Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dream Homework

What word comes to mind when you see the word, "homework?"

 For me, it's "Ugh!" I suspect I'm not alone.

I recall my school days: I was an active (okay, hyperactive) kid forced to sit still from 8:30 to 3...and unable to. If I had gone to school after Ritalin became the kid drug of choice, my teachers would have slammed a Ritalin leash on me faster than I leaped to my feet when she finally said, "Recess!"

Yet among all the calls for education reform, I've yet to hear a call to reinvent homework, that reviled after-school torture: Yet more sitting still?! "Do this worksheet." "Read the chapter and answer the questions at the end." Do problems 1-47, the odds."

Is it any surprise that parents lose hair trying to get kiddie to comply? Is it any surprise that kiddie blows-off homework anyway?

Especially for subjects that many students find difficult, for example math, why not replace problems 1-47 with visual-rich lecturettes by the world's most effective, transformational teachers? I remember not getting Algebra 1. Seymour Schwimmer (That really was his name) would cover the board with formulas and rapid-fire not-explain them with the clarity expected of a math teacher. He usually ended the class period with "Do problems 1-47." I left class sad or scared. I got home, looked at those problems with no more clue on how to do them than when I had left class, usually threw the worksheet back into my (messy) notebook binder, and ran out to play basketball.

Now imagine that instead of that, I turned on my computer or smartphone and watched a YouTube video of The Amazing One: that rare teacher who makes complicated stuff simple, even fun. True, I'd still have to sit still but wouldn't I be more likely to learn from that? To enjoy that? To grow from that? Maybe even to like math, that supposed gateway to all sorts of careers?

I am self-funding a pilot program of that very thing. I call it Dream Homework. At a diverse California public high school, on August 20-25, the first week of actual instruction, the Algebra I teachers will assign half their sections the regular homework while the other sections will instead, watch visual-rich lecturettes covering the same material by Luis Anthony Ast, the math instructor that Pearson Learning, Casio, and Texas Instruments picked to create their video algebra lessons. I'm also hiring WestEd, a top third-party evaluator, to see if the kids in the Dream Homework group do indeed learn more algebra and enjoy it. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

For whatever it's worth....nice work, Marty! I really admire that you're turning your thoughts about education into something concrete. Addressing homework issues is an area that isn't discussed much when talking about revamping education. You're onto an interesting thread, I think.

Anonymous said...

I believe the sort of "How To Do It" computer programs you are talking about already exist. The sort of Mighty Mouse teachers("Here they come to save the day!") you are talking about are valuable working in the classroom. But I know kids and soon as you sit them in front of the computer and call up the program, within 30 seconds they will have opened up another screen and and have logged into to one of their favorite sites. Now there are some kids who won't do that because they will have already learned self discipline. But then they aren't the ones having problems. As for the ones who are having a problem with getting started, I find that what they need is to have someone sit and work with them. The most important thing they learn from this is that the task is very do-able, that it isn't nearly as difficult as tney thought it was and that they can do it. It also creates a sense of momentum whereby they can see the end in sight, or as Dan Hicks would say, "It's the notion of the motion that makes you want to go!".
Unfortunatly, this approach isn't amenable to mass production. It's more akin to the Master Craftsmen/Apprentice approach. But if this is what is needed then this is the way it's got to be.

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, how-tos exist, but not inspiring-teacher taught academic classes.

Regarding their temptation to, as with other homework, not do it, 1-question quizzes will be embedded. (That's an idea I got from having gone to online traffic school.)

Maria Lopez said...

I did not encourage my first grader to do assigned homework. Unlike my other child, my first grader is only at grade level in reading, but she can read and uses her reading ability in the real world.

I believe that there are many people who will dump a lot of busywork on children. Sometimes I think my husband is one with his insistence that my older child learn programming.

I have trouble with "you should do this work because your a child and I say so" when the work you're requiring doesn't obviously help the household.

Anonymous said...

Marty, I think its great that you are seeing one of your programs take wind. Implementing your idea will hopefully bring about results that help you draw attention to your other ideas regarding education.

That being said, there's three things I have an issue with.

First, it will look like, to the outside observer, that all you're doing is plopping down kids in front of a television screen.

Second, this whole "Make School Fun!" movement has its values in the wrong place. Yes, school shouldn't be horrible for students. But there's a real value in learning that you're going to have to do work in your life that you don't like. It's part of growing up. Kids need to learn that, and school is a safe place to learn and fail at that. If you're a visual learner, the world will not always present information in a way that is easy for you to digest. School should be a place where kids discover their gifts, figure out how they learn, etc... But school is also a place to learn how the real world works. The real world isn't tailor made for you. The real world isn't always fun. Get over it. A better idea would be to help students figure out their gifts, and then teach them how to interact with the world using those gifts. Most "School should be Fun!" programs have it backwards- change the world to how the student is.

Third, is the program only running for five days? Is that really enough of a sample size to gather relevant data? It doesn't seem very hard to tell high school students to watch tv for a week. And not much algebra can possibly be covered in one week anyway. The range for figuring out how much a student learned that week will probably be too small (and therefore, easy to manipulate).

Marty Nemko said...


There's a world of difference between "plopping a kid in front of a TV" and, for homework, watching the algebra lesson he was taught that day by a live teacher reinforced by a world-class teacher. Certainly, it seems worthy of a pilot to see if it makes a difference.

I could only afford to self-fund the development of one week of those videos plus a solid third-party evaluation. Because all variables are controlled (teacher, randomized students)and each teacher has agreed to teach both the class in the regular-homework group and the dream-taught-video homework group the same way he usually teaches both, it's a better experiment than most.

If there are decent results, it would then allow me to go to a funder such as the Gates Foundation and say it's worthy of a larger pilot.

Matt said...

I wish stuff like this had been available on the web when I was in grade and high school back in the dark ages of the 80s and 90s. When done right, this would help so many kids who struggle, especially with math.