Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blaming the kids

Have you ever said any of these things:

  • I wish my students would quit asking 'is this for marks?'
  • I can't get my students to do their homework
  • Kids aren't motivated to do things like I wish they were. They seem to have a sense of entitlement. Like I owe them something to get them to do anything.
It's easy to blame the kids. It's easy because it means we don't have to reflect inward - rather we just have to look outward. Challenging one's own practices can be tough, but if you stop and think about each of the statements above, both logic and research will show that these are more likely teacher problems than student problems.

If your students are focused on grades, it may be for good reason. If you are grading, and that grade is going to 'count' for a lot, and it is likely to affect that student's life drastically, than aren't they right to focus on it? And aren't they focusing on it because the teacher is forcing them to focus on it? I have a solution. Stop grading and the students will stop being distracted by grading and actually focus on their learning.

If your students are bucking your homework, it may be for good reason. Research shows that there is absolutely no proof to suggest that there is any non-academic benefits to homework. Research also shows that there is no academic benefits to homework before high school. And even at the high school level, research has only shown a connection between higher grades and homework completion (note that higher grades and learning are not the same thing). And even then, any more than one hour of homework per night and the students experience the law of diminishing returns. In short, the problem with homework might be that you are assigning it.

If your students don't have a love for learning or don't seem to have an intrinsic motivation to do what you are asking them to do, then one of two things may be true. Firstly, what you are asking them may not be worthy of their intrinsic motivation. That worksheet or book report might actually be legitametly a waste of time. And secondly, if a student's motivation has been poisoned with enough extrinsic over a period of time, then their intrinsic motivation will have been eroded. Teachers and parents play a costly game when we use artificial bribes and threats in order to coerce students to comply with our requests.


  1. Great post. You mentioned research supporting this topic a few times. Can you point me towards it? I'd love to take this info back to my department. Cheers.

  2. I tend to be with you on the no homework concept. However, I started offering students outside enrichment projects - history day, science fair, service projects, short media reviews, a chance to join our class forum, etc. There are no points, no grades, just a chance to learn.

    About 40-60% (depending on the class) choose at least one of these activities and run with them.

    I am not against outside learning or "homework" in the broadest sense of the word. I'm against graded, mandatory work, however.

  3. I myself am a college student, having recently left the Irish high school system. You say that high grades and learning are not the same thing, and I agree. However, the ultimate goal of one's entire school 'career' is usually just to get good grades. While many students would like to enjoy their education, at the end of the day their grades are what will decide their career/college options.

    It seems to be an inherent flaw in the system that so much emphasis is put on grades and exams, and this emphasis is due to the overall exam-based system rather than individual teachers' attitudes. I think any real improvement would have to happen at a government level.

    Personally, I feel I a lot more free to pursue learning for its own sake (rather than learning for the sake of grades), and enjoy it, now that I'm free from formal exams.

  4. I really hate it whenever kids are asking questions to better understand something, and even if it is relevant to the lesson the teachers sometimes will get annoyed with it. Sure you could go with "They should stop being obnoxious and asking so many questions" or you could realize most of them are sincerely trying to get better information on something, and as a teacher, they're obligated to give it, not become angry at students expecting them to do their job.

  5. I am an American teacher and I completely agree with your statements regarding homework and grading - I feel like it gets in the way of our classroom learning explorations.

    However, the parents and the school system itself need to be more open to these ideas. Teachers who try to abolish homework and/or grades are reprimanded, commanded to stop the "apparent" foolishness, and can ultimately be fired.

  6. @John Spencer I suggest you look for the meta analysis done by Professor John Hattie which doesn't put much stock in homework as a way to improve student outcomes.

    Effective feedback was his number 1 effect.

  7. Great Post Joe! Really inspiring. We are good at blaming the kids, but before we should look in ourself, and sometimes it is too difficult.

    My professional experience is close to yours. I find myself trying to teach the way I was taught and it doesn't work. I'm now trying my way thru different thing to change the way I see education & the way I teach. Slowly but surely, I'm getting there, with the use of technology as a tool with students but also for myself as a learning tool.

  8. This is a tough one! When I taught math, I was all for homework. There's something to be said about practice, you know? But when I taught English, I really think the kids got more out of our classroom discussion and read-alouds than anything else.
    Thanks for the discussion!

  9. I'm with Devon. Most teachers I've met are academics. They want the "proof". In trying to talk educators/administrators out of assigning homework, it'd be useful to have some ammunition. Please supply links to research.

    Things like math and computer science require practice to learn. What alternatives would you suggest in place of homework to get that practice?


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