The Dog Ate My Homework

Today, as on any other school day, in homes and schools up and down the country, in every country in the civilised world, arguments will be raging about homework – homework forgotten, homework undone, homework too difficult, homework irrelevant. Books have been compiled of the best homework excuses, some of them feasible (I put it in my shirt pocket and my mum put the shirt in the washing) and some of them more fanciful (I didn’t want to add to the teacher’s workload, or I was kidnapped by terrorists and they have only just released me so I didn’t have time).

In “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing” the American educationist and parental adviser Alfie Kohn argues that, contrary to the popular belief that homework improves attainment and promotes self-discipline, when faced with homework which is too demanding or incomprehensible it can undermine a child’s self-belief, erode self-confidence and cause long-term psychological damage. This of course is in direct opposition to those who are convinced that homework makes the difference between success and failure by reinforcing and embedding the learning which has taken place during the school day. Kohn argues that such beliefs are based on serious misconceptions about learning, a disproportionate emphasis on competition and a basic mistrust of children and young people. One thing is certain, and that is that homework is the biggest source of conflict between pupils and teachers bar none.
The case for has been advanced by people like Dr Julian Stern of Hull University, who, in his book “Getting the Buggers to do Their Homework” reinforces the “Bash Street Kids” image of the relationship between teachers and their classes, where a constant battle is taking place between the forces of good and evil. The appropriately named Stern provides a range of techniques and tasks to “motivate even the laziest student”, arguing that properly structured homework can add the equivalent of one year’s study to a student’s full-time education, a remarkably precise boast with no scientific basis whatsoever.
One thing is certain, and that is the conflict which the homework ritual causes between teacher and pupil and pupil and parent, a price which (amazingly) is still routinely accepted as a small price to pay for the assumed advancement in terms of learning.

One of the best school homework policies I have seen consists of a single paragraph, which reads as follows:-

“Our staff and pupils are engaged daily in experiences, activities and projects which are genuinely exciting, challenging and meaningful. We are constantly discovering new things about ourselves and the world. Working collaboratively and in a spirit of mutual respect, we look forward each day to sharing our discoveries, and take pride in developing our skills. Consequently, we see homework as something which is a natural extension of what happens in the classroom (although we wouldn’t normally use the term “work”, preferring instead the words learning or discovery or exploration) and the only expectation of staff in this respect is that they constantly reinforce the connections between the learning which happens during the school day and the learning which happens in other settings.”

Actually I made that last bit up. No such homework policy exists – as far as I am aware! However, I am sure that there are many schools, headteachers and teachers who subscribe to the spirit of that statement, and many parents who would prefer their children to be educated in that kind of environment. So let’s be a bit more bold in saying so. The burden of proof should be with those who still believe in the homework fairy to demonstrate that it promotes real learning.


Testing not the Answer

Interesting to read of the interim report of Professor Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review this week, which delivers a fairly damning account of the state of primary education in England and Wales, claiming that children’s lives are being “impoverished” by the narrow focus on maths, numeracy and literacy at the expense of broader experiences in areas such as history and the arts. Unsurprisingly a government spokesperson immediately condemned the findings as flying in the face of international evidence and “insulting to hard-working teachers and schools everywhere”. The Cambridge report goes on to describe testing as “the elephant in the classroom” and to suggest that the narrow focus on preparing young people for tests in upper primary means that other areas of the curriculum are squeezed out.
There are two issues here. One is that if we continue to see literacy and numeracy as stand-alone “subjects” it will be difficult to make any progress in our thinking. That is why I could never understand the notion of initiatives such as “literacy hour”,  as the implication is that every other hour is not particularly a literacy hour even if, as I suspect,there is still much listening, talking, reading and writing going on! Much more important in my view is that we think about the ways in which learning and teaching take place in the classroom, at collaborative working, group interactions and the degree of responsibility taken on by learners and so on.
The second issue is that of testing. There is still a significant body of thought which believes that if we can only find the ideal test we will automatically raise levels of attainment – absolutely not true of course. In the case of literacy it is only by better understanding the processes of learning to read, think, comprehend, articulate, that improvements will come about, and it is only by engaging young people in imaginative activities, projects and experiences that they will come along the road with us at all. Yet still we have people talking about concentrating on “the basics” as if a return to rote learning might just do the trick. Forget it, it just isn’t going to happen.
Fortunately the curriculum review in Scotland at least begins to re-define literacy as “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful”. Despite the slightly disconcerting and repeated references to society, there is a recognition here, even if it is only an implicit one, that texts come in many forms, not all of them consisting of the written word. As someone said recently, the difference between pre and post-21st Century learners is that where once we would have used visual images to illustrate or further explain a written text, written text is now used to further explain the primary text, which is usually visual.
Coming next………Homework is Good – Another Urban Myth………..

How Good a Reader Are You?

What do Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Antonio Gaudi have in common? Apart from being four of the most creative and inventive minds in human history they all suffered to a greater or lesser degree from some form of dyslexia. Which, according to Professor Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, is hardly surprising, as dyslexia is the most visible evidence that the brain was never wired to read. Contrary to popular belief, humans are not born already hard-wired to read and write, but each of us must learn the required codes and procedures from scratch, as structurally there is little to differentiate our brains today from those of our non-literate ancestors of 40,000years ago.

Wolf also identifies what I think is the crucial difference between the “fluent-comprehending” reader and the reader who is still securing his or her ability to decode, the crucial step from learner to mature reader, and that is the ability to decode so rapidly that the brain has time to think about incoming information. In other words, time is of the essence, even if it is only a matter of milliseconds. Many children with dyslexia literally do not have time to think in the medium of print.

Which is not to say that we should abandon all hope with struggling readers, but rather that we need to make the processes more explicit in our teaching. As Wolf says, children who are struggling to read aren’t going to be helped by a one-size-fits-all approach that is found in many schools but rather by teachers who have a toolbox of principles or strategies that they can apply with different types of children.

I will return to what I think these strategies are at another time, but for now here is a challenge which you can undertake in the privacy of your own home. If you are reading this post I assume you are an accomplished reader (naturally) but ability is all relative. Try reading the following passage aloud, pausing in the appropriate places and making sense of the passage as you think the author intended it. The extract comes from “A Visit to America” by Dylan Thomas:-

Across the United States of America, from New York to California and back, glazed, again, for many months of the year there streams and sings for its heady supper a dazed and prejudiced procession of European lecturers, scholars, sociologists, economists, writers, authorities on this and that and even, in theory, on the United States of America. And, breathlessly between addresses and receptions, in planes and trains and boiling hotel bedroom ovens, many of these attempt to keep journals and diaries. At first, confused and shocked by shameless profusion and almost shamed by generosity, unaccustomed to such importance as they are assumed, by their hosts, to possess, and up against the barrier of a common language, they write in their note-books like demons, generalising away, on character, and culture, and the American political scene. But, towards the middle of their middle-aged whisk through middle-western clubs and universities, the fury of their writing flags; their spirits are lowered by the spirit with which they are everywhere strongly greeted and which, in ever-increasing doses, they themselves lower; and they begin to mistrust themselves, and their reputations – for they have found, too often, that an audience will receive a lantern-lecture on say, ceramics, with the same uninhibited enthusiasm that it accorded the very week before to a paper on the Modern Turkish Novel.”

I’m sure you enjoyed the flow of Thomas’s prose, but consider for a moment the extra time it took you to weigh up the possible meanings of the word “flags” which comes about two-thirds of the way through the extract. Now imagine how you would have read the extract if you had had to do that for every word. Dyslexia teaches us much about the complexities of learning to read and the adaptability of the brain if it cannot make the obvious connections.

Failed in Style – Best Exam Clangers

Exams can be a real pain for teachers and students alike, but they sometimes do provide a bit of light relief and of course they don’t always produce the answers you were expecting – if you have ever had to set an exam you will know how difficult it is to set questions which are clear and unambiguous.

Take the case of the class sitting their practical cookery exam who opened their papers to find the instructions 1) Heat 3 tbs of oil in a pan; 2) Add chicken and seal. After a pause of a few seconds a hand went up at the back of the room and………..yes you’ve guessed the rest.

 I remember also the story – perhaps apocryphal – of the student who, when faced in a philosophy exam with the question “Is this question a question?” answered in a completely logical manner with “Is this answer an answer?” It is often when students have no idea of the answer however that they are at their most inventive. Here is another of my favourites from real exam papers. I think there should be some kind of honorary award for the most imaginative answer even if the candidate has no idea about the subject being examined.


More than Barking at Text

Literacy standards always make for a good story in the press, and in today’s Sunday Times Joan McAlpine picks up the theme. In the “Ecosse” section of the paper, a curious anomaly in a newspaper called The Sunday Times Scotland, she comes to the weary conclusion that the solution to poor literacy is to introduce more tests. I couldn’t agree less.

As a positive antidote to the simplistic panaceas represented by the above, for anyone attempting to acquire a true understanding of the issues involved in improving literacy, I couldn’t recommend highly enough the amazing Proust and the Squid by Professor Maryannwe Wolf. Subtitled The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, it looks at how reading and writing have developed over the last six thousand or so years, traces the stages of reading development from emerging pre-reader through novice reader and decoding reader to fluent-comprehending and expert reader, and finally looks at the nature and possible causes of dyslexia. Wolf concludes incidentally that there is no single cause of dyslexia but that the causes are many and varied, as reading brains (and the humans attached to them) do not all develop in the same way, and that the connections between the parts of the brain utilised in the reading process can be made differently in different individuals. Put simply, there are no simple explanations for dyslexia and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution.

The development of reading and wider literacy skills in young people comes increasingly under the spotlight in Scotland, especially following the latest HMIE report Improving Scottish Education, from which Mc Alpine reaches the conclusion that we need more tests. The report suggests that the problems encountered in upper primary and lower secondary have not gone away and are not really being addressed. I think there are several reasons for this. One is that the measures we are using are quite arbitrary, not really appropriate and don’t actually measure what we think they do. Secondly, we are struggling to come to terms with the notion that what constitutes “literacy” is going to be different in the future from what it was in the past, and we fail to recognise that we are using a standard model which is thirty or forty years out of date.

Having said all of that, there is no doubt that there are two aspects of reading development which need to be tackled as a matter of urgency. One is the huge discrepancy which exists by the time young people enter the formal education system. Wolf sums it up eloquently thus:

“Children who begin kindergarten having heard and used thousands of words, whose meanings are already understood, classified and stored away in their young brains, have the advantage on the playing field of education. Children who never have a story read to them, who never hear words that rhyme, who never imagine fighting with dragons or marrying a prince, have the odds overwhelmingly against them.”

If schools or early years establishments are to provide that experience for young people who do not have it at home, they are going to need the funds to do it, as working intensively on a one-to-one basis with young developing readers is the only way to do it.

The other key issue, identified in every review of education of the past few decades, is the failure of many young people to develop significantly from the decoding stage – what a friend and colleague of mine wonderfully refers to as “barking at print” – to the sophisticated fluent-comprehending stage where the reader learns to make inferences, read between the lines and think beyond the text. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one of them has to be that teachers are often ill-equipped to deal with the transition through these various stages in the development of the reading brain, and are therefore not able to make explicit the strategies needed by the young reader to move from one stage to the next. Now that is an issue which needs to be addressed and one to which I will return in due course.

Are the Apostrophe’s Days Numbered?

Lynne Truss, the author of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” almost led a pedants uprising when she defended the correct use of the apostrophe against the onslaught of popular culture and an army of greengrocers, gents hairdressers and a host of others who regularly trip up when attempting to place the little tadpole in its rightful place. (Note the absence of the apostrophe in the possessive “its” in that sentence). She may well have to sound the call to arms again this week after Birmingham City Councils decision to abolish the pesky punctuation mark from all of its road signs, causing some locals to fret over whether the heath in Kings Heath had been the sole preserve of one very fortunate king or whether in fact it was a privilege afforded to successive kings. Any English teacher will tell you what a nightmare it is to teach the proper use of the apostrophe and many a pupil who, on learning about the little blighter for the first time, will sprinkle it liberally throughout a piece of writing whenever an “s” hoves into view. So is it time, as the writer Martin Amis argued over twenty years ago, to abandon the creature, relax and move on? Have your say by taking part in the online poll.

Incidentally, if you want to test your own knowledge try finding the four apostrophes which I have deliberately left out of this blog post!