January 18, 2017


Friday, November 25, 2016

Hey, Teachers! Leave them kids…

By Liliana Palermo
For the Herald

A gold star to any parent who rebels against homework

Spanish parents are revolting – against homework. The CEAPA (which represents 12,000 parent/teacher organisations) is organising protests against what it claims is too much homework set by schools. A recent survey revealed that 82% of parents asked believed it was too much or excessive. Over half thought it harmed family life. And with a few caveats (1), I couldn’t agree more with their complaint.

Interestingly, compared with other countries, the estudiantes have it relatively easy (2). In 2014, the OECD recorded average weekly homework assigned to 15-year-old students across various countries, and it turns out Spanish students don’t know how lucky they are, with a mere 6.5 hours. Finnish pupils dodge the bullet (3) with a skinny 2.8 hours (4). Shanghai clobbers (5) its students with 13.8 hours (so they know what it feels like to be a teacher, I imagine). The UK doles out (6) a comparatively palatable (7) 4.9 hours. Given that Programme for International Student Assessment chart-toppers (8) Finland and Shanghai appear at either end of this survey, there doesn’t appear to be a clear link between length of homework set and systemic grade outcomes.

So what does the research say about it? A 2001 meta-study by the National Foundation for Educational Research concluded that there was “a positive relationship between time spent and outcomes at secondary level” but “evidence at primary level is inconsistent”. And even at secondary, homework “explains only a small amount of variance in pupils’ achievement”. More recently John Hattie’s seminal Visible Learning study concluded that homework overall had an effect size of 0.29 – in other words, a very small impact. He too noted a difference between the effect on young pupils (0.15, minuscule) and older children (0.64, significant). Other studies concur (9). So if there is at least some utility, are the Spanish parents right to rebel?

Si. Because there is a huge variance between the effect different types of homework have on students. And homework differs from classwork in many ways. It’s normally done independently of supervision; it requires that the task be understood, and that all resources to complete the task (from IT to prior, understood knowledge) be available. The student needs uninterrupted time and space to finish it, and the qualities of character to complete it. In a classroom you can attempt to create a controlled environment where conditions are optimised for everyone’s benefit. But setting homework is an act of faith about what will return; a boomerang thrown into the darkness.

Plus, some homework is useful, and some is not. One thing that amazed me when I started teaching was how much homework appeared to be entirely mad, and set for little purpose beyond bureaucracy. Writing a poem about how you felt about litter was one of my favourites, but there were countless other examples. Writing a letter from Jesus about what it was like to be on the cross. Making “wanted” posters for Mr Hyde for English teachers. Colouring in the Great Fire of London for history. Writing scripts for roleplays about Greek medicine. Building volcanoes out of papier mache for geography. I mean, come on. These kind of activities indicate a purposelessness (10) that we need to say goodbye to for ever in teaching. Set meaningful homework, or not at all. It’s their time you’re wasting.

Of course the teacher’s lens is important here too: homework produces marking. And if you set it, the student deserves constructive feedback. But if you see 200+ children as a secondary humanities teacher every week, weekly marking becomes a Sisyphean task. Even flicking and ticking (11) the toils (12) of that number of pupils becomes an extra day out of your week. And the effect of such minimal feedback is microscopic at best. Given that this might burn anything up to 25% of your notional (13) working life, it’s heart-breaking, not to mention pointless.

Finally, the parents’ view: homework steals family time that doesn’t get refunded elsewhere in the week. And that is indisputably true, and the theft is compounded when the return is so small in general. Those few hours between getting home and closing your eyes are precious to the inter-family relationship. If you’re going to steal any of that, you better be damn sure (14) that the reward is greater than the loss. And for a lot of homework, for a lot of children, it just doesn’t add up. Abajo el sistema opresor – down with the oppressor – as they say in Spain.

Adapted from an article by Tom Bennett, The Guardian


“caveats” (1)

When there is a caveat in an idea or an argument, there’s a warning or an explanation to prevent misinterpretation. His investment advice comes with a caveat: that the stock market is impossible to predict with absolute accuracy. The word is a verb as well, as in The spokesperson caveated the statement with a reminder that certain facts were still unknown.

“have it relatively easy” (2)

When a person “has it (relatively) easy, they have no difficulties, they are fortunate enough to be in a relaxed position in a way that results in an easier life. They have had it easy for too long and now they find it difficult to face this hard situation / With all the information available on the Internet, kids these days have it easy when it comes to writing research essays.

“dodge the bullet” (3)

If someone has dodged a bullet, they have successfully avoided a very serious problem or a dangerous or harmful situation. “We just dodged a bullet. Hurricane Matthew went elsewhere,” the Minister announced / The exam was pushed till next week and I really dodged the bullet as I hadn't studied for it at all!

“a skinny 2.8 hours” (4)

“Skinny” is an adjective that is used to describe a person that is very thin. Figuratively, “skinny” is used in connection with figures or profits to mean that they are unusually low or reduced, minimal.

For the use of “another,” see “Another fifty papers to correct” below.

“clobbers” (5)

“To clobber” is to strike heavily or violently. By extension, if kids are “clobbered with homework,” they are loaded with it in a way that is heavy — though not necessarily violent in this context. Who's going to get clobbered in the next cyber-attack?

“doles out” (6)

“To dole out” is to distribute or to administer as in small portions. The cook doled out the meal to each soldier in the camp / Ontario dentists dole out Halloween candy advice / The teacher doled pencils out to the students before the test.

“palatable” (7)

From the literal meaning of acceptable or agreeable to the palate or taste; savory, as in palatable food, the meaning is extended to acceptable or agreeable to the mind or feelings: palatable ideas.

“chart-toppers” (8)

A chart-topper is a singer or band that comes top in the charts: The film features chart-toppers / A jazz composer and pianist, who is known for chart-toppers like “Hang on, Sloopy” and “The ‘In’ Crowd.” The adjective that correspond to this is “chart-topping,” as in a chart-topping song.

“concur” (9)

You accord in opinion and agree if you concur with a person on ideas. The word is more commonly used in formal contexts. Do you concur with his action plan? / The new report concurs with previous findings.

“purposelessness” (10)

If something is “purposeless” as opposed to “purposeful”, it is believed not to have any apparent purpose or meaning, no goal. “Aimless,” “meaningless” are synonyms. All these words, which are adjectives derived from nouns – purpose, aim, meaning – by adding the suffixes “-less” and “-ful,” can be turned into nouns again by adding still another suffix: “ness” to them. This results in reference to “the state or quality of.” “Careless,” “defenceless,” “hopeless,” “hopeful,” “careful” are other adjectives – to name but a few – that have suffered the same transformation. They may be turned into abstract nouns in the same fashion: “carelessness,” “hopelessness,” “hopefulness,” “carefulness.” He resented the meaninglessness / pointlessnes of the tasks they assigned him.

“flicking and ticking” (11)

The combination of these two actions conjure up an image of a teacher looking through papers by making quick movements with the fingers (i.e. flicking) and making light marks to check off or call attention to items (i.e. ticking) Flick through a book / flick through a crate of old records / Ticked off each name on the list.

“toils” (12)

“Toil” refers to hard and continuous work; or to an exhausting labour or effort.

How are “labour,” “toil” and “work” similar and how are they different? While all of them refer to physical or mental effort to produce something or accomplish a goal, “work” is the most widely used and applied to most situations. “Labour,” on the one hand, implies human work, physical or intellectual. “Toil,” on the other hand, applies mainly to strenuous, fatiguing labour. There’s still another related word which we have studied in this section before: “drudgery,” which hints at dull, monotonous kind of work.

“notional” (13)

When you define something as “notional,” you imply that this exists as an idea rather than as something real. Notional budgets for hospital and community health services / The platoon drilled by rescuing notional victims with and without gear.

“you better be damn sure” (14)

The word “damn / damned” is a swear word that people use to emphasize what they are saying. In this case, it takes the slot of an intensifier before an adjective. Non-native speakers of the language are usually discouraged from using this kind of offensive language and should be on the alert of what kind of context this choice might be appropriate in. The expression in the text is very informally coined since the irregular form “you’d better” has been simplified by omitting the auxiliary “had.” If we are to give a more elegant and “correct” version of the sentence, you get: “you’d better be pretty / very – or even extremely! – sure” (that this is the case.)

Another fifty papers to correct

When we come across articles in the very first steps of our study of the language, several issues are involved. There are many rules and collocations to learn and to go by. Among a significant number, one of the clearest rules is the following: “a” – the indefinite article – collocates only with singular nouns when we want to denote unspecific reference of the noun in question.

But then, we get to stumble upon expressions like: “a skinny 2 hours” or “an estimated 50 people die in the attack, “a whopping ten miles per hour,” “We’ve made it free to watch the documentary for an additional two days.” A number of expressions seem to fit this pattern and are used as if they were adverbs. Take, for instance, the second example above, “an estimated 50 people die in the attack,” in which case “an estimated” could be substituted with adverbs like “approximately” or “about.” It looks as though “a” before a certain kind of adjectives gives the whole phrase an adverbial nature. Here are a few more phrases that collocate in similar strings: an approximate, an extra, a good, a huge, a possible, a scant.

“Another” behaves similarly when it comes to combining with plural nouns. But wait! “Another” is singular too! Well, “I still have another fifty papers to correct” is a perfectly valid utterance in English. How about “I’ll take another dozen croissants, please”? Or what do we make of “Another three books have investigated the matter before”? and “There were another three months of delay.” There’s also a good explanation for this use and a hard and fast rule to go by as well: “another” can be used before a plural noun when there is a number before that noun or before phrases such as a couple of, a few etc.

So, there you go! Another two elements in the language to be on the lookout for. We’re “pretty” sure you will chance upon a good 10 instances in the news every day.


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