Thursday, November 19, 2015

The need to talk about Homework. Plain and simple


Don't roll your eyes. ; )

I've watched for many years as my own children have labored through hours of homework. We've had some interesting discussions over how much of that work they feel actually has value. I listen mostly and keep my observations silent. 

Most often their homework is in excess of three hours per night. It's increasingly rare that they get downtime in the evening or get any significant family time save our parental demand to eat together, uh, when we can.' Extra curricular practices and jobs often interfere with any sort of schedule that puts us all together in the evening. We eat separately often, and struggle to carve out time to actually 'connect.'

Unfortunately over much of their academic lives homework has carried penalty based grades and wasn't viewed as formative assessement. That's another discussion.

I've thought many times in my life how I'd love to reclaim so much of that 'homework' time and actually do something else with my children.

And yes, I do 'help' with homework when I can and try to be involved. But it's not substantial or practical to think I can be involved often.

I hear this struggle in many circles of friends who have middle through high school age students... and most importantly from students. I talk with students about it everywhere I go.

Disclaimer... I work in education and I've always wondered about the value of excessive amounts of homework. 

I collect information about the business of 'homework' on the web. For nine years it is was part of a project based learning ramp up I did with high school students on how technology is effecting education. Those projects included student analysis and parent interviews each year... and were very telling.

I've read countless articles, journals and such and I have interviewed many experts on the topic. I also broached the topic with over 50 schools worldwide as part of a sabbatical exploring innovation in education. Yup. It's a weird hobby I guess.

So I decided to do a small survey of my own finally. I surveyed 60 people from three different schools as follows:

20 students in grades 9-12

20 adults who work in 9-12 education

20 parents of children in 9-12 education

Each group was asked various questions and the first was about 'homework.'

Without entering the debate of should we have homework or not, or even what constitutes value in homework, I focused simply on 'volume.'

Of the students surveyed, all 14 of 20 reported having more than 2 hours per night.

10 of 20 reported having three hours or more.

4 reported having more than four hours per night.

3 out of 20 reported 5 or more hours per night.

When surveying parents, 18 of 20 reported that their children have too much homework.

Homework was also a hot issue on the survey over school breaks. Of the 20 students surveyed, all 20 reported having homework in excess of 15 hours over a week long break... that means roughly two full working days of homework.

Of the 60 people surveyed, the breakdown for whether we should have homework over breaks / vacations lays out as follows:

No: 20
yes: 0

No: 20
yes: 0

Adults in education:
No: 12
Yes: 8

That's an interesting split isn't it?

Of course, one student story may seem biased to thread into a report such as this, but, I couldn’t resist.

A student came into class one day very upset that one of his teachers that day had assigned 150 pages of reading to be completed that night, the same night that he would leave school early (at 1245pm) for a hockey game. The return time from the game, when the team bus would arrive back at school was estimated at 1230am. Of course, that doesn’t not factor in drive home, a shower, likely something to eat, and actually getting to sleep, and getting up (as the student reported) at 545am the next morning to get ready and get to school. When the student explained his schedule for the day, the teacher simply replied ‘you can read it on the bus.’ The student then asked me if I’d ‘ever tried to read 150 pages of a book on a hockey bus with 25 people, gear, music, conversations and bus noise?’ We both had a good laugh and I asked him to talk to the teacher about an extension. The student came back later in the day and said the extension was 'denied.'

Homework management policies are in place in many schools throughout the country. Many allocate extensions for folks with heavy workloads, extended extracurricular events, personal issues, and the like. Again, extending homework excessively into the evening, and on school breaks and vacations is part of that school time creep that is robbing students of valuable time to connect with family and to actually take a break or to pursue other interests.

We sort of understand in the workplace that a 15-16 hour workday is 'too much.' Just not so much in education.

What does the student day, on average, actually look like at our schools? Are we actually asking people to practice what we preach... or are we making a series of unrealistic demands that they just need to figure out?

Different directions?

Calls for Rigor

I've had many discussions in schools about 'increased calls for rigor.' All too often those calls for more rigor are simply unsophisticated calls for 'more.'

The debate needs to be more thoughtful.

If we start and continue meaningful discussions on the amount of homework... we may find we're kidding ourselves. When we boast that we need and value 'family' time, encourage kids to pursue their own interests, and even try 'reading for fun' then we should put more thought into analyzing what a student day is actually like.

What if we discover that kids are actually pursuing less rigorous classes because their personal lives can't handle or be restructured to accommodate highly excessive homework? Sound elitist? it is actually. Such practices punish kids and families. It prevents them from exploring opportunities.

Here's are three simple recommendations on homework

1. Ask teachers to analyze how much homework is given and try to make reductions. And then keep doing it. Such practices force deeper pedagogical thinking about what's actually going on during the day in schools and how classes are structured.

2. Don't give homework over breaks or holidays. Period. Actually encourage people to take a break. A Thanksgiving break, with travel often involved, and having 8-10 hours of homework is, well, not a break rather it's a stress inducer.

3. If an administrator boasts statements of 'increasing rigor,' I'd encourage people to start asking thoughtful questions. What does more rigor 'actually' mean and how does it translate into student and family lives? "Doing more and faster," as Diana Laufenberg put's is, "isn't a sustainable solution."

I received a note from Ned Kirsch, Superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union and they are diving into a 'no homework' experiment at a middle school. This is a good read, and a bold initiative. Interesting that they've received "no complaints" about the decision too ; )

What are the number of hours in a student day look like from the survey? We'll take a look next.

#vted @betavt


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Get students involved in renovating classrooms?

I've been speaking with a lot of schools recently about renovating classrooms. 

It's a task mostly taken on by adults.

What about getting kids involved?

It can be a multidisciplinary project that could bring some great rewards, seen and unseen.

Grab some paper and something to write with for drafting ideas (or a whiteboard). Divide up into groups and come up with some basic guidelines.

  1. Reduce storage: ID things that can / should go!
  2. Remove clutter: See item 1!
  3. Clean: Yup. It's important.
  4. Paint: There's more to learning than 'institutional beige' and primary school colors!
  5. Emphasize collaborative workspace: whiteboards, shuffle tables. Draft a floor plan with your group
  6. Lighting ideas
  7. Explore new furniture options
  8. ... and maybe flooring?

Then go!

What if classrooms moved toward 'learning spaces'  and
looked more like this?
Options: Make it a timed challenge. Ask kids to look up information on the web and display it things they find.

Renovations don't have to take a lot of money. Options 1-5 above take very little in fact.

Get kids invested in refitting and renovating... and we might get to hear what it's like for them to be in these classrooms all day ; )

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

VT Fest 2015 is a wrap... and a glimpse into the future...

Painting with programmable robots! A first, and hopefully not last at VT Fest!

VT Fest 2015 was a success! 

People I spoke with at the conference relayed it and the reviews have certainly said it as well. Three days at the conference did evaporate quickly. Here's a quick and important recap.

I've worked with the VITA-Learn board over the last four years to ramp up these conferences and we're making some headway. 'The new' this year included:

  • an expanded creation / innovation / maker space: Hands on, dive in with mentors and try out some creativity
  • food! New, improved, more choices, and (despite the lines) people got fed faster than in years past. Always a crowd pleaser
  • more diverse session types and lengths: 1/2 hour, hour, and 1.5 hour unconference
  • meeting spaces! Round table style, propose your own and advertise or go spontaneously
  • awesome keynote speakers at VT Fest: The amazing Diana Laufenberg was our keynote this year
  • innovation grant! 2k to one lucky winner to do light up some creativity

We honored two people for their fantastic work: Bonnie Birdsall with the ISTE Making IT Happen Award, and Bob Owens with the Frank Watson Lifetime Achievement Award. It's been an privilege to work with these folks over the years, to get to know them and I've such admiration for their work. We truly did surprise them... either one had any idea their award was coming ; )

Arlyn Broccoli from East Montpelier won the 2K Innovation Grant! Here's an excerpt from Arlyn's proposal:
"I have a supportive administrator who will help make something go if she sees the benefit for kids. My school's entire robotics instructional program is the result of $150 that I received from a VitaLearn regional meeting. Imagine what I could do with $2K!"
Congrats to you, Arlyn, your school, and the kids you work with. We're excited to see where this innovation grant helps you go!

What a privilege to have Frank Watson himself
come again to VT Fest to talk about people
who inspired him in Vermont education!
A special shout out to Lucie deLaBruere and the fantastic folks at the Creation / Innovation Space. The reviews were off the chart on your creativity and willingness to help mentor hands-on work.

And another shout out to the amazing Diana Laufenberg for being our keynote speaker and leading a stellar workshop. Diana is a master at parsing the complex into elegant simplicity. I'm always inspired every time I get the opportunity to speak with her.

VITA-Learn said goodbye to three board members at the conference. Sue Monmaney, David Wells, and Steve Jarrett... many thanks to all of you for all you've done for work with VITA-Learn and for kids in Vermont education.

We'll welcome three new members in, voted on from the members meeting, and we'll be announcing those shortly (once the invites have been officially accepted)!

As always, I loved the opportunity to see familiar and new faces. I made a lot of new connections and gathered some ideas to move into the future.  For me, VT Fest was recharging and, like every large event you help pilot, a bit exhausting. It was the first time in four years I presented... and did so this year three times.

On the last day of the conference I closed on a new house and the very next day after I set to move our family to the new space. It made for one harried weekend. After two days of mandatory district training on Monday and Tuesday and shifting around in a chair all day... I finally did unwind today with a very much needed day off.

We got some valuable feedback from our surveys... and thank you to all those folks who filled them out, There's a lot to do still. Some ideas brewing for VT Fest 2016...

We'll strive to:
  • make the food selection even better and more streamlined
  • organize new and more inclusive social events Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night
  • continue to expand our offerings on session length and opportunity
  • advertise earlier... the conference itself and especially round table sessions
  • send invitations to more session leaders in other States
  • increase our efforts to poll our members for new and creative ideas
  • continue the awesome innovation / creation space: 2015 was the best yet!

... and the session I ran in the pool, the first in 30 years at VT Fest, will return by popular demand ; ) Hey, I can't think of a good reason why nobody thought of this in 30 years! Somebody had to do it!

Many thanks to ALL the folks at VT Fest who attended, vendors, those who helped organize, to the VITA-Learn members and board. It was a privilege to help organize and emcee the conference once again.

Now that I've had more some sleep (more than four hours!), that the Internet is live again after the move, and I am starting to find my clothes...

Thoughts are already brewing for Dynamic Landscapes in May!

DL is shaping up to be great! And yes, it's on a Monday and Tuesday! We wanted to take a shot at this to get away from the holiday weekend.

Invite students inquiry into the educational process. Give them a voice to help create, to help make schools more innovative, creative and rich with meaningful opportunities and connections.

We're expanding...

  • 1/2 day, full day, and two day workshops with options for college credit (re-cert / licensure) for specific grade levels on:
    • animation, programming, storytelling (video and audio) PLPs, maker space introductory workshops... to name a few. We've got some surprises in store... deeper pedagogical integration and wellness sessions, sessions for new teachers...
  • more meeting spaces: conjure a discussion, planned or spontaneous, you've got spaces!
  • more offerings and incentives for student inclusion
  • vendors with hands-on learning opportunities
  • downtown social event Monday night (live music?)

... to name a few!

Who will follow Gary Stager and Super Awesome Sylvia as keynote speaker at DL? We've got a few stellar invitations out and we'll be announcing it in a few days!

I'm off to prep... and to find which boxes I put some of my clothes in ; )

We win...


Monday, August 24, 2015

17 yr Schedule Shift...

I just wrapped up a project with another school to help them analyze their master schedule. 

They have a 730am start time for students and end the academic day ends at 215pm. 

2 years of data showed that 37% of students in the school report in late in the morning... each week. Adjustments have been made to increase staff to handle these attendance issues. 

After a little analysis... just over 30% of students have commute times over 1 hour. 

Teachers routinely (100%) reported students are sluggish and unmotivated in the mornings. 

So... we took a preliminary, test the waters kind of poll on the current school schedule. 97% of the students wanted the school day to start later. We brought forth a lot of evidence that says that later start times are tremendously beneficial to adolescents. But we went further.

More polling revealed 94% of parents / guardians wanted school to start later. 

59% of the adults working in the building wanted school to start later. The number one reason the adults working in the school liked the early start time was... the 215pm dismissal time.

After a bit more analysis... I discovered they've had the same schedule, and the same lateness and truancy problems for 17 years. The schedule was changed 17 years ago, so I learned, to accommodate bus run synchronization with another district school. Turns out, the busing problem doesn't actually exist any longer as the district switched from their own busing to a transportation company 8 years ago.

Over the past 17 years, according to seven veteran teachers I spoke with, the school has had five principals and 6 committees - best they can remember- to analyze the school schedule. No changes were made during this 17 year period.


After the surveying and data analysis, discussions started in April, 2015. Based on feedback we solicited, I suggested starting school at 830am and ending at 3pm as a first step. 

We polled students, parents, and adults in school on the new start time. 96% overall were in favor of the change. 

In early May 2015 the administration and school board felt that changing the school schedule for the coming Fall (2015-2016) would be too disruptive and are 'considering a change' for the coming Fall semester in 2016-2017.

Slow growth, yes.... but if it changes, at least it's growth.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Growth Mindset... for schools?

A lot of growth mindset discussions center on the traits students and adults can develop. Especially at the start of a school year. Growth mindset vs fixed mindset. Lots of debate going on.

If we're asking individuals to develop a growth mindset, what about a 'growth mindset' for a school?

Is weaving students into some existing and traditional school structures prohibiting growth?

Here are a few ideas on how school and systems within can develop and practice a 'growth mindset.'

Create a common learning language and focal points
Does your school have a common set of learning values for each class? Here's one model form the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.


Inquiry and project based learning... hands on, collaborative, interactive, project oriented. It's a mission to not only cover content, but make it meaningful and purposeful and social. What discussions is your school having on 'learning'?

Create meaningful teacher PD programs
Build PD time into the day rather than treat it as an add-on to the school day or the same old 'two days per semester' model. As Diana Laufenberg puts it eloquently, "Doing more, faster is not the answer."

Analyze the class / master schedule... and make changes
Analyze start time, breaks, class length, and flow from a student and adult perspective. Is your schedule working at it's best to promote student learning? How about student health? Is 'social time' built in or are you asking kids to sit quietly for long periods of time with very short breaks?

How does your schools schedule impact family life?

Discuss homework
Does your school have 'homework policies' in place?

Are deadlines on homework completion rigid or flexible?

Is homework dropped on students the day of, or is it advertised for the week so they can plan accordingly?

Dropping excessive amounts of homework on kids with rigid deadlines can be... punishing.

Here's why.

Kids who work? Not just the ones who do... but also the ones who need to work? 

How about it's effect on kids in extra-curricular sports?

Ever seen drama / theater programs practice / rehearsal schedules ramping up to a production?

How about kids with intensive family needs at home?

How about kids with any number or all of the above in tow?

A homework free-for-all can create chaos for kids. For kids in need it can be elitist. It can also promote pretty dangerous fatigue.

I've visited many schools where...

  • Homework is graded for understanding but not as a punishment. It's evaluated on a 'let's see what you didn't understand approach.' 
  • The amount of homework given to students is also analyzed constantly and discussed with teachers
  • Deadlines are flexible, usually with two-three days leeway.

All important discussions for adults in schools to discuss with students and parents.

A focus on 'rigor, discipline, process, and product'.. which translates into more homework with little thought to content or method can have terrible effects on students and families. Combine that mentality with rigid deadlines... well, it's an elitist model, and punishes far too many students.

Have a facilities overview and improvement plan... that keeps moving
Polish, patch, and paint. And keep doing it.

Remove clutter... constantly. Purge that old equipment cast to forgotten closets.

Get some inspiring artwork from students, adults, and professionals in the community up.

There's more to color in schools than 'institutional beige' and athletic colors... and more finishes available than high-gloss... or at least there should be ; )

Refit classrooms
Try removing clutter, reduce / relocate storage, and create more diverse and collaborative workspaces.

Get some color other than beige in the rooms. Try using more than one... a primary and accent color.

Here's an interesting prompt to start a debate. Does your school provide personal or department funds or resources for teachers to populate classrooms? Should teachers with more personal financial resources be able to decorate 'better' than a teacher who doesn't?

Want a pedagogical challenge as a teacher? Try removing the 'teacher desk' from the room... or at least the front of the room. Get up, get involved, sit with students, engage in debate at tables or groups.

Conjure a diverse technology program
Technology is expensive. At it's best... schools / districts will give kids full functional laptops with access to some powerful software connected to robust and creative programs and opportunities. If that's not possible... create a technology program that gives kids a device to access the web and to collaborate with. In all cases, create a program where kids can sign out equipment... laptops, cameras, etc for use.

It's too lengthy here to discuss all the nuances of a great 1-1 technology program, but there are many common traits of successful ones... and also those that are not very successful.

Build learning opportunities that connect to meaningful projects and community
Do students know much or get the opportunity to learn about the surrounding community? What needs in the community can be identified and brought into the school and turned into projects?

Make connections with experts outside the school
It's hard to admit the best expertise isn't always in the building. Seek parent help and from long-time locals and business owners to identify local expertise. Bring these experts in or visit them. Establish relationships that can help students and adults connect and explore. Connect with colleges and professionals.

There are a few ideas to get things moving. There are others... a robust advisory program, travel programs, hybrid classes... but we'll talk about those later on.


If we're asking individuals to grow, schools and their structures must do the same.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Will your school take the Student for a Day Challenge this Fall?

BBA Student for a Day Project from Adam Provost on Vimeo.

This morning I sent production notes to the 150th person who requested them on the Student for a Day project. After receiving them they emphatically sent me another note about how excited they are to run this project this Fall at their school. "I wish more schools would do this," they said.

Good idea.

So here it is... the 'Student for a Day Challenge.'

What if, this Fall, your school took on the 'Student for a Day' challenge where your teachers become 'Students for a Day'?

Do pre interviews, run time filming, and then post production interviews.

It'll raise some important questions and hopefully discussions on...

  • start time
  • transition times between classes
  • class length
  • school lunch experience
  • homework
  • attendance policies

... just to name a few.

How can the school schedule improve for kids? How about for families? What's the day look like through the eyes of a student? How do school policies (really) match up to common sense?

Put your structure, policy and master schedule to the test.

It's great development work for students and PD for adults. it'll open the door to important conversations.

Will your school take the 'Student for a Day Challenge?' this Fall?

Invite student inquiry into the educational process...

Never know what might turn up.

My sincere thanks to the folks who've helped spread the word on this by republishing over the years... journals, blogs, and ed folk! Let's see how far this will go!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

VPA Leaders Conference, June 25 2015

Get Things Moving: Theory Into Action Steps
VPA Leaders Conference
Berlin, VT

"Schools are often cultures of 'add.' Initiatives pile on, one after another until people reach the breaking point and the core mission and values begin to drift. 'Time in schools' can be reclaimed to unlock innovation and even, yes, promote civility!"

We want to move things forward in schools... but we often think and do things the same way. Business goes on, as usual, and things don't change. Many innovative changes are often an 'add' and they struggle to maintain motion.

Here are five ways below to start changes in motion. It'll build collaborative time, creative time, promote socialization, and start to unlock traditional barriers to innovation.

They're simple. They don't cost anything. They create motion you can build on.

Summary notes:

1. School Schedule: Unlocking PD. Included, not added

2. Master Schedule: Understanding the 'Student perspective'

3. Choice Time / Day / Interdisciplinary projects: Interdisciplinary, connecting

4. Advisory: Done well, it has many positive ripples

5. School lunch! We can do better

I've been helping many schools explore these threads and how they relate to their special circumstances. Here are some other posts called 'What Are We Teaching and Why? that will help conjure some ideas and debates!

Let me know if I can help!