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“Is Homework Effective?” and Other Questions

Written by Noah G. on Thursday May 28, 2020

In ProvocaTeach’s very first Q&A post, we tackle homework, mental health, COVID-19 news coverage, and more.

Q

Dear Noah,

Is homework a practical way to force students to learn?

—Dan

A

Dear Dan,

I’ll break this answer into two parts: what the evidence says, and my opinion.

According to existing evidence, homework improves student achievement by a small amount (Baş, Şenktürk, & Ciğerci, 2017; Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). This effect increases with grade level – grades 7-12 saw a greater benefit from homework than grades K-6.

That said, many of the studies on homework effectiveness have problems (Baş et al., 2017; Cooper et al., 2006). Commonly neglected variables include:

  • Amount of homework

  • Quality of homework

  • How long students spend on homework

  • Access to help

  • Feedback on homework

My opinion is that the type of homework you assign matters. For example: as a math teacher, I don’t think it’s useful to have students solving 20 equations of the same form, without varying the difficulty or asking them to justify anything.

I try to make my own homework assignments whenever possible (emphasis on “whenever possible”), because then I can ensure that students are doing something worthwhile.

—Noah


Q

Dear Noah,

Do you know of any initiatives schools are using to keep their students’ mental health in mind during these times?

—Anonymous

A

Dear Anonymous,

I really appreciate this question; it reminds me of what Mr. Rogers says, to “look for the helpers” in a crisis. For simplicity, we’ll call the mix of education and healthcare professionals working on student mental health “helpers”.

It’s important to realize that COVID-19 places demands not only on helpers’ time and energy, but their creativity as well. That’s because the need for counselling and social & emotional learning (SEL) has gone up, at a time when schools’ access to students has gone down. This is a new problem that requires new solutions.

(You could say that COVID-19 has become a CATCH-22.)

Fortunately, we have some creative helpers working on this problem. Nora Fleming (2020) has written an excellent list of tools students and their schools have been using to get out of this bind. She classifies them into five categories:

  • Virtual counselling by phone or video

  • Apps, such as SEL game SuperBetter, relaxation app Calm, and podcast app Atlas

  • Virtual touchpoints, such as daily check-ins and attendance monitoring

  • Online portals stocked with SEL resources, such as Second Step’s

  • Community partnerships

One of my favorite resources recommended by Fleming is a student-produced podcast on maintaining one’s mental health in the crisis.

—Noah


Q

Dear Noah,

Why does it hurt when I pee?

—Dan

A

Dear Dan,

Sorry, but you’ve been possessed by a demon. There is no cure.

—Noah


Q

Dear Noah,

What are your thoughts on newspapers and media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic?

—Jared

A

Dear Jared,

Before I give this answer, I need to give a disclaimer. First, not all media outlets are taking the same approach. Second, everyone’s news diet is different. I may not consume the same collection of news sources as you – in fact, many people are fed their news by social media. My diet includes general news outlets such as MinnPost, PBS NewsHour, Vox, ProPublica, and Mother Jones; and education news outlets like Education Week, The 74, and Education Dive.

Now for my answer. It may surprise you to learn that, on the whole, I think the media’s coverage of COVID-19 has been responsible.

To see why, consider: what is the role of media in a crisis? I believe their job is to warn us of impending threats and filter out misinformation.

Well, back in February when everyone wanted to read about the election, PBS NewsHour was running stories about the coronavirus. I remember being annoyed at those stories because the coronavirus didn’t seem like a threat. There goes the media again, freaking out about something in China that won’t affect us, I thought. Boy, was I wrong!

The media has also done its due diligence in fighting misinformation. Consider the 23-minute “Plandemic” video that circulated on YouTube, Vimeo, and social media recently. The video is blatant misinformation (Allen, 2020), and the news media played a key role in exposing it. Another excellent piece of anti-misinformation journalism is Adrienne LaFrance’s (2020) investigative story on the QAnon conspiracy theory.

That said, some media outlets have had absolutely dismal, unnecessarily dark content for weeks, and I have parodied them mercilessly.

—Noah


Q

Dear Noah,

If you notice a student who exhibits symptoms of a learning disability and/or mental illness, how do you engage with them? If you think they could benefit from accommodations, how do you bring that up to them without “outing” them?

—Anna

A

Dear Anna,

(I answered the last part of your question in a separate section below.)

Most public K-12 schools use a framework called “response to intervention” to determine whether a student needs additional support. The idea is: you only intervene enough to hit the learning goals.

Let’s say I have ADHD. If “normal teaching” is enough for me to meet the learning goals, then no additional intervention is required; I continue receiving the same instruction as everyone else.

Now suppose I wasn’t meeting the learning goals. Then the teacher might give me and other struggling students more instruction in a small group. We would continue to receive the same instruction as everyone else, in addition to this small-group work.

That may prove to be enough for me. But if I’m still not meeting the learning goals, the school may start using more intensive interventions, or place me in special education.

There are two ways to get accommodations. One is if I’m receiving special education; then my accommodations are determined at an annual meeting between my parents/guardians and staff. The other is called a “504 plan”; this is parent-initiated and much more informal.

—Noah


Q

Dear Noah,

How much information do you think is professional for a teacher to share, as they are comfortable, pertaining to their own mental health challenges?

—Anna

A

Dear Anna,

I don’t know how much mental health information a teacher can share while remaining professional. I hesitate to set a rule, because it’s so context-dependent.

Certainly, my own struggles with ADHD (and my loved ones’ struggles with various conditions) have helped me empathize with students. I have a fair idea what ADHD is like, as well as how anxiety and depression appear (or don’t appear) on the outside. More importantly, I know what it’s like to have an invisible thing to wrestle with – an experience common to many types of marginalization.

However, I also think it’s possible to use your experience with mental health issues (of any kind) without directly sharing them. I can ask, “Are you struggling with X?” where X is a situation informed by my own experience. I don’t need to tell them about impulsively sending my ex-girlfriend an angry letter; it’s enough to know what that’s like.

Besides, if I’m telling stories about myself, I’m doing more lecturing than listening. Even when I’m teaching math – a subject I majored in! – I prefer that students construct their own knowledge. When it comes to mental health, a subject in which I am not a professional, I feel that listening is even more important.

—Noah

References

Allen, M. (2020 May 9). I’m an Investigative Journalist. These Are the Questions I Asked About the Viral “Plandemic” Video. ProPublica. Retrieved from www.propublica.org/article/im-an-investigative-journalist-these-are-the-questions-i-asked-about-the-viral-plandemic-video

Cooper, H., Robinson, J.C., and Patall, E.A. (2006). Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? Review of Educational Research 76(1) 1-62. Retrieved from www.almendron.com/tribuna/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Does-Homework-Improve-Academic-Achievement.pdf

Baş, G., Şenktürk, C., and Ciğerci, F.M. (2017). Homework and Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Review of Research. Issues in Educational Research 27(1) 31-50. Retrieved from www.iier.org.au/iier27/bas.pdf

Fleming, N. (2020 April 10). There’s an App for That – School Counseling and SEL Go Online. Edutopia. Retrieved from www.edutopia.org/article/theres-app-school-counseling-and-sel-go-online

Kohn, A. (2007). Rethinking Homework. Principal 35-38. Retrieved from www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2007/J-Fp35.pdf

LaFrance, A. (2020 June). The Prophecies of Q. The Atlantic. Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/qanon-nothing-can-stop-what-is-coming/610567

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