Q&A: Helping Homework-Trapped Students Succeed With Technology

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg., the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers, shares with Getting Smart the value of competency-based learning, technology and the flipped classroom model in helping students overcome discouragement and fear of homework to build confidence and learning success in the classroom.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by homework-trapped students?

A child is homework-trapped when homework becomes an ongoing and unrelenting issue that dominates his home life and his relationships with his parents, in the absence of evidence that progress is being made. The parents are similarly trapped because they fear serious consequences for their child, yet have limited authority to use their own judgment. Being homework trapped can be distinguished from having short lived homework problems. For homework trapped children, standard consequences, such as punishments and low grades, have the undesired effect of increasing, rather than diminishing the child’s resistance.

Q: You mentioned that we can alleviate homework trapping with “time bound homework.” Do you think this theory would be consistent with competency-based learning models that group students not by age and seat time requirements, but rather demonstration of knowledge and competency?

This is a very complex question that does not lead to an easy or simple answer. When I was a child, we were grouped by competencies at a much earlier age than occurred when my children were in school. By middle school, my mechanically inclined neighbor was no longer in any of my classes, whereas that student would have been in class with my children in middle school. There are different factors to consider, in setting these policies, that go well beyond homework per se. I will say that whatever model educators consider best, it must be employed with the understanding that there is absolutely no value in requiring a student to keep working until the work is all done, unless, that student can get the work done in a reasonable amount of time. Whether a shift in models would help the homework-trapped child would still depend on our policies and attitudes about homework. Keep in mind, the homework-trapped student is one who performs better in class than he does at home. If he is placed with the more advanced group, consistent with his capacity to learn, he may not be able to handle the homework. If he is moved down to a lower class, the work may not be challenging enough for him. I think the overall effect such a change in policy would be to move the homework-trapped student to a lower level class rather than a special education class. Although that would be better, it still runs the risk of squashing potential and creativity at an early age.

Q: Do you think technology can bridge gaps in homework learning? How?

The two major forms of under-the-radar leaning problems that I have detected involve difficulties with working memory (auditory processing and attention) and processing speed (most specifically handwriting difficulties). The laptop can be a powerful tool in countering these issues. There is a considerable difference in the physiology of handwriting and typing, so the computer has the potential of helping the student with poor handwriting bypass this deficit. Many homework trapped children are whizzes when texting. We can capitalize on that proficiency by letting them take notes in the class in digital form and use that technology to complete their work. The technology also helps with problems in working memory since notes can be taken and saved even if the student quickly forgets what the teacher has said. The tools also have value in organizing notes, which can be readily lost when in physical form. If the student needs help, the parent will have a much easier time reading what the student has written down. In my work with disabled adults, I meet people who are terrified over the prospect of returning to school. I try to emphasize the importance of learning modern technologies. If they can, it goes far in reversing the effects of these under-the-radar learning problems and allowing them to succeed at school. Unfortunately, for some, the insecurities they feel rooted in childhood homework terror prove very difficult for them to overcome.

Q: How can access to technology and increased communication between students, parents and teachers break down the challenges of homework trapping?

It’s not the technologies as much as it is the hierarchies. We have to be careful about pushing for communication before we settle this issue of who is the decision-maker in the home. There is no problem with teachers assigning homework as long as parents have the authority to override, without consequence, the school’s requirement that the work must get done. Without that power, the parent functions as an agent of the school, responsible for enforcing homework demands, with a loss of authority in the home. That shift in roles can be quite damaging to the child, not just with the homework, but in other areas in which that child depends on the parent to be a powerful and authoritative figure in his life. Once we understand this principle, we can then consider how technology factors in. Technology increases the speed and ease of communication. Parents and teachers can communicate with each other much more quickly through emails and texts than they can by scheduling conferences, sending notes, or making phone calls. As long as the hierarchies are supported, the technologies can have positive effects. For example, we might see an email from the parent to teacher that goes like this: “Just to let you know Johnny didn’t get much homework done tonight. He seemed upset about something that happened at school yesterday. He wouldn’t tell me what it was but thought I’d give you a heads-up. Anyway, he only got a few problems done and I told him to stop.” If we don’t confirm the parent’s authority, speeded up communication can create a sense of urgency that is anxiety-provoking for the parent, and increases the problems of being homework-trapped.

Q: How can we break the cycle of homework trapping with new classroom models like the flipped classroom?

I think the flipped classroom model has tremendous potential for helping homework-trapped children. As it is, I have not heard any complaints from homework-trapped parents about this model. It’s possible that the model is too new to have reached the children and families with whom I meet. It’s also possible that, because I’m a psychologist and generally privy to complaints, I don’t hear about the model because it is working quite well. Still, my analysis suggests that the flipped classroom model should help. First, the model creates a time-bound assignment for the student to do at home. Second, the student is not graded directly on what he did at home, rather on what he does in school. Third, the teacher gets to see the student’s effort in class, not just the product of the work. This is an important source of misunderstanding regarding why the student does not complete the work. In school, the teacher sees the product and the process of work. For homework, the teacher sees the product alone. The teacher has no way to know, when only half the math problems are solved, if the student had really tried to do the work. The flipped classroom gives the teacher a better sense of what the student is doing, not just what gets done.

Q: What sort of psychological gains in competency, confidence and will for students to learn are possible with a flipped classroom model?

There is no question that competence, confidence, and motivation go hand in hand. People develop skills in the things they like to do and become motivated to do the things they do well. If the flipped model allows previously homework-trapped students to start experiencing success, as I believe it will, that will go far in helping them feel confident in themselves and interested in learning more.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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1 Comment

Dianna Stavros

Since beginning teaching 16 years ago, I have never had a school year where homework good or bad was not a main topic of conversation. In the past I have noted that the students who complete the assignments, are usually the students not in need of the extra work, but are given the assignments anyway. Why is there homework? Parents often are at their wits end trying to get their children to complete the work, most of the time the parents themselves can't assist the students. Even with the new flipped classroom, the frustration of homework is still there, expecially for the students with limited to no support. I propose an hour longer school day just for this support. This would be an opportunity for students who need support to get it and for those who are ready for the next step could have a differentiated lesson. Once the child left the school building they would be free. For students at the high school level, all assignments should be creative and project based.

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