning? No clear answer has manifested for me at this point, but I feel as though the genuine consideration of each idea is necessary to create that answer. I don’t expect any sampling of my thoughts or actions to be a perfectly representative sine. Instead, I’d guess it would like more like an echo of a heart beat with a natural up-and-down sinus (there’s that linguistic bridge) rhythm. What does your heart tell you about these issues?

Are Creativity & Standards Opposed?

I started my weekend at ASCD listening to Yong Zhao tear down the idea of standards in American education in favor of fostering individual creativity and ended it listening to Robert Marzano build up the idea of standards in education to foster individual accountability. While it feels at first as though these two well-established voices in education are opposed, upon further processing, I started to develop a deeper understanding of how and where the two meet.

Marzano’s session focused on data that supported his research in systems-based education. The opposite of which is time-based education, not creativity. When I had just seen Zhao speak, it seemed to me that standards were clearly his enemy. Listening to Marzano made it clear his concept of standards included no intention of destroying creativity (whether they actually do or don’t can’t really be seen in a simple comparison of their sessions).


There are many of you who already have notions of each of these ideas, but I as new teacher, I am still trying to find all these walls in the dark.  I like the idea expressed by Wayne Dyer (thanks to my colleague Olivia for pointing this out to me) that:

“The highest form of ignorance is to reject something you know nothing about.”

Another colleague ( a veteran science educator), through a comment conversation on Facebook, pointed out that the opposite may be true as well; we shouldn’t accept ideas which we know nothing about either.

This axiom gives great weight to the pursuit of personal truth. You cheat yourself if just listen to soundbites, quickly agree with emotional appeals, or deny unsavory responses to your thoughts. A good teacher is one who understands–what should be–the careful process of adopting new information.

I think in this age of information sharing at great speed, we need to continually be made aware that the ideas which we so emphatically deny and accept through our lunchroom chats, tweets and retweets, and other social media, were usually carefully crafted by someone.

I like to think that the only true absolute is: There Are No Absolutes, and I chuckle thinking about the paradox, but the point is there are always exceptions. There are “bad” researchers collecting seemingly meaningless data, sloppy bloggers espousing ideas loudly, teachers and principals who value their job over student learning, and corrupt politicians focusing only on reelection. These things are what make us angry, inspire us to be better at what we do, and help build awareness of ineffective practices.

When I think back to the differences between Zhao and Marzano, it’s hard for me to say they are opposed, and it gets harder the more I read about each of them and their ideas. They both care about pursuing education for all kids. They both care about discerning a system where best practices are shared and disseminated. They both make a living working for teachers and schools–ultimately–on behalf of students.

When I consider the nature of creativity and standards, the temporary conclusion I keep coming back to is that they have more in common than I previously thought.

You can read my thoughts about Zhao here.

Please leave a comment and some insight on these authors and their ideas!

Yong Zhao: Education in the Age of Globalization

When I heard that Yong Zhao would be speaking at ASCD I was excited, having just read his interview in the latest issue of the Kappan. I had read his blog posts previously and was interested in his view of American Education as innovative.

I think, unfortunately, many American educators allow themselves to remain isolated within their own district, state, or region. Some even seldom go beyond the classroom walls for new information. Zhao’s perspective is dually Chinese and American, as a student who grew up in Sichuan Province and came to Chicago for his graduate education. His perspective offers something every educator should seek out: diversity.

I’m sure the term has different meaning for each of you reading this, but if there’s one thing I know cripples innovation, it’s isolation and the routine of sameness many of us experience day-in and day-out.  Zhao’s research is extensive in many areas, but one of the most interesting is in the use of gaming for learning. He helped to create a massively-multiplayer environment for students learning Mandarin; the concept alone is interesting, but his results are impressive.

His session reflects the work in his latest book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: Education in the Age of Globalization. The gist of his speech was that the American education system is not falling behind places like China and India, but rather is far ahead in terms of its ability to produce individuals. You can’t export the ability to innovate as easily as you can core knowledge like calculus.

China may be very good at turning out good test-takers, scientists, and mathematicians, but Zhao says there is a lack of thought there. The thing that American schools do well (at least before NCLB) is cultivate creativity.

You can see my tweets and others about Yong Zhao’s session by following the #ZHAO tag on Twitter

You can listen to some audio recorded when I approached Yong after his session:


I started recording the audio while an administrator from Indiana was asking his question about assessment policy. You’ll hear me start my question about a minute in.

I feel as though I have more to say on the subject (I haven’t even dug into my session notes!), but ASCD is so full of things I don’t want to miss. More to come…

ASCD 2010 is a Cinch!

I’m excited to be blogging for the conference today. I’ll mostly be tweeting updates about various sessions as they happen, but there will be periodic posts as time permits. Aside from the written word, you can follow my Cinch Casts by clicking here (or following them as I tweet).

Here’s a sample audio clip:


More to come! Enjoy the conference or click HERE to follow events online.

ASCD Annual Conference 2010

This is Part II of my Interview with Dr. Sandra Wegner.

Sandra’s Advice for Conference Goers at ASCD 2010

Dr. Wegner had a few simple pieces of advice to pass on. Add your own in the comments section.

1. “Don’t miss the big speakers at the keynote”

There will be a lot of great speakers this weekend in Texas. Some people you won’t want to miss include:

2. “Don’t miss the exhibition center”

This area of the conference will contain vendors from every specialty in education, publishers, and organization representatives. It is a unique opportunity to meet new sources of information and even some authors at given times. Block off some time to wander around the hall and mingle.

3. “Meet with the people in your state in the exhibition hall”

Sandra says this is a “must-do” for conference attendees. Meeting and networking with folks in your state allows for relationship-building and information sharing. If you’re a Twitter user, be sure to find people you know online and meet them face-to-face at one of the official Tweetups.

4. “Try to go to some of the parties for various states, regions to network and meet people, look in the book for the receptions. Walk in and meet people.

One thing I gathered from speaking with Dr. Wegner was that people are at the heart of the organization and this conference. There are many opportunities to share experiences and hear stories about educators around the globe. Be social and open to meeting lots of new people.

Other Frequently Asked Questions about the ASCD Annual Conference can be found HERE.

Make sure you know where to get discounted food as well! Flash your badge for food!