The Homework Placebo

homeworkfrustrationHomework. In every school I ever taught at, it was an expectation. An expectation of management, parents and colleagues; even kids. “If the students don’t get homework they’ll fall behind.” There would be weighty discussions in staff meetings about how much. It all fell back on personal opinion, with scant regard for the research.

Research? You mean there’s research? Well, yes. It’s been out there for decades and it’s remarkably consistent. Every few years there’s another article that hits the popular press and says the same thing. But nothing changes.

Here’s the latest. Read it and weep.

There’s no better way to kill off a love of learning than unwanted homework.




Introvert vs Extrovert

introversionA thought-provoking article on introverted kids in the classroom from America’s NPR. A few quotes:

“Introverts have nervous systems that simply react more to everything that’s going on around them, and that means they feel more in their sweet spot when there’s less stuff happening. And extroverts have nervous systems that react less, which means that they don’t get to their sweet spot until there’s more stuff happening… An introverted kid would rather draw quietly or would rather play their favorite sport with one or two other kids. A more extroverted child would rather be part of a big gang and a big noisy birthday party, and not only not be fazed by it but seem to really relish all that stimulation.”

Nice explanation.

“We overvalue the person who raises their hand all the time. Why is that important? Do we overvalue in quantity, as opposed to quality, of participation?”


“Another idea is the think/pair/share technique, which I think many teachers are familiar with already, but may not realize the power of it within a population of students. This is a technique where the teacher asks the students a question; asks them to think about the answer. They pair up with another student to talk about their reflections. And then, once they’re paired, once they’ve articulated it with that partner, then you ask each pair to share their thoughts with the room as a whole. And this does a lot of great things for introverted kids. No. 1, it gives them the time to process. No. 2, it allows them to get the experience of articulating their thoughts out loud.”

There’s a lot here to like, though as my fellow introvert Tim Bulkeley points out, there’s a bit of “the standard assumption that Extroversion is normal and Introversion an abnormality. (We Introverts are used to such prejudice, and many will fail even to spot it!)” But anything that raises teacher awareness of the perspective of the “quiet kids” in their classrooms has got to be a positive.


Not Quite Discworld

dragonsReading to kids is a non-negotiable feature of good teaching in the primary and intermediate years. Choosing good material is the hard part. Not every children’s writer is worth the effort. One criterium – apart from the fact that you need to enjoy them yourself – is quirkiness. You need something that will grab kids’ attention and, hopefully, lead them to move on and explore further.

Which leads me to the late Terry Pratchett. I wasn’t aware that he’d written quite a number of books for children. Digging into Dragons at Crumbling Castle this weekend has been an enjoyable experience. Pratchett wrote these short stories as a young man in the 1960s, but they didn’t see the light till 2014. They’re a real find.

Short stories can be polished off in a single reading. That’s especially important for day relievers. Start something more substantial and you’re likely to leave things unfinished and hanging…

Pratchett’s wry humour comes through in these 14 tales.

The Great Expedition to find the Snorry began to assemble at the harbour one misty morning.

Colonel Vest, the famous little-game hunter, told the men from the newspapers (who all had to get up at three in the morning to see him off): no one is quite sure what the Snorry looks like, so we’ll be able to tell them when we find it.

So begins ‘Hunt the Snorry’. There’s a note at the bottom of the page explaining “little-game”: Basically, anything smaller than himself, and preferably no taller than his knee.

And off they go, into “the giant tapioca forests of the Upper Amazon”.



The Maths of Poverty

Print“Children living in poverty in New Zealand are at least six times more likely to struggle with maths than students from wealthy backgrounds, a new report has found. The ranking was one of the worst in the developed world, with only Ireland, Israel and Poland doing worse.” (Kirsty Johnston, The maths of poverty: poor kids struggle, NZ Herald, Feb. 12.)

That’s the take-home message from an OECD report that finds (surprise, surprise) that socio-economic factors are a huge influence on whether kids do well at school.

Anyone in the education field knew this already. This latest OECD report is one in a long line to reach the same conclusion.

“The report said that socio-economic status was ‘probably’ the most important risk factor associated with low academic performance…” For probably read undoubtedly.

Listening to the current government’s rhetoric, you’d never guess it. Poverty is a government issue, reflecting economic policies and direction. Call for a washbasin and towel, we can’t have that!

So the blame must be shoved in another direction. No prizes for guessing where; schools and teachers. We need better quality teachers, so let’s overburden and browbeat them, that’ll do the trick.

I’ve worked at the chalk face from the mid-1970s through until the middle of last year. Rarely if ever have I met a teacher who didn’t give a damn. The simple truth is that teaching, at whatever level, is a demanding, stressful job. A profession that’s increasingly underappreciated as well as underpaid.

The dirty little secret that the politicians won’t tell you is that a modern economy needs a sizable pool of unskilled workers. Compliant unskilled workers. People forced to work for low pay every hour God gives them. Blather about raising standards so all kids succeed goes down well with the electorate, but it’s as realistic as the throwaway line in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon monologues: “where all the children are above average”.

There’ll always be a bell-shaped curve, grist for advocates of charter schools. The question is, who is consistently in that low performer section, and why. That’s what this study tells us – if it wasn’t already obvious.

Of course, the bell-shaped curve itself can be moved over time. How do you do it?

Eliminate poverty. Provide job security for lower and middle-income families. Reduce the disparity between the haves and have-nots.

Not something any of us expects to hear anytime soon from Hekia Parata.


Supermarket Maths

mailerA year ago I was still teaching full time. These days when I get asked to relieve in a classroom, I take along a box of tricks. Things that will provide good value for minimal preparation. Hopefully, the class will enjoy the experience as well as pick up some worthwhile skills.

Among my arsenal are supermarket mailers. If there isn’t a math activity provided (or the one that is provided seems as “clear as mud”, as is sometimes the case) this becomes my default activity, easily adjusted for the age level. The local Countdown supermarket thoughtfully provides piles of these by the exit, so it’s no big deal to grab a set on the way out.

The class is split into pairs, each getting a copy (one between two or, preferably, one each) of the mailer and a hypothetical budget. The instructions are that the cupboard at home is completely bare, and they have to buy enough groceries to tide a family of three over the weekend.

Of course, you need to spell out the rules. You can’t buy more than one of each item (unless it comes as a multi-deal). Your partner can buy the same item as you only once. You have to include basic options (milk for example) and healthy options (fresh fruit and veg). You have to cater for your parents’ tastes (could they get through the weekend without coffee?) You must spend at least 80% of your budget, but beyond that you get to keep what you don’t spend (hypothetically of course) as a reward for thrift. Each student is in charge of half the budget, but obviously it pays (literally!) to cooperate.

I’d probably assign around $30 to each kid, giving a group budget of $60. No overspending allowed!

Once the list has been decided, calculated and recorded, each kid has to design and prepare a menu for one day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) using only those foods and beverages that they and their partner have bought. No duplication allowed, except for breakfast (those Corn Flakes shouldn’t go to waste).

This used to be called a maths “social application”, though that terminology seems to have long since gone out of style. I suppose you could just as easily call it “problem-solving”. What I do know is that kids really get into this activity, working hard to score the excess change and then interrogate their classmates about whether they’ve really followed the rules.

Maths, art/visual language (the menu), oral language (the discussion). Much better than a page from the textbook.

The Matthew Effect

February 3, 2016

“It’s back to school this week. I am starting to regard teaching in New Zealand as a low-paid charitable pastime.”

That’s the opening salvo to a piece by Peter Lyons, an economics teacher at St Peter’s College, Epsom (February 2 NZ Herald). Lyons isn’t crying a river of tears over the lot of teachers, though. His main point is about the way the teaching of financial literacy is ignored in our schools. Sadly, the article doesn’t seem to be available online, so here’s a sample.

“It frustrates me that we do not teach more practical financial skills in our schools. It is almost wilful negligence.”

He goes on to talk about “wealth apartheid”.

“When the economy needs a shot in the arm, the Reserve Bank lowers short-term interest rates to pump up demand in the economy… Lower interest rates make it easier to borrow to buy assets… Capital gains are treated very benignly in New Zealand. So a factory worker in Mangere is likely to pay a higher portion of her income in taxes than someone with a portfolio of shares or rental properties. Those on the right side of the ledger are pulling away rapidly.

“Meanwhile lower interest rates encourage those on low incomes with limited financial literacy to borrow and spend more… Those who are spenders – often those who can least afford it – are encouraged to spend more.

“So the wealth gap widens. The ‘haves’ with financial assets and understanding get richer on paper. The ‘have-nots’ get further into debt buying items that do not appreciate in value.”

Knowledge is power, an adage that Lyons repeats. This basic financial nous is ‘missing in action’ in our college classrooms (and I’d be prepared to defend the proposition that it should be introduced much earlier than that). Those fortunate few who benefit from this kind of information tend to be those who need it least.

And so the rich get richer, or to add a biblical twist “unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” There’s even a name for this: the ‘Matthew effect’ (the quote comes from Matthew 25:29 in ye olde King James version of the Bible.

Lyons concludes: “The vast bulk of tax paid in New Zealand is paid by wage earners rather than asset owners. Yet in recent years the asset owners are reaping the biggest gains.”

That’s something today’s teens, eager to get a line of credit and the shiny plastic that goes with it, need to know, and not just the privileged few in the Grammar zone.

Hitting the ground running

Week of February 1, 2016.

Auckland Anniversary Day. Everywhere else the kids head back to school today. In the upper North Island it’ll be tomorrow. The teachers have, of course, been back for some time, intent on the annual ritual of setting up classrooms. They’ve been pinning up posters and rearranging furniture long before the official Teacher Only Day (TOD), the purpose of which always seems to be curbing any excess enthusiasm with unnecessary pieces of paper being distributed, never to see the light of day again

Out in the malls and main streets it has been impossible not to notice parents, offspring in tow, shopping for school supplies. Look carefully and you’d have noticed some shopping furtively, sans kids. Those were probably teachers set on picking up cheap stationery while the bargains are still on offer. I’d do this each January, knowing that some youngsters would always turn up without pencils or paper, and others would be among the last to buy the items on the approved stationery list. It was always easier to spend a few bucks and avoid the unnecessary grief. This year I stocked up on 5c 3B1 notebooks at The Warehouse just from force of habit.

And (ignoring the pedant’s rule that no sentence should start with an ‘and’) what could be a more auspicious time to launch a new blog. The result of a belated New Year’s resolution, the plan is to put up a new posting each Monday, and sometimes a midweek extra. The focus – if you haven’t already guessed – is on the chalk face. Comments are welcome.

And so, onward to the first bell, and the tentative arrivals hanging around the door, not sure just how they’ll get along in the new room with their new (or more realistically, retreaded) teacher. Good luck kids.