Thursday, March 21, 2013

Creating Innovators with Homework?

In a speech to the faculties of Atlanta-area independent schools yesterday, author Tony Wagner spoke from experience as teacher, administrator, and educational researcher, one who has spent years studying innovators in industry, arts, and education.  He outlined lists of "three most" and "seven most" important practices listed in his book Creating Innovators.During the Q-and-A session that followed, I waited too long to ask my one-word question, "Homework?"  While I waited, I figured out what he'd probably say.

First, if the homework is intended simply to convey factual information, it's a waste of time.  With the world wide web in our pockets, factual information is now a "commodity," worth little. 

But, what if the homework teaches a skill?   Wagner said, in today's market, "It's not what you know, but what you can do with it."   If the homework is akin to practicing a musical instrument, mastering a certain baseball pitch, or working through a new app, then that's a good kind of work.  Could that, too be done in the classroom?  Teams do drill on the basketball court, but the best players practiced countless hours on their own -- Michael Jordan being the famous example. The kind of skill that has to be mastered alone would be highly important to the student, and a waste of class time.

Because Wagner says that the world's job market puts a premium on collaborative creative work, I suppose that he would prefer that class time be spent in getting teams of students to find -- not "the answers," but alternative solutions to problems.   

What would he say about reading assignments in books of literature or accounts of history?  He'd probably ask the purpose for the assignment.   If it's just to learn the facts, he'd say that's not the best use of a student's after-school time.  If the reading exercises a student's discernment, or the application of a lesson to a text, then that's stretching the student's ability, and a good use of time.  Could that time be spent in the classroom, with the teacher available for one-on-one coaching, and time available for students to compare what they learned?   I'd opt for that, if possible -- simply because our lives after school are so full of other things, like blogging, and exercise, and commuting, and dinner, and rehearsals, etc.

But Wagner puts the highest value on passion, and that gives us a kind of homework that will take time and concentraation outside of class.  "If a young person is passionate about something," he said, "they'll master the skills and acquire the information" as needed.  So class time should go to something my colleague Justin Loudermilk introduced to me, his "20% Project."  He allows students 20% of their class time to collaborate on something they care deeply about, and they all take time outside of class to complete it. 

After his talk on passion, collaboration, and creativity, the very first question from a teacher was about grading.  I'm struck by how often we teachers, threatened by a kind of teaching that isn't like what we experienced, stiff-arm it with a question, "Well, yes, but how are we supposed to grade that?"   Wagner said that he'd recommend having only three grades:  A, B, and "Incomplete."  Sounds like my approach, too: to keep the kids working on a project until it's the best they can do with the objectives they face using the skills they've developed by a deadline. 

After all, I felt affirmed in the choices I've made as a teacher, and motivated to find more ways to collaborate.  My writing students are currently at work "exploring" through research topics of interest to them about which they're curious, asking questions that don't have easy answers.  I wonder if I missed an opportunity to make this, too, collaborative?  I used to have a "magazine" project when I taught history, for which students created a kind of portfolio of essays, stories, time lines, graphs, and reviews related to a chosen theme.  It might be worth considering.

My drama classes do collaborate a lot; next year, with my class time extended from one quarter to a full semester, I should consider more ways to have collaboration. 

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