Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thoughts on DepEd's "No homework during weekends" policy

A couple of weeks ago, the Philippine Department of Education released a memo stipulating that public elementary school teachers should not give homework to their students during weekends. Immediately, DepEd drew flak from teacher groups, such as the Teacher's Dignity Coalition, who said, in so many words, that DepEd need not legislate this, but instead, trust their teachers.

I don't completely agree with what the Teacher's Dignity Coalition said, but I do believe they are justified in questioning whether a policy such as this be required for all elementary public school teachers. And, like some teachers, I do see the rationale behind this policy and I applaud it.

But I think it is in danger of failing. Simply because the landscape is not ready, and, if the landscape were ready, such a policy would be unnecessary.

I think my post in Facebook summarizes my views. My initial status post said this:

Oh, DepEd. You want your "no homework over the weekend" thing to succeed? Then streamline the curriculum content well!

And then, in response to one friend, I also commented,
I like the rationale, actually. But unless the guidelines are reasonable and clear, unless they streamline the curriculum and fix it so that it targets performance mastery and not just imbibing content, unless they train the teachers to be assessment experts, then this thing will fall flat. It'll be a band-aid solution to the problem of education, and it won't achieve its objective. That's my two cents.
Let me take this opportunity to expound. I see the rationale--parents are complaining that kids have too much homework during the weekdays and the weekends. If so, this gives undue stress both on the child and the parents, not to mention the teachers who have to check all that homework. Hence, teachers should not give homework during the weekend to lessen the stress for everyone involved.

I think certain factors are forgotten in this logical argument. For instance, the conclusion, which is the no-homework-during-weekends policy, only targets a symptom, if you will--the overabundance of homework. Nowhere does this policy address why there is too much homework. We could also question if there is too much homework, but having been a teacher and a teacher trainer, that question is moot for me. In a lot of schools, there is too much homework. Nevertheless, it wouldn't hurt to include some external metrics to show a stronger basis of the impression that there is too much homework.

However, for the sake of argument, let's say that there really is a lot of homework piled on to our young kids. I am more interested in the question, "Why is there too much homework?" Because, honestly, telling teachers that they can't give homework without addressing what leads them to give homework may cause greater problems than what this particular solution intends to erase.

There are purposes to homework. Fine. If you've monitored the news regarding this policy, I'm sure you've heard the defense--teachers give homework to prepare the students for the next lesson or to help them remember the current lesson, teachers know when to give homework. Let me just say this now, before I forget--yes to the first, a conditional yes to the second, but the question is, if there is such expertise in homework-giving, then how come there is little mastery among students?

In none of the news I've read about this policy has this observation been raised: maybe one of the reasons that some of our teachers give homework is that the things they intended students to learn in the classroom can't be finished in the classroom. So, they ask students to do it at home. The lack of classroom instruction time is addressed by giving them homework. I have been guilty of this. *Oops, the guys can't finish the work in class. Ok, let them take it home and submit it the next day; Oh, they need to write two major compositions and four minor compositions. I don't have the luxury of time to do the process writing approach in class for all of these writing assignments. Hey, let's just assign some of them as homework.*

The truth of the matter is, when you enter the classroom, often, even the best planned of lessons and assessments will change because of classroom factors. So, sometimes, the teacher might not intend to give homework, but ends up doing so. Or sometimes, the teacher feels that he or she has to finish the entire book or maximize it, so he or she'll give homework to the students from the book. It's this analysis of what actually goes on inside the classroom and its causes that I feel is lacking behind the impetus of this policy.

So, if students can't finish what you want them to finish inside the classroom, if homework occasionally works as a substitute for classroom time, then the question to ask again is--why? And there we go to the overstuffed curriculum, which, I think, most teachers already know, judging from reactions of fellow educators and teacher trainees when asked about the coverage of the curriculum. There is just too much. What's more dismaying?--In spite of the extensive coverage, there is little mastery, judging again from the performance of students in standardized testing and reactions of higher institutions in general. Not to mention the state of our economy.

This is why I believe streamlining the curriculum is key. You cannot tell teachers to lessen homework if you expect them to teach an enormous amount of discrete information. Streamlining the curriculum means determining what is really essential, organizing the content in a logical and efficient manner, and getting rid of topics that might have been there for ages, but are actually no longer pertinent given the world we live in now. I know, easier said than done. But it can be done.

Another essential element is the teacher himself or herself. Homework is assessment, be it formative or summative. Together with streamlining the curriculum, teachers must also understand better how to use assessment and when to use it and what kind to use. Because, honestly, it's not so much the existence of weekend homework that is annoying; it's the kind of homework given. Once again, I have been guilty of giving students mindless homework exercises over the weekend that they can easily, easily copy from a friend. I realized that accomplishment of these tasks do not really tell me much of my students' mastery of the subject matter; it's just that it was a weekend and my prior training taught me that I should feel guilty if I send the students home without even so much as a task to remind them of me and my lesson. In other words, those homeworks I gave, in my honest opinion, were an inefficient and ineffective way to assess.

Then again, not all weekend homeworks are created equal. Two Fridays ago, my son, who's in Prep, came home with the following homework: "Walk around your neighborhood with your mom and dad and draw things that you can see, smell, hear, taste, and touch." Ok, granted this is a Prep homework, but it's a difference from the homework that he used to take home, which were just worksheets that he had to answer, match, or color. This homework actually required me to go around the neighborhood with him, which I loved. So, along the way, we talked, we identified things that appeal to the five senses, we spent time together, we both got to go around our neighborhood more. The walk also gave me opportunity to talk about garbage in the street and how it clogs up the waterways, among other things. Didn't cost me anything and it took us all of 20 minutes. As a teacher and a parent, I loved that homework. It targeted the skill, made it experiential, provided me the opportunity to spend time with my son, and potentially led to other real-world discussions with him. This teacher, this school, knew how to use homework.

To tell teachers not to give weekend homework is not enough and does not really address the problem. To help teachers understand how, when, and what homework to give is more essential. I think that, together with a streamlined curriculum, will work more towards the goal of not burdening students with too much homework. If those two things are targeted: the curriculum and training of teachers to be better assessors, then the policy of "no weekend homework" is no longer necessary. You've eliminated one of the great causes for overabundant homework, and your teachers are truly trained to understand when homework is useful.

Because without the support of the curriculum and teacher training, this policy will be a nightmare to implement. The blanket statement is limiting to everyone, but most especially detrimental to teachers who actually do use assessment efficiently and effectively. Are there clear guidelines for what kind of weekend homework is permissible? Who is going to monitor the adherence to the policy and how will it be monitored? Will this impact on the teachers' year-end evaluation? Are there sanctions for one who does not follow? If so, are the sanctions fitting for the infraction? The policy might be creating more problems than it fixes.

As an educator and a parent, I do believe that children should have the luxury of time to engage in non-school-related activities, as well as bond with their families. I also believe that a lot of educational institutions do give too much homework to their students, thereby taking up too much of the student's time. But I don't believe this policy is an effective solution to the problem. It is well-intentioned and brave, but a tad bit reactionary. Perhaps our sights should be set less on removing the burden of homework, and more on getting teachers, students, and parents to love homework because it is meaningful.

Once an Educator...

Always an educator.

I stand by that. For almost two years, I've been blogging about one of my passions--books. But I have other passions, other loves: my family, food, and my career--education. I could probably use the term "teaching," but doing what I do now, I'd feel pretentious calling myself a teacher. After all, I don't teach in a classroom anymore. But it seems no matter what I do, no matter how far I go, my heart will always, always be in education.

And so this blog is born. I may not be in a classroom anymore, but I am still an educator. I do teacher training, and my current work as a writer and editor of instructional materials requires me to do some instructional and curriculum designing. And I love doing all of that. But since I no longer work in a school setting, I find myself looking for more people I can talk to with like passion. Teacher training is great, but it doesn't happen everyday. Dealing with teacher-writers is also great, but again, meetings are few and far between. As a blogger, I've found, though, that the discourse online can be rich and rewarding. If nothing else, this allows me to talk about my other passion in a more apparent manner.

But I have a specific agenda for this blog than just a repository of my teacher-y thoughts. You see, I also work as an e-learning specialist, and though I find that title a bit too big for me, I do think of myself as an apostle of web 2.0 applications for educators. So, in this blog, I'd like to feature a lot of Web 2.0 applications that teachers can use, some of them I've used myself, others I haven't had the opportunity to use in class but will pimp out nonetheless because I see some potential in it, or because I know of someone else who used it to good effect.

As a Filipino educator, I have an idea of how accepted technology integration is in schools. Teachers and administrators like the idea, like what it can do. But right after that comes the litany of constraints against it--we don't have the hardware; we have the hardware, but not the internet connection; we have the internet connection, but it's slow; we have a fantastic net connection, but teachers just use it to check email; the hardware's very expensive so that, even if we have it, we don't want to let a lot of people use it; we're not sure how to use it; our students are too poor that integrating technology in school would be useless since they don't have it at home anyway; and so on. I understand that these are real concerns, but as a perpetual optimist , I think that the first thing that needs to be done is to get rid of the fear. Because once the fear is overcome, then solutions to these issues, new and creative, come out of the woodwork.

There is one final reason that I was pushed to start this blog. I am a mother of two beautiful children, a six-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. My girl has Down Syndrome, so she has special needs when it comes to education. But it is through my children, both my son and my daughter, that I'm learning to look at education in a new light. For all my teaching life, I've taught in very traditional schools. But now that my children are in pre-school or about to enter early grades, I'm seeing more exciting ways of teaching and learning. I see that what I've always dreamed of when it comes to teaching, others have already been doing or are on their way towards. And I want to give props to these great educators I've met through my children. In fact, when it comes down to it, my children are my teachers. They have taught me that there are more ways to teach and learn than what I had previously known.

So, if you're reading this, welcome! This blog is an adventure, as teaching is a grand adventure. I do not know where it will lead or what it will bring, but as always, I look forward to what I shall learn. And I hope you find something of value here, too.