kitchen table math, the sequel: Why I Don't Assign Homework

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Why I Don't Assign Homework

Liz Ditz left a link to Dy/Dan's blog.

I love this guy!

the homework problem

Here's what I love about Dy/Dan's post on not assigning homework.

First and foremost, not only has he thought out his position, he's researched it for a Master's thesis. The research is icing on the cake; the fact that he is so closely scrutinizing and adapting his "practice"* in response to his students' achievement is what makes me long to have a kid in his class.

Ed and I have been talking about the homework issue lately, mostly because C's social studies teacher told Ed he has students who never do their homework. We were both surprised to hear this though we shouldn't have been.** Kids not doing homework is a chronic issue for teachers everywhere.

Here's a Phi Delta Kappan article on the subject:

I tried to figure out why promising students in my own geometry classes persistently failed. Every year students entered my classes not fully prepared for the large body of new concepts, vocabulary, skills, and logical principles that are central to a college-prep geometry course. With rare exceptions, the deficiencies were surmountable, provided that these students accepted the need to study and work on sample problems outside of class. But, despite a claimed orientation toward college, many of them failed geometry, in large part because of "homework resistance" that seemed rooted in early elementary school and shaped by adolescent identity pressures.

Occasional missed geometry assignments weren't a big deal in my classes. After all, an unknowable but surely substantial portion of completed homework involved copying from classmates. An additional portion consisted of "homework simulations" with correct answers to odd-numbered problems (which have answers in the back of the book) embellished with jottings that gave the appearance of work. So, like most of my colleagues, I gave credit for homework but based most of a student's grade on tests, quizzes, and in-class projects. Class time was an intense geometry experience for all but the most tuned-out. But since test questions looked remarkably similar to those covered in homework, students who didn't do the homework had trouble passing tests or participating fully in class.

At year's end, out of 90 geometry students in three sections, 38 had completed less than 60% of the assignments. Of these 38, two quite talented students managed to earn a semester grade of C, another three earned D's, and the remaining 33 all earned F's. In contrast, all but a handful of the students who had completed 80% or more of the assignments passed with grades of C or better.

The puzzle. Why would so many students willingly waste a year sitting through geometry class and earn zero credits toward graduation? All had managed to pass algebra, and many even had good attendance in my class. Most had the requisite mathematical ability and would have passed had they spent 40 to 50 minutes daily outside of class on the homework. Free tutoring and homework help were available at lunch and after school, but no one showed up more than once or twice; most never came at all. What were they thinking? Countless frustrating conversations convinced me that most students in this situation can't tell you the teal reasons for their behavior, because they themselves don't know. They offer a charming variety of excuses, evasions, defensive maneuvers, mea culpas, and doleful expressions, many well practiced from prior confrontations with parents or counselors. Almost all say that to succeed they would need to start doing all their homework. They further insist that they want to be successful. So what's going on that students can't explain to us - or to themselves?

Homework Inoculation and the Limits of Research
Bruce Jackson
Phi Delta Kappan Sep 2007 Vol. 87, Iss. 1 pg. 55

Jackson's idea is that the practice of having kids do largely pointless homework assignments in K-5 in order to build "good homework habits" leads instead to homework refusal when kids reach middle school age and begin to assert themselves. Homework inoculation.

So....the cure for h.s. kids not doing homework is to get rid of homework K-5.

I'm sure that will work.

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to send this fellow a link to Karen Pryor's web site. Pryor makes short shrift of such motive mongering. She doesn't care to learn why a dog is behaving badly; she doesn't want to hear his history:

Karen helped me learn to read Ben's canine signals accurately, unhindered by my own emotion....She was the one, who during one of Ben's fits in class, came over, gently put her hand on my arm and calmly said, "Emma, it is only behavior."

"Only behavior?" I gasped. Could it be so simple? This "behavior" had caused me so much grief in my life, both personally and professionally. It had become a source of tension in my marriage and almost caused me to lose several friendships....I had allowed Ben's aggression to balloon into a problem that took over our lives. I found hope that night in class, with Karen's calm words: "It's only behavior." After all, through positive reinforcement, behavior--any behavior--can be changed.

Click to Calm Healing the Aggressive Dog
by Emma Parsons

Animal behaviorists make a useful distinction between ethology and psychology.

You do need to know ethology (how does this species act & think?)

You don't need to know much about psychology (how does this particular animal act and think, and why?)

When it comes to students not doing their homework, all you really need to know is that procrastination is a core human behavior that is not going to be conquered any time soon and certainly not by high school students. Asking students what they are thinking when they fail to spend 50 minutes a night doing geometry homework is absurd. They're not thinking about geometry one way or the other. That's the point.

This teacher needs to forget about what students are thinking and ask the school to send a behavior analyst to his class to change the incentives. A mere amateur like myself can spot some major de-motivators in his data.

If he can't round up a professional, he should read a book on behavior analysis and figure it out himself. ***

The "homework situation" appears to be an unholy mess. Setting aside the question of homework quality, I would like to see schools adopt policies of supervised homework like the one in place at La Salle High School. If a student is not getting homework done at home, I would assign him to a supervised homework study hall where he would get it done because a responsible adult would see to it. And I would make this a positive experience, not negative.

If I had my druthers, our schools would drop-kick the many state-mandated character-ed implementations over the stadium wall and replace them with school-wide positive behavior plans devised by the Bob and Lynn Koegels of this world.

Or else just hire a whole lot of teachers like Dy/Dan.

* hate that word, but it's correct in this context
** I have no business being surprised by any failure to complete assigned work...
*** I'm starting with Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog, which I will be using for my kids and for me.


Anonymous said...

I don't know why students don't do homework, but I'll make the following observation:

"Most had the requisite mathematical ability and would have passed had they spent 40 to 50 minutes daily outside of class on the homework."

Works out to 40-50 minutes/class x 6-8 classes in high school (I took six per semester, my wife, at a different high school, took 8).

So ...

40x6 = 240 = 4 hours/night.
50x8 = 400 = 6.6 hours/night.

Figure 6-7 hours of scheduled school per day (again, my school ran 6 ... of which 1 was lunch/break ... my local high school seems to go 7 hours/day).

I'm getting a minimum of 10 hours of schooling per day (5 days per week) and a maximum of about 14 hours/day.

This does not include transit time.

I'm wondering how many adults would do the homework for a class they didn't care about if the homework would move a school day from 6-7 hours up to 10-14.

When I was in high school, I spent three hours/day in transit (on the bus mostly). During the school year, my typical day ran from 6:30 in the morning until about 11:00 at night and was pretty much all school related. I had homework on the weekend, too. I actually *did* this, but I don't think most high school aged kids would (and in hindsight, I'm not so sure it was sane for me to do this ... my parents were considering pulling me out of my highschool in the first semester because I had stopped talking at home ... too tired).

So ... maybe the kids are just doing time budgeting and Geometry is last on the list.

-Mark Roulo

concernedCTparent said...

An interesting aside. I'm starting to think that many of the best young teachers come from a tradition of great teaching. I believe Dy/Dan's father is a teacher and so is Redkudu's. I strongly believe this is more than coincidental and more of an environmental/genetic thing. Whatever the case, great teachers need to start bringing more kids into the world who grow up to be great teachers too.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm wondering how many adults would do the homework for a class they didn't care about if the homework would move a school day from 6-7 hours up to 10-14.


Part 2 of this post would be going through his data and pulling out the reasons why kids aren't doing the work beyond the "species reason" that half the time human beings don't do the stuff they're supposed to do.

Catherine Johnson said...

Plus you've got kids getting grades as low as C (and below for "a handful") even when they do do the homework....and the teacher is signing off on a situation in which a fair amount of the homework has not in fact been done, but has been copied from the back of the book, etc...

Dawn said...

I was one of those that rarely did homework. Part of it was frustration. I had some focus problems (later I was diagnosed with ADD) and though I could do well with a teacher, class discussion and such, me alone and a textbook or homework sheet was a hopeless combination. I'd read instructions half a dozen times and not understand them.

Part of it was that school (upper grades anyway) was just an awful experience. I would avoid anything that reminded me off it, even if there were concequences the next day.

NYC Educator said...

I give homework in my beginning ESL classes, as most of the classwork is devoted to developing verbal communication skills, which I consider vital. Reading and writing are solitary activities and I assign them as homework. True, some kids copy, but I pretty much know who they are, and they're unlikely to pass written tests if they can't do the homework.

But I also have to train some kids to pass a writing test. In these classes, I have them write entirely in class and give almost no homework whatsoever. I'm amazed at the number of kids who simply copy things off the net, with the labels still there, and expect me not to notice it was written by some professional hack writer instead of an ESL student.

Sometimes they have their brothers, sisters, families, tutors and friends edit and rewrite for them. This is not at all helpful to me as I need to know what they can do on their own.

So no more homework for kids in those classes, for the most part. It works for me.

Redkudu said...

>> I believe Dy/Dan's father is a teacher and so is Redkudu's.<<

Great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and father (after retiring from a military career), actually. :) As well as some older cousins.

At the high school level, I do have difficulties not assigning English homework - simply because much of the novel reading has to be completed outside of class.

SteveH said...

"I am now confident that, in a two-hour block, my students are coming within a gnat's eyelash of two hour's worth of instruction and practice. At which point, what's the point of homework?"

It depends on whether you get where you're going. It may be better than poor teaching and few kids doing the homework, but are you getting the job done?

My HS English teacher sister-in-law talked about the same kind of decision; having her kids do more of their work in class. Less could be more, but less is really still just less. The trade-off is to do fewer things better, but it's still less.

Is there so much slop and poor teaching that homework can be eliminated without lowering expectations? My answer is a definite yes for K-6. After that, I don't believe it.

You can't just blame homework in general. You have to study the homework and figure out why it's not being done. It's not homework burnout from the earlier grades. It's a variety of reasons. The homework might not be homework. It might be home learning.

Back when I taught math, students might seem like they understand the material completely in class. It was a different thing when they did the homework alone. I always collected and graded the homework (check minus, check, or check plus) so I would get to know each student. I could tell you exactly what was going on, and yes, the A and B students were A and B students because they did the homework. Homework is valuable. Mastery requires homework.

Even for the college math courses I taught, I never assigned many problems for homework. If I did my job correctly in class and the students paid attention, then they would have no problem with the homework, and it would take very little time. This would be quite different if I assigned problems for which they weren't properly prepared. There is no reveling or learning in fumbling!

Homework is not the problem. bad teaching and bad homework are.

If you can get where you're going without homework and without lowering expectations, more power to you, but I doubt that's what's happening.

Barry Garelick said...

I don't know what the situation is these days, but my high school had what used to be called "study halls". This was a period in a student's schedule in which you were in a big room and you could do homework. Some students used it as a free period to goof off, but others made the "discovery" that if we worked on our homework during study hall, there would be less to do at home later. I averaged 2 study halls per day and was easily able to get my math and science homework done.

I would also agree with Steve H that homework is a true test of whether the material is mastered. If you always do it in class, and help is available it's similar to driving a car with the driving instructor sitting next to you. At some point, you have to learn to do it solo. In my classes we went over the more difficult problems in class the next day to make sure there was understanding of the material.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to chime in here with my second-hand experience. My best friend's 7th grader is on the "death march" to Algebra. He is taking accelerated math. Homework is his life-line to passing the class with a C. Unfortunately, he is never "driving solo"...his mom sits at his side and goes over every problem with him. She isn't a math brain and he looks at each problem as if he's never seen the concept before, so she must go through his textbook looking for examples of how to approach each problem (side note, schools here brag about their Study Skills classes). Lucky for both of them that he only gets about 5-8 problems assigned per day. OTHO, it's assigned weekly, so as anyone with a 12 year old knows, he sometimes waits until the night before it's due to tackle 25-40 problems!!

His mom sits at his side to make sure he gets a good grade on his homework because his quiz/test grades are generally very poor and he needs decent homework grades to bring them up. I can only conclude that this homework is in no way an assessment tool, it's just extra practice for those who understand the concepts, or in my friend's case, a life-line to passing algebra with lots of help from Mom/Dad..who just want their kid to pass.

SteveH said...

"I averaged 2 study halls per day and was easily able to get my math and science homework done."

I agree with Barry. I was tempted to say that because of STUDY halls (no talking!) you could get away with no homework, but what we're really talking about here is not HOMEwork, but non-CLASSwork.

Eliminating homework does not create independent, life-long learners, to use their jargon. It will perhaps, prepare them for real-life trips to week-long seminars costing thousands of dollars, where attendees don't take notes and just talk about which restaurant or bar they will go to that night.

Just like Barry, we would go over the more difficult problems in class and the teacher would collect the homework to see where kids had problems. The homework grade was mostly based on effort, not correctness. It lets the teacher know what's going on before it's too late.

My son's teacher doesn't collect the homework until much later to add it to a portfolio?!? He doesn't even allow the tests to go home so that parents can evaluate the results. They go into the portfolio too. The teacher doesn't know what's going on until he grades the test and that won't tell him as much as homework. They need to apply a good dose of critical thinking.

SteveH said...

".. and he looks at each problem as if he's never seen the concept before, ..."

That could be true. My son is in pre-algebra and I see the same sort of thing. I will ask him what the teacher talked about in class and get a vague response. A lot of people don't like homework because it's either busywork or used to cover up bad teaching. The problem isn't the concept of homework, it's the application.

I think a lot of teachers just go through the motions and spend little time analyzing just what they're doing. If you do some analysis, you might come to the pragmatic conclusion that eliminating homework is the best approach. That might improve class teaching (or not), but it's not dealing with the problem. Students need to be able to do work on their own.

Homework should be home-practicing, not home-learning. Too many times I will have to teach math to my son. I'm not talking about fixing misconceptions. I'm talking about teaching what the section in the book is all about and how to understand the problems and solve them on a consistent basis. My son (who tests in the top 1% nationally) would not be doing well without my help. That's wrong. Math is not that difficult.

On many occasions I have thought about his classmates and what they are doing. I know from teaching the after-school SSAT prep class that many of them are not happy at all.

We really need monthy parent (only) meetings to compare notes. Quick chats at the local supermarket are never enough.

Tex said...

About study halls today --

My son is in 10th grade, and in order to fit in all the classes that will make him competitive for admission to top colleges he is unlikely to have any study halls during high school. In fact, for half this year he doesn’t even have a lunch period. This is not uncommon, and his teachers allow kids to eat lunch in class. From listening to other parents, study halls are a luxury for many students hoping to earn admission to a competitive college.

Is this crazy competitive? Or, just a way that times have changed?

SteveH said...

"... and in order to fit in all the classes that will make him competitive for admission to top colleges."

This would make an interesting separate thread. I've heard these stories. I know that there is more demand than supply for "top colleges", but does anyone have any hard data on the importance of the number of (AP?) classes versus SAT score? Are kids killing themselves just to improve their chances by 5 percent? Do colleges publish average and minimum SAT scores? Do colleges ever publish the formula they use for acceptance? Kids have to realize that for what they might want to study in college, the top colleges are probably not the top colleges.

Liz Ditz said...

Changing the subject from math to English, I'm introducing another teacher-blogger I respect tremendously, Dana Huff.

This series is on grading to communicate.

As teachers, we understand that the students’ true understanding and/or ability to apply or synthesize material is not what is reflected in their grades; rather, their work habits are the focus. As a result, we have a school culture that values the grade above the learning. Student assessment is not a reflection of what the student knows, but how well the student plays the school game. I think we have all had a student who demonstrates a firm grasp of the concepts we teach but has poor work habits that keep him/her from earning a grade commensurate with his/her true understanding of the material. I have several every year. These students don’t do the homework, but in spite of that, they still ace the test. On the other hand, we also have those little worker bees who do each and every assignment, but demonstrate large gaps in writing or on tests. In our hearts, we feel as if we are not sending them an accurate picture with that A or B, but as grades are most commonly assessed, it is more likely that the student who demonstrates little or no understanding but has excellent work habits will have an “inflated” grade.

Jo Anne C said...

Steve Said:

"Kids have to realize that for what they might want to study in college, the top colleges are probably not the top colleges."

Steve could you elaborate more on this comment please?

I have read else where that getting into a lesser known college might be a better learning experience for a freshman just starting out.

I hope to *discover* the names of a few colleges where a student can experience a "kinder and gentler" introduction to a major in engineering and institutions where students might have greater access to knowledgeable professors.

SteveH said...

"Steve could you elaborate more on this comment please?"

The "top college" doesn't mean the one that will most impress your friends and family. Everyone knows about Yale, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, but do you think of Purdue when it comes to engineering? You should. However, the best school depends on which department you are in. It also depends on exactly which professors are in the department and what research is being done.

If you want to prepare yourself to be at the top of a field, you need to look at that field, not the college. You have to know something about what you want to do. This isn't an easy thing to do beforehand. Some department web sites talk about their research, so it's good to look at that in detail. You want to be where the action is, and the action is often NOT at the "top schools". This has to do with the department, not the college.

You could start at a "kinder and gentler" college and then expect to transfer (or do graduate work) at a college once you know exactly what you want to do. But it also depends on what you mean by kinder and gentler. If you mean easier, then it isn't a top school. If you associate this with the size of the college or getting lost in the crowd, then that doesn't work either.

I went to the University of Michigan and got two masters degrees in engineering. Both were great departments, but they were completely different. One felt like a family. We had a separate (small) building and the professors' offices were right there. We could walk in and talk any time we wanted. We had picnics. These weren't teaching assistants. These were the professors whose research filled the technical journals. I got accepted to MIT for graduate school. I didn't go.

To some extent, I got lucky. I didn't plan this. If you pick a generic top college, then you perhaps maximize your chances, but a diploma from MIT means little if you are not where the action is. When you are interviewing for a job, they know which departments (not colleges) are best.

Anonymous said...

This teacher made this too difficult:
homework isn't done because:
a) there are no immediately painful consequences to not doing it
b) there are immediate reasons to do something else.

It's really not rocket science. Fear of failing the SEMESTER grade? Not likely to be a motivating force on some random night in October, unless ALL of the other ground work has already been laid.

If you want to motivate them to do their homework, then make the homework MATTER.

Fear of failing the homework grade? A lot more immediate, but this teacher undid that. Fear of failing tomorrow's pop quiz? That too would be immediate pain and shame, but this teacher undid that. Getting a reward of money, candy, or "nice job" when you get called on to show the hw problem's answer on the board in front of everyone? A heck of a lot more motivating than some supposed final exam sometime that might as well be a decade from now.

And only for exceptional kids is there motivation for the long term, and that comes from the groundwork laid by the parents, the teachers, their own expectations of how their big grades will matter, what a failing grade will mean for their future choices for college, work, military enrollment, athletic eligibility, whatever. But that ground work takes time. What works today matters tomorrow.

It's not that difficult to understand. Kids are not adults. They are not yet good at self motivation. Most adults don't have much self motivation either. Most teachers work for that paycheck, that summer off, or that feeling that makes you feel good when someone learns something. But their kids are getting none of that--not even the last part.

PaulaV said...

What is the driving force behind self-motivation? I've asked myself that repeatedly because my fourth grader seems to think it is okay to semi-study for a test just to make a B or C. It is not the grade that I am concerned with, but the attitude.

VickyS said...

I am a big fan of study halls in high school and am sorry to hear that they may be on the extinction list. They get kids in the habit of doing "home"work during the day, between classes, which can be important (even critical) during the college years. They provide some independence too, in that the kids can decide how to use them (study for a math test? make a poster for homecoming? run out for a doughnut?).

I wonder if study halls are less common in high schools with block scheduling. A 90-120 minute study hall probably isn't as effective as a shorter one.

Speaking of block scheduling in this wandering thread, I'm happy to say it is slowly starting do disappear in my neck of the woods. Administrators are finally starting to see that their students don't do as well on an AP exam when it's been 3 months since they last had the class, retention in general is poor, and it's less costly to have a regular (or at least a modified) schedule. 'Bout time.

Doug Sundseth said...

PaulaV: "What is the driving force behind self-motivation? I've asked myself that repeatedly because my fourth grader seems to think it is okay to semi-study for a test just to make a B or C. It is not the grade that I am concerned with, but the attitude."

I think that true self-motivation is quite rare, and not just in kids. Extrinsic motivation is necessary for most adults, too. (Very few people really would do their current jobs if they weren't being paid, for instance.)

Now many of those rewards are not all that easy to quantify, but they're still extrinsic. If my son works hard on his homework because he gets praise for that, the motivator is extrinsic. Likewise, grades, peer esteem, access to more interesting classes, whatever, are just as extrinsic as a huge bonus at work for an adult. And they're used because they work.

To my mind, the object should be to get the kids to build good habits in search of those extrinsic rewards. Once the habits are there, other such rewards will follow and reinforce the good habits.

As to how to inculcate those habits, I use pretty much the same techniques I'd use with a subordinate at work or with a puppy*:

Provide correction close in time to the problem, with negative reinforcement appropriate to the offense - I try to keep it to "More in sorrow than in anger" (with mixed success). I also try to be specific about what is problematic and be specific about what the correct course of action should have been.

And much more importantly, praise and reward when possible - "More like this" is much more informative than "No more like this". The latter encompasses too many things, the former is specific.

Also, I try to anticipate problems and warn against them in advance. When it works, it prevents the problem; when it fails, it acts as an object lesson in why he should listen the next time.

Fundamentally, I'm much less worried about attitude than about behavior. Attitudes are a following indicator -- good results lead to a good attitude. And good behavior leads to good results.

Probably egg-sucking classes for grandma or inappropriate for your kid, but there you go.

* That analogy probably sounds insulting, but I think Catherine would probably agree that there are many similarities in the way people and other animals think.

Jo Anne C said...

Thanks Steve for taking the time to share your thoughts about what constitutes a "top" program.

I'm printing it out for future reference.

SteveH said...

PaulaV: "What is the driving force behind self-motivation? I've asked myself that repeatedly because my fourth grader seems to think it is okay to semi-study for a test just to make a B or C. It is not the grade that I am concerned with, but the attitude."

My wife and I provide the motivation for our 6th grade son. We would like it if he did it all by himself, but that doesn't happen. Getting a B or C might be tolerable if he was working very hard, but we don't tolerate not working hard. Besides, even he knows that if he works hard, he will get an A.

I think that self-motivation will be developed better if you force the issue rather than if you just hope that it will happen. Our son responds very well to positive reinforcement, but that doesn't always work. When he does what he has to do, we back away. If he doesn't, he will get a lot more micromanaging. Lately, we have had to go over every last word in his planner and every sheet of paper in his folder. He doesn't like it, but he knows that we will not tolerate finding out that there is just one more thing to do at 9pm.

I agree with Doug.

"Fundamentally, I'm much less worried about attitude than about behavior. Attitudes are a following indicator -- good results lead to a good attitude. And good behavior leads to good results."

My son always gets good grades (not always from self-motivation), but he is now one of the "good" students, and better yet, he knows that he is one of the "good" students. He likes that and won't let that change, but our job is nowhere near done.

PaulaV said...

Doug and Steve,

Thanks for the advice. My issue with my son, which has been an ongoing one since I've been coming here to KTM, is his lack of focus. I wouldn't say he is cognitively aware of some of the things that his peers are. With that being said, sometimes I think he is beyond his years. Self-motivation is one area that he seems behind the curve. It is not from the lack of parental support and positive reinforcement at home. My husband and I are constantly talking with our son about making a conscious effort to do his best work. There are consequences if he procrastinates.

He attends Kumon regularly and due to this he received an advanced rating in math at his school. His name was placed on a board in the hallway and I wouldn't have known that had my neighbor's child not told me about it. When I showed my son the board at school, he shrugged. He said the test was so incredibly easy that it wasn't a challenge and that Kumon was ten times harder than anything he would ever do in school. He doesn't see this advanced rating as significant. However, it is considering he began third grade with poor math skills. He is now at the top of his class and while many of his classmates struggle with basic multiplication and division math facts, he has them down cold.

So, I have a kid who doesn't place any value on grades because he knows he can pass with minimal effort at school. He can pass classwork with minimal effort. When he does make an A, he wants to know what is in it for him. Where's the prize? Why not just not study as hard and still make a B if there is no prize for an A?
This behavior is not coming from my husband or me. I see it in the school and am constantly batting it at home. What I am trying to do is get him to focus on doing the best he can even if the work is easy because some day it will pay off. I am trying to get him to meet his full potential.

Sorry, I didn't mean to ramble.

Anonymous said...


I have a very similar situation. My son is very bright, but very, very unfocused. He finds most of what he's asked to do stupid. (He's right on quite a bit of it.)In grade school, things came too easily, so even though I after-schooled to make it a bit more difficult, he resists working hard at anything.

I've done a lot of parenting like Steve, because my parents just trusted the school. I don't think I had an ounce of self-motivation until I got to grad school. By then, I had lost a lot.

I can't remember if you said your child was in middle school, but I'm finding that some of the lack of motivation is a fear of being considered a geek.

The other day he made his school's Science Olympiad team for the second time, but he was horrified that other kids might find out. I've had to really talk to him about having different kinds of friends, not just those you play sports with, but the middle school has a real strong anti-achievement streak amongst the students.

This stuff concerns me because peer choices can really screw a kid up down the road. He seems embarrassed hanging out with kids who are as smart (or smarter) than he is. He almost seems to be undermining himself at times.

If dad and I weren't all over him still (and he's in the 7th grade), his grades would plummet and we would be called in to the school every week because of his attitude.


Doug Sundseth said...

Paula, if you haven't read it, take a look at this essay by Paul Graham. It addresses some of the issues you are dealing with, though from the point of view of the student rather than the parent.

I know that it resonated with me.

PaulaV said...


My son is in fourth grade and I have noticed something interesting. Last year, he was into Pokemon and he knew many of the characters and all these stats about them. I found it amazing that someone who couldn't focus in school could have an incredible, detailed memory. It was as though he had a internal filing system in his head. However, over time, he began to play with kids who were less advanced and he actually dumbed himself down to be able to play basic Pokemon with these other kids. I also noticed he became more interested in sports and less interested in Pokemon.

This year he is back to Pokemon and playing with kids who are as he says "geeky" and highly intelligent.

The kids he is with this year are a bright group, but the boys are very unfocused. The teacher has a reputation for yelling a lot. I don't see how this helps someone to focus better, but I digress.

Doug Sundseth said...

Here's a short excerpt of the essay I just linked:

"In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don't commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

"It's not so important what you work on, so long as you're not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you'll take.

"Suppose you're a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

"Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn't have an engine, you can't fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for "don't give up on your dreams." Stay upwind.

"How do you do that, though? Even if math is upwind of economics, how are you supposed to know that as a high school student?

"Well, you don't, and that's what you need to find out. Look for smart people and hard problems. Smart people tend to clump together, and if you can find such a clump, it's probably worthwhile to join it. But it's not straightforward to find these, because there is a lot of faking going on."

It's obviously intended more for a graduating HS student, but I think the attitudes and advice are very good.

Catherine Johnson said...

Part of it was that school (upper grades anyway) was just an awful experience. I would avoid anything that reminded me off it, even if there were consequences the next day.

I've been thinking about this all through the horse chapter.

I'll post the research on what happens to horse problem-solving & creativity when the learning situation is negative.

This chapter has made me vow to clean up my own act in this respect.

(back later - haven't read the rest of the thread yet..)

Catherine Johnson said...

btw (and not having read the thread) my position on homework is COMPLETELY pragmatic.

Is the homework a teacher is giving "working"?

I'd say that in C's case math homework is essential -- and I also trust a teacher like Dy/Dan to know what his students need and can do.

I'd like him to do more reading outside school.

Point is: I'm neither for nor against homework across the board.

SteveH said...

PaulaV wrote: "I am trying to get him to meet his full potential."

With my son, it's often a matter of catching big problems before they happen, rather than expecting him to meet his full potential. He is the only one that can do the work to meet his potential. I can only keep him close enough so that when (if?) his self-motivation kicks in, he will be in a good position.

In math, as long as he is getting good grades and is on-track for for the AP calculus track in high school, I'm not worried that he could "potentially" move ahead and take calculus as a sophomore. It would be nice if I didn't have to hover at times, but I'll do what I have to. In general, praise and support help his self-motivation, but butt-kicking often has to be employed.

Focus and planning are common words in our household.

PaulaV said...


Thanks for the link to the wonderful essay. I enjoyed reading it and found myself nodding my head in agreement.


Perhaps I should say I'm trying to get him to see his potential. Yes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. I know this, but it doesn't stop me from trying to get him to the trough even if it means pulling and pushing all the way.

It would be nice not to hover, but like you I find it necessary to do. I don't enjoy it, but it must be done. Butt-kicking is a definite must sometimes and so is "a good talking to" as my grandmother was fond of saying.

Doug Sundseth said...

If you liked that one, you might also like this one.

Excerpt from "Why Nerds are Unpopular":

"I think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that it's very large, and the things you do have real effects. That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow."

Anonymous said...


Those are great. Thanks.