Rice cakes or filet mignon?

Posted on Sep 02, 2014 by Alicia Levitt - Best Practices

In early August, our schools were invited to hear about the work of a college professor and researcher named Cathy Vatterott. Cathy came to speak to us about rethinking homework. She wanted to challenge some of our traditional notions about the age-old practice, and perhaps rattle our cages a bit. Here's a short quiz based on her work.

True or false? Homework teaches responsibility.

Most students who do their homework are already the responsible kids who would do it no matter what was assigned. Some of those students can finish it quickly, others will take much longer and end up angry and frustrated, and a few won't attempt it at all. Cathy provided us with a great homework feedback form that asks students to take ownership, but not get so frustrated that they shut down. Now that's responsible learning!

True or False? Lots of homework is a sign of a school with tough standards.

Sometimes we get confused about this one. We believe that assigning lots of homework means students are learning a lot. Really, most of this work involves lower-level thinking skills and might even resemble busywork at times. Schools with tough standards assign rigorous tasks that ask kids to think critically. Here is my analogy. Which meal would you enjoy more--a 1-pound bag of rice cakes, or a 4-ounce filet mignon? I know that some people love rice cakes and would eat them every day, but eventually, they would get tiring. Check out these charts that make mundane tasks more meaningful. Let's convert our rice cakes into filet--at least half the time.

True or False? Good teachers give homework, and good students do their homework.

The rice-cake homework assignments come partially from the pressures of accountability and partially from our own personal opinions. I would even agree with the notion that we can't eat filet mignon every day. So what do teachers do? We work on the work we're asking students to produce. We ask students to get involved in the homework design process. We use homework as a feedback loop for our instruction. We shift from assigning rote-memory tasks (rice cakes) to application activities (filet), or even better--help students prepare their own meals!

These are not easy changes, but I love this quote from Russell Ackoff: "The only thing harder than starting something new--is stopping something old."