Dr. Cathy Vatterott shares insights from her twenty years’ experience researching homework truths and myths. She identifies ways that instructional coaches and administrators can guide teachers’ reflection on their decisions regarding homework. The impacts of virtual instructional are also discussed.
Connect with Cathy on Twitter: @realhomeworkldy
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Steve [Intro]: 00:04 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:46 Exploring the homework question. On today’s podcast. We are joined by Dr. Cathy Vatterrott, a professor emeritus at the university of Missouri St. Louis. Cathy is a former middle school teacher and principal. She’s the author of a book, “Rethinking Homework” and the author of a book entitled, “Rethinking Grading.” I found some of Cathy’s work online and as I began to look through some of the the Twitter responses, I decided I wanted to connect with her and she was kind enough to join us here today. So welcome, Cathy.
Cathy: 01:31 Thank you. Glad to be here.
Steve: 01:33 So Cathy, you’ve been you’ve been researching homework for over 20 years and as soon as I see that statement, I guess the question that comes to my mind is what does the research tell us about homework?
Cathy: 01:50 Well, the first thing that’s interesting over the 20 year period is that the research has gotten much more sophisticated. But even with that, the research is complicated. It’s inconclusive and sometimes studies are even contradictory. So what we’re learning now is that in the past, it was almost exclusively focused on the relationship between time spent and achievement and not even looking at the quality of homework tasks. So the more recent research has shown us that it’s quality not quantity and that there’s nothing magic about those minutes. That said, there’s also a standard that we know now that there is only so much time that students can spend in homework before it gets to be counterproductive in terms of, they’re burning out, they’re not getting enough sleep and that sort of thing.
Steve: 02:51 How does student age fall into this?
Cathy: 02:58 It’s very interesting because as we look at the research, there is no research that shows that there is any benefit to students
doing homework in elementary school. Now, to me, that does not make sense. We would assume that children, young children, when they read, become better readers. When they do math, they become better at math. And what we’re finding is that for elementary, especially the reading for pleasure, definitely correlates with higher scores, but a lot of the rest of it does not. When we get to middle and high school, we start seeing a better correlation between homework and achievement. In other words, some homework helps help student achievement, but there’s a limit. And when you get up to the high school level, it really bottoms out after about two hours. So there’s no benefit at the higher grades to the piling it on.
Steve: 04:00 And I’m guessing that that two hour number is kind of difficult to deal with if I’m thinking there’s six different people giving a
high school student a homework assignment.
Cathy: 04:18 Right. And that’s one of the biggest problems that we’ve had, is that there’s no coordination between those teachers in terms of how much is being given. But also, that some of the tasks that are being given may not be being accomplished in the most efficient way. And so there’s definitely a need for coordination at the secondary level and definitely a need for spreading things out in the sense of – that’s one of the other things the research says is, that it’s more about frequency than duration. That we would be better to give shorter assignments more frequently than to give really long assignments.
Steve: 05:05 And you have a sense of what the what the learning theory is behind that?
Cathy: 05:12 The learning theory really is that that is a repetition. So we know that as things get repeated and you need time to process, that
that is what is more effective in terms of learning. But it also – all of the research indicates that it’s really not about time, that it’s really about the quality of the assignment, which says to me, it doesn’t mean homework is not valuable, it means that there’s a lot of ineffective homework out there. And that also says to me, surprise, surprise, teachers have never been trained in what is effective homework so they tend to do what’s been done to them.
Steve: 06:00 Cathy, a lot of the people that listen to this podcast are school administrators and a lot of instructional coaches who are frequently guiding and supporting teachers in their decision-making. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what role you see school leaders playing in dealing with the homework question?
Cathy: 06:26 Well, I guess I would say their first job is mythbuster. And that, to me, only happens with information. And so I think one of the things that we have to work with teachers on is looking at what the myths say and how does that fit in with the research? So for instance, oh, homework teaches responsibility. Well, actually there’s no research to back that up. And what are we teaching responsibility for? Working, compliance or actual learning? I think that the other myth out there that administrators need to educate teachers about is that rigor does not equal load. We have this idea that if 10 problems are good, 40 problems are better and that if we’re a rigorous school, then we should have hours of hours of homework. So I think that’s first of all, part of what administrators need to do, and we need to educate parents in the same way. But in terms of getting teachers to reflect on their practice, I think they need information and they need information about the research about what a quality task looks like.
Steve: 07:48 I really like your comment about about busting the myths and the fact that that’s important both for for teachers and for parents. I’m wondering if an instructional coach is sitting down with a teacher or an administrator sitting down with a group of teachers, and they’re having teachers look at their at the homework assignments, what would you see in what you would identify as quality homework, or homework worth doing?
Cathy: 08:26 Well, I think the first thing is it has to have a clearly identified purpose, academic purpose. And sometimes what teachers do is they just say, “well, you know, I’m supposed to give homework” and they find something to give students when it’s not really about the quality. It doesn’t really fit with the purpose of the task. And also, I think teachers need to get feedback from students about the value of the task. Teachers tend to think that their task is infallible. So if I want my students to understand this part of history, they should read this chapter, when in fact there might be a task that would be better in terms of just reading, might be better to have students actually be reflecting on that reading or have guided questions or things like that. So I think that is the most important thing is, does that task line up with the purpose and is it efficient in terms of time that it takes for the student to do it?
Steve: 09:40 The thought that’s running through my head is that assigning a quality affective homework task is not an easy teacher decision.
Cathy: 09:55 It’s not. And part of our problem is that teachers just don’t have enough time. And so the homework tends to be like this afterthought. It’s like, they’re busy planning their instruction and then it’s like, “oh, okay, what do I give for homework?” And sometimes they give what’s easy to give and easy to grade, but not necessarily what’s the best for learning. So actually, we would want teachers to be spending as much thought about that task as they do the tasks that they have kids doing in the classroom. And that’s the switch there, because teachers tend to, oftentimes, the homework is okay, what’s this easy task that I easy for me to give easy for, for me to grade easy, you know, easy for me to do when it’s not necessarily the best for learning.
Steve: 10:49 And the likelihood that I can pick a single task that makes an appropriate use of each student’s learning time is probably pretty slim.
Cathy: 11:05 Yeah. And I think that’s the other problem. We tend to think those tasks are infallible. And if I just go back to my experience with my son which is what got me into this whole topic was, even in elementary school, well, here, here’s how you learn your multiplication tables. You’re going to go home and write them three times. Only that’s not how my son learned his multiplication tables. You know, we had to do a song or we had to do some something different than what the teacher had decided. So again, that task, so that one size fits all. That Is the other part of the problem is that one size usually doesn’t fit all. And that’s why I advocate that we give kids a little more ownership over task. Say, “here’s the goal now, which task will do you think will work for you?”
Steve: 11:59 So, as I’m listening to you talk about ownership, the phrase that’s going through my mind is people dealing with with student engagement in a classroom, moving from a compliance to a more student ownership. Kind of hearing the same thing here with homework.
Cathy: 12:27 Oh, definitely. And that is also pretty well-documented in the research, is that in terms of motivational research, that it’s about agency, it’s about engagement. It’s about kids actually getting in there and figuring out what works for them to learn content or to practice particular content. And that’s definitely more recent research in terms of what works and what makes learning stick. If we really want learning to stick, then the student needs some sort of agency there. That’s what is effective learning.
Steve: 13:15 My wife is a school administrator in international schools. And one of the strategies she implemented in an elementary school that she worked with in the primary grades, is they switched from what they were calling home work to home learning. And they took time at the end of the day for kids to make a decision about what they would do at home to support the goals that they were currently working on in the classroom. And then when the kids came in the next day, they they met in peer groups and shared what they did and got feedback from from their peers as to the value of the choices they had made. And I thought that was really powerful. I must say it was quite difficult for quite a few of the parents to to to understand the switch.
Cathy: 14:27 It’s so funny that you said that because I had worked with a school here in the States that had done this on a pilot basis for several teachers in this elementary school. And so, what’s happening is the teachers are giving over that control to those students and the parents are having letting go. And it’s so funny because it’s as if we don’t trust children to be actually interested in learning. We’ve got this thing in our head that, “oh, this must be so distasteful. I must have to really tightly control this and I must reward and punish you for doing it because it’s so distasteful.” And actually what we find is kids are very naturally excited about learning when we give them some choices about how they do it and how they apply it. And the teachers like you’re saying with your wife, have just found this to be so motivating to kids. And it’s just sort of this leap of faith from teachers and parents to trust children, to know how they learn and to be able, and even first graders, even very young children can do this.
Steve: 15:56 I use the statement, we need to learn to trust the brains of kids.
Cathy: 16:02 Oh, exactly.
Steve: 16:02 They were designed to learn.
Cathy: 16:04 Right. And we think we have to – we think we have to push this compliance and control. And actually it’s not about compliance, as you said, it’s about engagement.
Steve: 16:16 Cathy, as we close out here, I’m wondering if there’s if there’s impacts that the that the quarantine has had on homework? I’m pretty sure there’s going to be quite a few schools that have several months to go here, either partly working in a hybrid where they only have some of the kids in school and at times, they might not have any of the kids in school. They’ll all be quarantined. How do you see that playing into the homework question?
Cathy: 16:51 Well, it was really interesting when this first started, I looked at this and I said, oh my god, it’s all homework now. All of what these students are doing at home, it’s all homework. And I think one of the things that we’ve learned first of all, is that parents are not teachers. They’ve never been teachers and they’re not supposed to be teachers. And I think that’s one of the first things that we’ve seen, but also I think we’ve seen the limit in terms of attention. And I do have to share this just because I thought it was so fascinating that I had read some research from – this was from a professor at Yale and their research basically said that the youngest students can really only be engaged in remote learning for one to two hours and the oldest students, three to four hours.
Cathy: 17:49 And yet, I see schools that are failing to adapt and that are expecting these students to do this six hours of work remotely, and it’s just not possible. So I think that’s a huge part. But the other thing that it’s done to me is it has magnified, I guess, would be the word, the already existing concerns. One, about equity. Do all of these kids have the resources and the support at home to be able to do this? But also, there is a real sense of parent activism out there about limiting the amount of time that kids have to work on homework or remote learning. And they want their kids to have a balanced life. And I think what’s important now is that we focus to parents that let’s just keep our kids mentally healthy, and let’s not get too worried about learning loss. This’ll be fine. We will catch up. We will trim the curriculum in whatever way we need to.
Cathy: 18:55 Well, Cathy, thank you so much. Would you share with with listeners how they can find your your website?
Cathy: 19:03 It’s just homeworklady.com. And you should be able to find me on Twitter too, @realhomeworkldy. That’s the main way. And then they can email me through the website if they want to. So that all they have to do is Google homework lady, and they will find my information.
Steve: 19:21 Terrific. And we’ll be sure to list it in the lead-in to the podcast so anybody who misses it by listening out walking can jump online and find it. Thank you so much.
Cathy: 19:34 Great, thank you.
Steve: 19:34 Appreciate it. Take care. Bye-bye.
Steve: 19:36 Bye.
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