Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Mindful Work and Learners/Not Homework

To Think Away The Grass, The Trees, The Clouds (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
We've had a few days off from work here in New Jersey and during parts of the last four days, I have had the occasion to hear my son on line skyping with friends who were helping him to release his new Minecraft server which went public on Saturday. I sometimes forget that he is talking with other boys given the seriousness of the tone, the strategy of the play, the banter.  They talk a lot: the entire time they are each at their own homes with headphones on, audio skyping, and relaying step-by-step what they are doing/thinking.  The amount of talk is pretty significant.  There is no one to "call on" each player to talk. They talk at will and there doesn't seem to be any 'engagement' problems.

Really would like you to assist him, G as he is going to be a good client on the server. We need to make sure we pay a little more attention.
T, I need you to use your programming skills with a plug in. Can you help me there?

Did you vet him? 
I think he's a griefer. 
Check him out.
Wow, he's been banned all over.

I just claimed land so we're safe.
Oh they banned me. Oh well different account time. I'm going to come in with a different account.
Slash F closed.  Slash F, space, join then CIA. Do you have access to two?
Dude, he hacked my facebook account. You can't have him on the server.
My first objective is to mine diamond. Wherever I find diamonds there's always water. Why is there always an underground lake?
You've got like 40 diamond clusters next to you. Do you see them?
Yeah. You want me to get them?
Do it.
If I didn't make him get off the computer now and then (time to take a shower, eat dinner, rake leaves, etc.) I don't think he would move.  I am reminded as I watch the intensity with which he designs, interacts, and plays--how sharply this contrasts with the way he attends to most school-based work. For example, last week was the book report project: a paper bag he had to decorate with a drawing, a synopsis of the book, a paragraph about an internal conflict and a paragraph about an external conflict. Inside the bag he had to place 5 to 7 artifacts related to his book.  The book he had read was Joseph Heller's Catch 22. If you know the text, you know that finding artifacts to put in the bag can be a bit of a challenge. In many ways the text doesn't lend itself very well to the paper bag book project.

This example of homework, may in fact be an excellent assignment, but would more than likely work better if learners at least had some choice in the matter. There well may be books where putting artifacts in a bag makes great sense and learners who would think so.  Likely too, there will be learners and texts for whom this task doesn't make a lot of sense. Agency matters as it is directly connected to thinking.  And that is what I want to write about here. 

Failure to do homework or to value homework is not an issue of working hard. As the four-day Minecraft work shows, working hard is not avoided. Rather, failure to do or desire to do homework is a matter of agency.  We won't alleviate the 'problem' of not doing homework if we don't address the question of agency. 

For example, instead of asking a learner:  
How best do you think you might represent what you have learned here?  Or 
How would you show that you are confused by this?  Or 
What aspect of the work do you think is important to share and with whom? 
Is it important to represent your learning?
What do you do when you have nothing to say?
And so on...
We often simply determine the homework and issue the tasks to the students. These assignments are collected and often graded and then used as evidence of how well the learner is learning.  What does completion of the paper bag project actually demonstrate about the learner?  Does this assigning, grading, and reporting even remotely make sense?

I was reading Tobey Steeves's (@symphily) post, Curricular praxis: Representation as 'buggery' and legitimation for the public good, and was stopped by this section:

Are ‘legitimate’ forms of knowledge those which can be relayed on a multiple choice test, or – more broadly – those which can be represented or entextualized? If so, how might one paint a whisper, write a cloud, or sculpt a breeze? Common manifestations of representational thinking in schools include report cards, labeling deviance and naturalizing dividing practices, and interpretation. Report cards present the illusion of objectivity, reducing the inexplicable to abstractions like ‘A’ or 3.0, and problematically contribute to the sorting and managing of bodies. It must be remembered that labeling and dividing students according to essentialistic categories circumscribes the process of subjection, and the internalization of labels is a key element in the maintenance of hegemony... 
The internalization of labels is a key element in the maintenance of hegemony. Wow. That really makes me stop and take a deeper look at the book project, the B+, the quiz grade. These practices are often hegemonic as there is a subjugation of the learner as s/he has no voice in the matter. In many ways it mimics a Catch 22. The outcome has already been determined and regardless of logic/desire it cannot be redesigned.

I can imagine some of you may be thinking of possible counter arguments. One I have heard goes something like this:
Well, these kids are going to have to do work they don't determine when they get to the work force. They might as well get some practice now.  Not everything is fun and games.
And I don't doubt that could be true--that in fact my son, and perhaps yours, will work someday and be assigned work to do.  But isn't it shortsighted to think that the best way to learn how to figure out work you have been assigned is to  practice getting work on a nightly basis and complying for 10 to 13 years? Is it compliance that we are teaching? And if it is, is that the best we can offer?

Nothing would thrill me more than my son arriving home with work that mattered so much to him, that he designed and was so very essential that he jumped into the work with great intensity and interest.  We simply have never seen that happen, apart from independent book reading when has been allowed to select the text and read it as he likes (not being held to only reading 1 chapter a night, etc.).

How hard would it be to:
  • negotiate curriculum and evaluation with learners?
  • create enough space in the day-to-day work so that their voices would not only need to be sounded, but also heard?
 Bottom line?

If we don't start making these changes, learners will leave schools as soon as they can and opt for other ways to learn.


  1. Homework- not sure why we see it as needing to consume the waking moments of children who otherwise could be, with parental encouragement, doing all kinds of interesting, self directed learning projects as well as learning some of the critical home survival skills that they'll need later in life, from changing light bulbs to washing clothes. @irasocol just did a little research and ran into some information on the history of homework- a look at it as something once viewed as being detrimental to the health and well-being of children. We know that homework becomes, at some point, counterproductive to learning acquisition and retention. Why kids need to be doing school for hours beyond their work day just doesn't make sense.

  2. It is a bit odd that homework conitnues to be such a divided issue when the value of homework with regard to achievement is nil. Would like to know what Ira found. Thanks Pam

  3. You should definitely check out Michael Apple. :)

  4. Thanks Tobey. I have read work he's written, but it was quite some time ago.


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