Dr. Cathy Vatterott, The Homework Lady, tells how she started a 20 year career researching the impacts of homework when her own child learned in a different way from what assignments his teacher provided. She shares myths about homework and gives guidelines for parents including suggestions regarding communicating with teachers about your child’s homework impacts.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Parent Wellbeing and Student Learning During School Closures Edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. With the extended closing of schools, we as parents have entered into a new territory regarding what we have known as “school learning.” With this and future podcasts, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner.
Steve: 00:33 Parents and homework. Today, I’m glad to have Dr. Cathy Vatterrott join us. Dr. Vatterrott is a author of books on homework. She’s been studying the research on homework for over 20 years, and she has a a website called “The Homework Lady,” that you might want to check out after you’ve heard some of Cathy’s comments. Cathy, you want to tell us how you got started in studying and researching homework?
Cathy: 01:08 Well, I was the frustrated parent of a fifth grade boy with learning disabilities and I started looking at some of the tasks coming home and I said, oh my goodness, what is the value of what I’m doing? And so I started doing the research about homework and, you know, I realized that teachers had never been trained in homework and no wonder I was getting some of the tasks I was getting. And as a former principal and a professor, I saw this as kind of a mission. I really didn’t think at that time that I was going to be doing it for 20 years, but it seems to be a perennial issue that just won’t die.
Steve: 01:53 Cathy, I know you’ve written about myths about homework, and I’m wondering what myths you think have been out there that parents need to know about.
Cathy: 02:06 Well, I think the first myth that we have is that is that homework teaches responsibility and that, one author said, oh, homework is the job of childhood and I’m like, do kids really need a job? I think they have a job just being a kid. So I think there’s a myth there. I think that kids learn responsibility in many other ways. But I think the one that probably gets us in the most trouble is that rigor equals load. In other words, if a parent says to me, “oh, my kid goes to a really good school, they get a lot of homework.” I’m like, well, that could be really good or it could just be a lot of busy work. And so I think those are the two biggest ones that we look into and maybe a third myth would be that it’s the parent’s job to – if the kid doesn’t do their homework, you’re a bad parent. I think that’s another myth it’s out there that we need to squelch for sure.
Steve: 03:11 I actually did a earlier podcast just on the term work related to learning and I liked the writing that Alfie Kohn did on this, where he said, when we brought that word work into into school, we really messed up. So homework seat work, classwork…
Cathy: 03:38 Exactly. Yeah. Is it work or is it learning?
Steve: 03:41 Yeah, yeah. You know, mom and dad go to work so they can so that they can raise the money they need to pay tuition because they want to go to community college and learn. It’s not something something new and we carry that we carry that word that word work way too far and probably a lot of myths just come off of that word.
Cathy: 04:07 Oh yeah, definitely.
Steve: 04:09 Cathy, how do you see the role that parents have had to play with the with the quarantine and students moving their learning activities that they did in school into the house and onto an online system?
Cathy: 04:28 I think the role of parents in remote learning should be exactly what their role would be if students were in school and doing homework. And the hardest part for me to articulate to parents is that you really are not expected to be a teacher. And I think parents feel a lot of guilt when they are not able to get their kids working or to get their kids learning online. So I think that is, that is the first part is to, let’s all lose the guilt. And then secondly, I think our job is to be, I think you used the term more of a learning coach, or to be that mentor and not to be hovering over kids with the task, but to be more of a facilitator on the side.
Steve: 05:26 Cathy, I’m wondering how you would describe the communication that might be most appropriate between parents and teachers around the topic of homework.
Cathy: 05:39 Well, I think first of all, the interesting thing is that we talk about that we want this to be a partnership between teachers and parents and in some schools, it doesn’t feel much like a partnership. It feels like the teachers are dictating what they want you to do as a parent. And I think in fact, parents need to take more control in that sense and treat that more like a partnership. And if it is a partnership, then that means I have the ability to communicate back to you what my concerns are about this assignment or about how much the student is working. And so I think what we want parents to do is to be less involved with the task and to be more involved in communicating with the teacher. So when I was doing this as a parent, as a frustrated parent, I got to the point where I did a lot of back in the day, note writing, but now it could be a voicemail or an email message to let the teacher know that this is how much time we spent on this and this is what my student is confused about, this particular thing – would you please go over that again, and really do that communication instead of feeling like, this is my job. The teacher gave me the homework and it’s my job to make sure that it gets done.
Steve: 07:11 Gotcha. So it really is – the parent has information that could be valuable to the teacher. And I need a way to communicate that information without it raising a defense on the teacher’s part.
Cathy: 07:29 And that’s really what you just said is communicating information. And that’s what we are – that’s what we need to be doing as parents. And so yes, if your child is distressed – my joke was, you know, it’s eight o’clock and one of us is crying and I’m not gonna say which one. So if you’re having those teary battles, if you’re having that kind of distress, if your child is saying that they hate school or they hate math or whatever, then that is information that needs to be communicated to the teacher. I don’t think any teacher wants their students to be stressed out. I think a lot of times they just need more information from parents. And if I could say one more thing, teachers tend to underestimate the amount of time a homework task takes by about 50%, because they’re really good at what they’re assigning. So I’m really good at math, so this won’t take me more than 15 minutes. And actually we’ve found that teachers way underestimate the amount of time that things take. So if the teacher thinks it takes a half an hour and your child is spending two hours on it, that’s not what they wanted, but you have to tell them that. They don’t know that.
Steve: 08:56 Very important. I can just see it where as a teacher, those times are striking me at worst as an average. You know, so I’m seeing what the average student might need to to do this. And I’m thinking as I hear you, that the reverse can also be just as important. And that is a student who can zip through an assignment with with with no effort is an equal, important piece of information for a teacher to have.
Cathy: 09:28 And do they need to do it? I think that piece of it too, that an assignment is given for a student who’s already mastered a concept and you, as the parent are saying, he knows this. So the line I heard a teacher say one time, “well, if they already know it, they can zip right through it. I’m like, “hey, they already know it, they don’t need to do it.” And so let’s spend their time working on something else.
Steve: 09:56 I love it. I love it. Well Cathy, as we close out here, I’m wondering if you’ve got one or two last words of wisdom, pieces of advice you might you might share with parents who are listening?
Cathy: 10:10 Yes, my newest area of research right now is about student stress. And I think parents now need to really prioritize the balance between academics, sleep, downtime, or play time and family time. And we want our kids to be able to lead a balanced life. And I guess the other thing I would say to parents is don’t be afraid to just say no, that you are within your rights to excuse your child from homework if it’s compromising their wellbeing or remote learning. And you’re saying that this kid cannot do five hours of remote learning. This is all he can do. And then communicate that back. And I just will say in closing, my favorite story is, a teacher got a homework assignment back from the parent with a note on it that just said, “no, thank you.” Which I loved. I thought that was great. No, thank you. We’re not going to do this. And if you in fact make those decisions as parents, you need to understand that you are not alone, that parents all over the world are pushing back on things that they think are not in their child’s best interest in terms of balance.
Steve: 11:28 Well Cathy, thank you so much. You want to tell the parents a little bit about your your website?
Cathy: 11:33 Yes. The website is homeworklady.com and there are articles that I’ve written and there are links to, I think, maybe a couple of other podcasts that I’ve done and we’ll put a link to this one up there as well. And there’s also on there, surveys for students, parents, and teachers. If you wish to do some advocating, there are links to where you can buy my books and so there’s quite a bit of quite a bit of information on there.
Steve: 12:02 Well, Cathy, thank you so much. This is a important topic and I appreciate you joining us.
Cathy: 12:07 Great. Thank you. Enjoyable.
Steve [Outro]: 12:10 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.