Homework, Sleep, and the Student Brain

At some point, every parent wishes their high school aged student would go to bed earlier as well as find time to pursue their own passions — or maybe even choose to relax. This thought reemerged as I reread Anna Quindlen’s commencement speech, A Short Guide to a Happy Life. The central message of this address, never actually stated, was: «Get a life.»

But what prevents students from «getting a life,» especially between September and June? One answer is homework.

Favorable Working Conditions

As a history teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and director of theCenter for Transformative Teaching and Learning, I want to be clear that I both give and support the idea of homework. But homework, whether good or bad, takes time and often cuts into each student’s sleep, family dinner, or freedom to follow passions outside of school. For too many students, homework is too often about compliance and «not losing points» rather than about learning.

Most schools have a philosophy about homework that is challenged by each parent’s experience doing homework «back in the day.» Parents’ common misconception is that the teachers and schools giving more homework are more challenging and therefore better teachers and schools. This is a false assumption. The amount of homework your son or daughter does each night should not be a source of pride for the quality of a school. In fact, I would suggest a different metric when evaluating your child’s homework. Are you able to stay up with your son or daughter until he or she finishes those assignments? If the answer is no, then too much homework is being assigned, and you both need more of the sleep that, according to Daniel T. Willingham, is crucial to memory consolidation.

I have often joked with my students, while teaching the Progressive Movement and rise of unions between the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, that they should consider striking because of how schools violate child labor laws. If school is each student’s «job,» then students are working hours usually assigned to Washington, DC lawyers (combing the hours of the school day, school-sponsored activities, and homework). This would certainly be a risky strategy for changing how schools and teachers think about homework, but it certainly would gain attention. (If any of my students are reading this, don’t try it!)

So how can we change things?

The Scientific Approach

In the study «What Great Homework Looks Like» from the journal Think Differently and Deeply, which connects research in how the brain learns to the instructional practice of teachers, we see moderate advantages of no more than two hours of homework for high school students. For younger students, the correlation is even smaller. Homework does teach other important, non-cognitive skills such as time management, sustained attention, and rule following, but let us not mask that as learning the content and skills that most assignments are supposed to teach.

Homework can be a powerful learning tool — if designed and assigned correctly. I say «learning,» because good homework should be an independent moment for each student or groups of students through virtual collaboration. It should be challenging and engaging enough to allow for deliberate practice of essential content and skills, but not so hard that parents are asked to recall what they learned in high school. All that usually leads to is family stress.

But even when good homework is assigned, it is the student’s approach that is critical. A scientific approach to tackling their homework can actually lead to deepened learning in less time. The biggest contributor to the length of a student’s homework is task switching. Too often, students jump between their work on an assignment and the lure of social media. But I have found it hard to convince students of the cost associated with such task switching. Imagine a student writing an essay for AP English class or completing math proofs for their honors geometry class. In the middle of the work, their phone announces a new text message. This is a moment of truth for the student. Should they address that text before or after they finish their assignment?

Delayed Gratification

When a student chooses to check their text, respond and then possibly take an extended dive into social media, they lose a percentage of the learning that has already happened. As a result, when they return to the AP essay or honors geometry proof, they need to retrace their learning in order to catch up to where they were. This jump, between homework and social media, is actually extending the time a student spends on an assignment. My colleagues and I coach our students to see social media as a reward for finishing an assignment. Delaying gratification is an important non-cognitive skill and one that research has shown enhances life outcomes (see theStanford Marshmallow Test).

At my school, the goal is to reduce the barriers for each student to meet his or her peak potential without lowering the bar. Good, purposeful homework should be part of any student’s learning journey. But it takes teachers to design better homework (which can include no homework at all on some nights), parents to not see hours of homework as a measure of school quality, and students to reflect on their current homework strategies while applying new, research-backed ones. Together, we can all get more sleep — and that, research shows, is very good for all of our brains and for each student’s learning.

Project-Based Learning Through a Maker’s Lens | Edutopia

Patrick Waters

Professional Educator, The Monarch School, TX with a STEM & Maker Focus

The rise of the Maker has been one of the most exciting educational trends of the past few years. A Maker is an individual who communicates, collaborates, tinkers, fixes, breaks, rebuilds, and constructs projects for the world around him or her. A Maker, re-cast into a classroom, has a name that we all love: a learner. A Maker, just like a true learner, values the process of making as much as the product. In the classroom, the act of Making is an avenue for a teacher to unlock the learning potential of her or his students in a way that represents many of the best practices of educational pedagogy. A Makerspace classroom has the potential to create life-long learners through exciting, real-world projects.

Making holds a number of opportunities and challenges for a teacher. Making, especially to educators and administrators unfamiliar with it, can seem to lack the academic rigor needed for a full-fledged place in an educational ecosystem. However, project-based learning has already created a framework for Making in the classroom. Let’s see how Making could work when placed inside a PBL curriculum unit.

What Do You Want to Do?

The first step in designing a PBL unit for a Maker educator is connecting specific content standards to the project. The development and adoption of new content standards in math, ELA, and science has placed increased importance on the process and construction of a student’s learning. Making loves the process and allows the teacher to move fluidly between levels and subjects. When I designed a middle school level Forces and Motion unit,NGSS MS-PS2 dovetails nicely with CCSS Mathmatical Practice. My students would have to interpret and communicate their results through mathematics. Once I chose the appropriate standard for my students, I could begin brainstorming projects.

Choosing, thinking, reflecting, and sorting possible projects should be a career-long process. Good projects don’t fade with time — they get richer and more exciting for both teacher and student. Great projects, on the other hand, are opportunities for learners and teachers to collaborate with those around them. As such, my students and I might spend weeks asking ourselves inquiry-driven questions and checking out online resources (such as those listed below) as brain fodder. Collaboratively, we narrow down our choices. I use my voice in the process as sparingly as possible, but I do guide my learners to projects which reflect our subject area, my own expertise, and my strengths as an educator to projects which can be completed in the time allotted. Lastly, we determine if we have the right resources and tools. It’s a messy process, but the results can be incredible.

Essential Questions

With an appropriate project chosen, an educator can begin framing the learner’s journey. Essential questions are best tool available for Maker educators to frame this journey. Essential questions are open-ended prompts which initiate, engage, and guide the student into the learning process. With practice, the students can frame the questions themselves. Collaborate with your students by having them list their queries and send them off to find answers from a myriad of sources. Keep the ones they can’t answer yet. In a strong inquiry process, the students reveal their previous knowledge and their needs, allowing the teacher to craft respectful, differentiated learning goals that match. Once completed, the project becomes less of a daily race to fulfill lesson plans and more of a quest to document your students’ growing capabilities. In my classroom, our Forces and Motion unit began with «How do we make a derby car travel faster?» Then it changed into «Does mass increase the car’s velocity?» — and a whole host of other questions. Making is a process, and strong essential questions allow the educator to frame the journey while allowing the learner to make inquiry-driven discoveries.

Making requires partners. Find a colleague in your school to support delivering cross-curriculum instruction. Chase down community partners, such as local Makerspaces and scientific organizations, who may lend expertise and resources. I’ve found Twitter indispensable for connecting with other educators with similar passions. Bring these resources into your classroom.

Finally, an educator can start thinking about individual lessons. The teacher can break down large units into smaller essential questions («How does the arm length effect the distance of a catapult shot?»), and use these smaller questions to build to a monster prompt («Can I make a catapult which shoots a marshmallow over 30 feet using these materials?»). With careful planning, these small labs take very little build time, often reuse materials, and allow for a gradual building and exploration of knowledge. Good preview and reflection cycles allow me space to introduce and reinforce the standards, and allow the students time to process and apply their knowledge. I often use blogging as an online showcase of my students’ mastery.

Failure Is a Preferable Option

Good projects require failure. Great projects can teach a student grit, but you have to model it yourself first. Processing failure with your students turns a moment of fear into an opportunity for learning in a safe place. Strong PBL units increase student engagement while empowering students, therefore minimizing maladaptive behaviors.

Teachers new to PBL and Making often make similar mistakes:

  • Choosing projects too large for their comfort level and resources
  • Focusing on the outcome, not the process of Making
  • Thinking the educator must have the answer

Making is a discovery process for both educator and learner. Making allows the teacher to move from author of knowledge to master fabricator or builder. Making allows the educator to model the learner that he or she wants students to become.

Making requires support from all the stakeholders in the classroom: students, parents, colleagues, and administration. In order to build that support, an educator has to communicate by:

  • Giving voice to the students’ desire to learn
  • Inviting parents to witness their students’ learning and creations
  • Collaborating with other teachers to share and grow professionally
  • Building administration support by inviting them to see the growth of your classroom

Blogging in any form is the most effective tool available to the educator, a platform for all these levels of sharing.

If you’re looking for more about Making, check out these resources:

And if you have experiences with approaching a PBL unit as a Maker, please share in the comments section below.

Project-Based Learning Through a Maker’s Lens | Edutopia.

Computer Science: The Future of Education | Edutopia

From the cell phone alarm that wakes them to the tablets used to chat with friends and complete homework, today’s students are surrounded by computer technology. It is ubiquitous, and critical to daily routines. Yet few understand how technology works, even as it becomes ever more intrinsic to how we solve business and community challenges.

Today, computer science helps retailers determine how to grow sales, and it ensures that law enforcement officers are in the right places to maintain public safety. It is the foundation for the smart grid, and it fuels personalized medicine initiatives that optimize outcomes and minimize treatment side effects. Computing algorithms help organizations in all industries solve problems in new and more effective ways.

Inseparable from the Future of Education

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs. However, between current professionals and university students, we will only have 400,000 computer scientists trained to fill those roles.

Since it can take as many as 25 years to create a computer scientist, and since computer science skills are becoming increasingly integral for jobs in all industries, this skills gap is on track to emerge as a formidable economic, security, and social justice challenge in the next few years. Teachers, schools, parents, and industry must act on multiple fronts to address student readiness, expand access to computer science curriculum and opportunities, and help foster interest in computer science to ensure that it becomes a core component of every child’s education.

Tackling the Challenges

Even though computer science skills are becoming increasingly important in the competitive global economy, there are some significant roadblocks that prevent schools from incorporating computer science into the curriculum and exposing more students to the subject.

Currently, very few schools make computer science available to students. According to the College Board, in 2013, only 9 percent of schools offered the AP computer science exam. This lack of course offerings is compounded by the fact that there is a significant lack of teachers who are qualified to engage students in computer science — those who have a deep knowledge of the topic often take jobs in industry — and a lack of student interest in taking these advanced courses, at least partly due to a misconception that computing experts are boring, male, and always in front of their computers. Overall student engagement numbers are low even relative to other STEM fields, and female and minority students in particular are vastly underrepresented in existing computer science courses. Of the 30,000 students that took the AP computer science exam, fewer than 20 percent were female, only three percent were African American, and approximately eight percent were Hispanic, according to the College Board.

These issues stunt the expansion of computer science, and prevent students from gaining the basic technology literacy that will be imperative for future workers in all fields. Communities, schools, and industry must work together to integrate computer science in schools from a young age to help both encourage diversity in technology-related fields and ensure that students of all ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds have the opportunity to learn these skills.

5 Steps for Taking Action Now

While a comprehensive, long-term plan is needed to incorporate computer science education in all schools and to ensure that students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, there are five simple steps that teachers, schools, parents, and industry can take today to integrate computer science into classrooms and begin to overcome the above-mentioned challenges:

1. Professional Development

Teachers can register for online or in-person teacher training courses to learn how to teach a computer science curriculum or integrate basic computer science principles into existing lesson plans.

2. Career Education

Parents, teachers, and schools can educate students about the career opportunities available to those who get computer science degrees. While it could mean working for technology giants like Apple and Oracle, students can also use computer science skills to advance healthcare research or help a non-profit build a case for government funding.

3. Student Incentives

Teachers can offer students extra credit for using free online learning tools to develop basic computer science skills and create a project. (A good place to start is the Computer Science Teachers Association.)

4. Mentor Programs

Industry and schools can formalize a mentorship program that will encourage and support students to learn more about computer science and develop their skills inside and outside the classroom — via after-school programs or co-taught lessons.

5. Coding for Kids

Parents can help kids develop confidence in their problem-solving abilities and explore computer science in action in their lives and communities with age-appropriate coding apps such as Scratch for younger children or MakeGamesWithUs for high school students.

Inseparable from the Future of Our Society

Students, parents, educators, and industry all have a vested interest in better integrating computer science into the K-12 experience. Our economic stability and national security depend on a population with solid computer science skills and coding literacy. As such, the future of education must focus on making computer science an integral part of every child’s education to ensure that students of all genders and backgrounds have a chance to pursue these opportunities.

How does your school teach computer science?

μέσω Computer Science: The Future of Education | Edutopia.

Germany Takes On Education Reform (Education Everywhere Series) | Edutopia

Germany Fast Facts

Germany has long had a three-tiered school system, where by age ten, all students are tracked into one of several secondary school options: the Gymnasium, the Realschule, or the Hauptschule. This strict method of tracking limited opportunities for student improvement and built inequity into the system.

Historically, most schools in Germany started early but excused students by lunchtime, which translated to less class time for German students when compared to other member countries of the Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Longer school days, a move toward a less segregated two-pillared system, and a push for standardized national curricula are among the various reforms adopted by the country since their initial low scores on PISA provoked change.

While many of the reforms are still in progress, in just nine years, Germany’s results on the 2009 PISA tests already show improvement.

μέσω Germany Takes On Education Reform (Education Everywhere Series) | Edutopia.

Shanghai’s Improvement Plan for Schools (Education Everywhere Series) | Edutopia

Shanghai, China Fast Facts

With a population of 20.7 million, Shanghai is the largest city in China and the country’s business center.

Rapid economic expansion in Shanghai requires a steady flow of young workers who have creative problem-solving skills, and has pushed Shanghai to become a leader in educational innovation in China. Their evolution challenges the stereotype that Asian education systems are built for rote memorization of facts.

In 2009, Shanghai’s average Program for International Student Assessment scores were the highest in the world on all three subjects tested: reading, mathematics, and science.

In China, about 24 percent of high school graduates (or their equivalent) go on to some form of higher education. In Shanghai, the average is over 80 percent.

High levels of student engagement are a legacy of the Chinese culture’s emphasis on education; students in Shanghai classrooms are typically intensely focused on class activities, and there is no tolerance for inattentive students.

Among the many factors contributing to Shanghai’s success is a districtwide program called Empowered Administration, where low-performing schools get long-term mentoring from high-performing schools or groups of retired expert educators.

Shanghai was the first city in China to require ongoing professional development for educators. Every teacher completes 240

μέσω Shanghai's Improvement Plan for Schools (Education Everywhere Series) | Edutopia.