Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Homework and Flipping

It was an odd juxtaposition. There on my twitter feed, side by side, a link to an article arguing against homework, and a link to an argument favoring the flipped classroom.

The arguments against homework are many-- as many as there are different types of homework. Students don't really benefit from it. Students don't really do it. And those are just educator arguments-- my students will also argue that after they leave the school building, that time is their time, for work, for family, for whatever pursuits they choose to pursue. That's the point of view that leads commenters to say that homework is bad for the whole child.

And yet what is a flipped classroom except a classroom that runs on huge amounts of homework.

I have no strong feelings about the flipped classroom-- I've been doing it my whole career, only instead of saying "Go home and watch this video," I've been saying "Go home and read this book." I don't do a lot of traditional homework beyond some occasionally "Go forth and practice this skill on your own." But my honors students in particular are expected to do the readings and write the papers primarily on their own time.

I read teachers who have success flipping, and I have encountered the following conversation among students many times as well:

Chris: Did you watch that video last night?

Pat: Nah. He's just going to have to explain it all in class anyway.

I have found technology useful for extending the classroom. Back when my school district still used Moodle, I could run entire units as on-line segments, which made a nice way to compensate for the class time that I was losing. This year I have a class of students who are required to blog, sometimes on prompts related to classwork, sometimes to other prompts, and always on other topics of their own choosing. And I've found on-line elements can be a good way to do units that involve "Go figure out what this is and then explain it to me in your own words with either created or found examples" (e.g. logical fallacies). Those then become part of the tool box that I expect them to be able to use in class work.

So am I good teacher because I'm using technology to extend the learning experience beyond the temporal and physical boundaries of my classroom, or am I terrible teacher because I still give homework?

Fortunately for my professional peace of mind, I follow this rule: I neither accept or reject tools and techniques as a matter of policy, but use my best professional judgment to use activities and techniques that advance student learning and growth, and to avoid activities and techniques that do not. This, it should be noted, has to be decided on a case by case, class by class basis.

It's a perfect example of exactly why the solution to educational issues is not for the state or federal government decide for me how I should do my job and then mandate either the use or avoidance of particular pedagogy. I do not need a government regulation telling me I must always or never assign homework. At most, I may be well-served by a knowledgeable administrator who sits me down to say, "Here's where it looks like you're not hitting the mark right now."

But in the meantime, while I will continue to keep myself informed about the issues and viewpoints involved, I have no interest in the Great Homework Debate or the Great Flipping Push, and even less interest in having policymakers decide either discussion. I'd like to just do my job, thanks, and that includes using my informed professional judgment to make the best instructional decisions for my students. Just let me teach.


  1. I completely agree with letting teachers do what works for them and their students in their subject matter and with the available resources. Each teacher as strengths and weaknesses and different students respond differently to different approaches. There simply is no one best way to teach.

  2. But if we don't "re-engineer our districts, schools and classrooms for the digital age," how can we ever prepare our students for "a future we cannot yet imagine"?
    (Has no one ever yet imagined a dystopia?)
    (quotes taken from ISTE "standards" page)

    1. I often wonder about those ISTE standards. Are these ISTE people in the classroom anymore if ever? Sometimes I think their only audience is graduate students and tech conference attendees.

  3. I am a former flipper. I bought the whole package hook, line and sinker really early in the movement, back when almost nobody knew what flipping was. It made such sense to do the lecture (which I hated and they mostly weren't listening to) as a video that could be consumed on-demand and at times when the incredible social distractions of the classroom would be absent. This would free up my class time to help students with practice exercises and have discussions and other learning activities. Kids could work at their own pace and understanding would increase. Brilliant!

    So I went to a seminar taught by Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann, arguably the founders of the flipped classroom, and learned from the best. Then I spent about a month's salary on equipment and basically devoted every spare minute of the next two years from 5 am to 1 am the next morning recording, annotating, editing, rendering and uploading about 250 science videos that my students almost never watched. When it became apparent that they weren't watching the videos (it's really tough to have a discussion about a topic only one person in the room has ever heard of before), I tried to introduce a whole sequence of accountability measures that the kids systematically defeated in almost no time. Because of the enormous time investment I had made in creating the videos, it took me a couple of years of desperately trying to make it work before I just had to abandon the whole idea.

    The flaw in my plan was assuming that my students weren't doing their homework because they didn't know how to do it and needed my help. In fact, they weren't doing their homework because they didn't want to do anything outside of school, including watching videos.

    I felt like a real failure, because Sams and Bergmann raved about how much their kids loved the flipped classroom and how much more they all were learning. In retrospect, I think what these guys were really trying to do was create a movement, so there would be enough perplexed newbies to support two expert consultants and get them out of the classroom, which ultimately did happen.

    The videos have now been viewed many thousands of times, mostly, it appears, by people in Saudi Arabia and I have completely abandoned them as a tool for my own students. It was an utter waste of two years of my life. I would have been much better off if I had simply recognized that I would have to lower my expectations and rely only on the time I had them in class for their learning.

    1. Don't feel bad about getting taken by consultants. That's what they do. Also, you didn't waste part of your life making the videos if they have been viewed thousands of times. Some people, apparently in Saudi Arabia, learned something from you.