Tag Archives: education system

Rethinking Homework For The Post-Pandemic World

Homework sucks. Nobody likes doing it. I think that’s an uncontroversial opinion, even in these contentious times. I may no longer be in school, but I vividly remember how much I hated it. From grade school to college, it was often the worst part of any class, course, or subject. I doubt I’m alone in that sentiment.

That said, I understand why it exists. Like taxes or colonoscopies, it’s a necessary evil. It’s a means by which we test and reinforce the knowledge we teach to young, curious minds. At the very least, it’s a mechanism for determining who is actually learning and who is not.

I bring this topic up not to start a crusade against homework, as some already have in the past. I’m not looking to uphold or expand it, either. I’m raising the issue because the current state of public education is in a precarious state, especially in America.

It’s already well-documented that America’s ranking in the world of education leaves a lot to be desired. There are many systematic issues for that, some of which I’ve ranted about before. Changing that system doesn’t come easy, but if ever there was a time to re-think our approach, it’s now.

A global pandemic has caused huge disruptions to a lot of things, our schooling system being just one of them. In the span of a year, we’ve upended decades of entrenched educational traditions. The whole ritual of getting on a bus, going to a big building, and shuffling kids through multiple classes every day has been tabled.

Yes, it’s distressing for students, parents, and teachers alike.

At the same time, it presents an opportunity. This is a chance to rethink how we go about education. Why not start with homework? Nobody likes it. If we’re going to change anything, let’s start with that.

As tempting as it is to claim homework doesn’t have a single benefit, I can’t overlook the research that has been done on this topic. People have actually studied it. While the conclusions aren’t clear-cut, the current body of evidence suggests some amount of homework is beneficial in terms of student achievement.

How much constitutes “some?” That depends on a lot, both in terms of the students and the subject matter. Some students can handle more homework than others. For others, it’s genuinely detrimental to a student’s achievement. When you look at the data, the only consistent result is inconsistency.

To me, a guy who despised homework as much as any other school-age kid, its impact varied. There were some subjects that I was naturally more interested in than others. Subjects like history, biology, and writing were already something I did in my free time. Homework in those subjects wasn’t too much of a burden.

In other subjects, like English, Spanish, and certain math classes, it was little more than a test in frustration. I never learned anything from it. I just did it to get it done so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I honestly can’t think of anything I actually learned from that kind of homework.

I know that’s just anecdotal on my part, but the research seems to bear that sentiment out. If a kid is interested in something, their natural curiosity will lead them to explore it. Homework can actually help with that effort. I can attest to that.

Back in high school, I took a world history course in my sophomore year. Around that same time, I developed a fondness for watching the History Channel, especially its many World War II documentaries. I wasn’t assigned to do it. I just did it because I was curious. It ended up paying off.

Later that year, we took an exam on the World War II period. I did not study at all for it, but I still got a perfect score. I just knew the material that well. The teacher even singled me out for my score, which was a nice bonus.

The same thing happened whenever I had to do an essay question for a test. I liked writing, so that was easy for me. I’m mediocre to awful at every other form of testing. I knew plenty of others who were the opposite. That’s kind of the point. Not everyone learns or tests the same way.

The same logic applies to homework. Since not everyone learns the same way, assigning the same kind of homework for everyone is bound to have mixed to negative results. It’s a blanket solution to a complex problem, which may ultimately hurt more students than it helps. It’s a reason why some jurisdictions have already experimented with eliminating it completely for certain grade levels.

I don’t think that solution is feasible, given how entrenched homework is within the current system. While I’m sure many students would celebrate its abolition, those same students may miss out on the benefits of learning outside school hours.

I know if there were no homework when I was going to school, I probably would’ve been more inclined to slack off. There’s a critical balance to strike when it comes to after-school learning. If school becomes too easy to brush off, then nobody benefits in the long run.

That’s why I’m more in favor of reforming it. One potential alternative is to switch from homework to retrieval practices. That practice emphasizes recalling what you learned rather than doing pre-made assignments. That may actually be easier in the current situation, given the growing prevalence of online schools and distance learning.

There are other alternatives that include a greater emphasis on projects, exploring basic life skills, or assigning certain educational games. Some may or may not be as effective, but like I said earlier. This might be the best possible time to consider those alternatives.

It has been year since I’ve been in school, but I remember enough to know that the system I went through had plenty of room for improvement. I also realize I was lucky. I went to public school in a relatively affluent area. I realize that my school had resources that others didn’t.

The current system for schooling hadn’t changed much since I graduated. Up until this year, public schools had clung to their tried and true traditions, which included their approach to homework. I think the time is right to rethink those traditions.

This past year has completely disrupted the schooling for an entire generation of kids. We don’t yet know the extent of that impact, but there’s still time to guide it. Reforming how we approach homework won’t fix everything, but it’ll definitely help the overall experience for the students. School is hard enough, even without a global pandemic. At the very least, let’s make this one arduous aspect of it a bit more bearable.

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Recalling (And Thanking) My Favorite Teacher In High School

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I’ve made no secret of how much I hated high school. I’ve also made no secret of how miserable I was as a teenagers. I know most teenagers are inherently moody. It’s as unavoidable as acne, body hair, and homework. I was just a lot moodier than most teens and for piss poor reasons.

However, my teenage years and high school experience weren’t all purified misery. There were indeed a few notable bright spots. Since this is the time of year when high school students are preparing for their last round of tests or planning for college, I thought it would be a good time to share one of those bright spots.

It’s not a single event, moment, or achievement. It’s a person. Specifically, he was my favorite teacher out of every teacher I had up to that point in school.

Out of respect for my teacher’s privacy, I won’t use his real name. I’ll just call him Mr. Lee. If I were to list all the things that made Mr. Lee such a great teacher, it would take me all week and that’s if I skipped meals. There are some teachers who just read from books and assign homework. There are also teachers who genuinely care and genuinely love to teach. Mr. Lee was the latter.

I had him for two classes. First, I had him for a computer science class. Then, I had him for AP Calculus. In both classes, his skill and passion for teaching shined. That’s not easy to do when you’re teaching something like calculus to a bunch of hormonal teenagers, but the man made it look easy. He even seemed to have fun while doing it.

It probably helped that Mr. Lee was incredibly smart. By that, I don’t just mean he was qualified to teach those subject. Mr. Lee graduated from Harvard with honors. He had a masters degree in computer engineering. He could’ve easily gotten a job at a big tech company and earned six figures by the time he was 30. Instead, he decided to teach immature teenagers how to write computer code and do calculus.

That, alone, speaks to the kind of character this man had. He was the kind of teacher who had an answer for every question and he never needed to check a book, phone, or computer. When you asked him something, he wouldn’t just give you an answer. He’d give you a damn good reason as to why it’s the right answer.

Despite how smart he was, Mr. Lee still carried himself with uncanny humility. He never acted like he was better than everyone else for being so smart. He was actually very approachable. You could talk to the man about anything. I once had a 10 minute conversation with him about how to make the perfect pizza. I still smile whenever I recall him explaining how carefully he spread the cheese on every pie.

Mr. Lee didn’t just demand your respect. He earned it. More importantly, and this is what set him apart, he made you want to earn his respect. Nobody slouched in his class. Nobody disrespected him or tried to nap through a lesson. That was the one class you really couldn’t sleep through because Mr. Lee made every lesson so engaging.

Again, this man taught AP Calculus. That’s not an easy subject to make engaging.

He still found a way. He always found a way to make a concept easy to understand. It’s because of him that I passed every exam, including the notoriously difficult AP Calculus exam that every student dreaded. I don’t think I’ve ever been more confident taking a test that didn’t involve an essay question.

I owe that success to Mr. Lee. Without him, I would’ve been even more miserable in high school. His classes, as difficult as they were, made me feel like I was learning something valuable. I still appreciate that value to this day.

You don’t always know which teacher will impact you the most over the course of your life, but when they do, it’s worth cherishing. I doubt Mr. Lee will ever read this or remember me, but during a less-than-pleasant time in my life, he was a breath of fresh air. For that, I sincerely thank him.

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Why Standardized Tests Make You (Feel) Dumber In The Long Run

A new study finds that higher test scores don't translate into better cognitive ability.

As I write these words, there are millions of young people out there who are either dreading an upcoming exam or recovering from one too many all-night cram sessions. This is that time of year, after all. The sweet freedom of summer vacation is almost within our grasp. We just have to survive a few more soul-crushing, brain-draining final exams.

Like the final boss in a video game, exams and standardized tests are the migraine headaches of modern education. They are that stabbing pain at the base of every teenager’s spine. They know it’s coming. They know it’s going to be stressful. The most they can do is brace themselves, study, and hope they don’t throw up at some point along the way.

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I get the logic behind these tests. I think even the students do, minus the ones whose only goal in life is to become an Instagram model. I don’t doubt that the intentions behind standardized tests are good. They’re supposed to help gauge the effectiveness of our education, revealing just how well we’ve retained the material.

I don’t doubt the merit behind that. A team of underpaid, under-appreciated teachers just spent nine months of their lives trying to cram a bunch of information into our developing brains. At the very least, they want to make sure that time wasn’t wasted. How devastating would it be if the found out all that time, effort, and chalk board lectures had been for nothing?

Well, with the utmost respect to the teachers and students who have to deal with this crap, there might be a repugnant stench in the air. As good as the intentions may be with standardized testing, they have a long list of issues. Just last month, the Washington Post listed at least 34 problems with these tests. With the memory of these tests still painfully fresh in my mind, I have a hard time believing there are only 34 problems.

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That’s because, and I’ve said this before whenever I’ve talked about the horror show that was high school for me, these tests don’t really measure how well you know the material. They only really measure how well you can take a test. That may help you get a driver’s license, but it won’t help with much else.

There’s a growing body of evidence that standardized testing does not translate into better cognitive skills. It doesn’t lead to better memory, better attention, or better reasoning skills. It doesn’t even reveal how well you know the material. Even if you do remember enough to ace the test, it’s rare for students to actually retain that knowledge.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially those whose memories of high school is still somewhat fresh. Depending on how traumatic your teenager years were, you probably remember not caring much about actually knowing the material at hand. You only cared about passing the test and not triggering an awkward parent/teacher conference.

In essence, that’s the biggest issue with these tests. That’s why, in the long run, they make us feel dumber. Just passing a test doesn’t make you smart. It just makes you good at passing a test. A lot of people can throw a football well. However, just being able to throw a football doesn’t make you as skilled as Peyton Manning. Just ask Ryan Leaf.

It’s just as bad for the teachers. They dedicate their time, energy, and patience to teach a bunch of immature kids and hormonal teenagers what they think is important. However, their effectiveness, as a professional, is entirely contingent on their ability to get these thick-headed kids to pass a goddamn test every year. Even doctors and lawyers don’t have subject themselves to that kind of frustration.

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I can certainly attest to the inefficiencies of these tests. It’s pretty much the only skill that was regularly emphasized throughout high school. Every subject in every class felt like a prelude to one goal, which was to pass the test. That was always at the forefront of my mind. Actually knowing and caring about the subject was always secondary.

The only subjects I did know anything about happened to be subjects I had a genuine interest in. I liked writing, history, science, and even math to some extent. However, a lot of what I learned on those subjects wasn’t necessarily taught. I sought that knowledge out on my own.

Contrary to popular belief, not every teenager is a total slacker whose sole goal in life is to live out the rest of their days on the couch watching Netflix. Many are genuinely curious about certain topics and not all of those topics are related to food, sex, and punk rock music. If they want to learn more about something and you give them the opportunity, they’ll take it.

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For me, personally, it was writing. No teacher or guidance counselor needed to guide me to do that. It’s just something I started doing. My parents already had a computer so I had all the resources I needed. Thanks to a vivid imagination inspired by comic books and cartoons, I had plenty to write about. I haven’t really stopped since.

There were other topics that intrigued me too. Growing up, I was also interested in history, especially 20th century history. There was a period where I watched every World War II documentary on the History Channel I could. It got to the point where I knew the names of generals, battles, and dates better than my teacher.

It culminated one fateful day during my sophomore year of high school. I was in my history class and, much to my relief, we were focusing on early 20th century history. My teacher was lecturing, going over the textbook as they so often do, and at one point she got a date wrong. I, having the piss-poor social skills I had, just corrected her on the spot.

For some teachers, that would be a one-way business class ticket to getting detention. For this particular teacher, though, she smiled at me and thanked me. That was a proud moment for me. Later on, when we did take a test, I got a perfect score. I didn’t really need to study for it either. I knew the material because I wanted to know it.

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That’s both the key and the paradox that dooms standardized testing. It tries to create a one-size-fits-all standard with which to gauge every student. It ignores the fact that not every student is going to want to know the names of every Russian Tsar or how to use quadratic equations. Some students really are smart, just not on certain subjects.

On top of that, some students just aren’t good test takers either. I know this because I’m one of them. I often had to give disclaimers, of sorts, to my teachers about my test-taking skills. Some of it was due to nervousness. Some of it was just due to the mental fog that comes with the stress of taking a test. Some people can manage it well. I can’t.

The only exception, in my case, were the essay questions. I loved the essay questions because I knew I’d ace those. Writing is, I like to think, one of my greatest strengths. If I could’ve exchanged every standardized test I ever took for an essay, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. I’d have been the valedictorian of my high school.

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I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Standardized tests made me feel dumb, but I know I’m not dumb. I couldn’t manage this blog, keep track of major events in comics, or stay up-to-date on the status of sex robots if I were. I genuinely worry that a lot of impressionable, vulnerable kids will feel that same sentiment by taking these tests. They may never realize that these tests are not a reflection of how smart they are.

The issue of standardized testing is still ongoing and still controversial. There are a lot of moving parts to education, especially in large countries with diverse populations. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but an important first step is acknowledging the problem.

As usual, John Oliver has already done a far more astute job of exposing the problem than I ever will. He dedicated an entire segment of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” to it. I’ll let him fill in the blanks that I wasn’t able to cover in this post.

So to all the students out there still dreading their final tests of the school year, I can only urge you to hang in there. These tests will not determine the course of your life. These tests will not determine how smart you are. You will come out of this. Life will get better as an adult.

Sure, you have jobs, families, and taxes to worry about. Take it from me, though. If you can endure the stresses of exams and standardized tests, you can endure almost anything an adult life can throw at you.

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