Saturday, February 01, 2014

A few more reasons why homework just doesn't work

Thinking Chapter 1: The Characters of the Story

Teaching is about characters -- there are so many in every classroom: the clown, the goody-goody, the bad boy and his girl. But for some future posts, this blog will be about different characters, the ones that starred in a 2012 book by a Nobel Prize winner.

As I was reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, I realized that it's not just a book about how the brain works and makes decisions. It's about teaching. In every chapter, there is at least one revelation about what goes on in the brains of all those classroom characters. And so, I'll try to make some connections, to ponder recent psychological and neuroscientific findings in order to become a better teacher. Sometimes I'll be wrong. Sometimes I'll miss something important. But hopefully I'll hit on something important or interesting from time to time.

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Chapter 1 introduces the two characters that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is made up of automatic thoughts; System 2 consists of the conscious, rational self. Kahneman spends much of the first chapter -- and the whole book, really -- proving that these two systems make us a lot less in control over our thoughts and actions than we might think. Adding single digits (2 + 2) is automatic, while multiplying double digits (17 X 24) takes concentration. You cannot do both of them simultaneously.

The first insight is what most teachers know but most students dispute: you cannot multitask while doing homework. Most students insist that they can listen to music (or watch TV or lurk online) while doing math or writing an essay. For years, I've insisted that it's impossible, but I've been shouted down or ignored. A couple of sentences, I think, help prove my point:
You could not compute the product of 17 X 24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try. You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding. ... When the driver of a car is overtaking a truck on a narrow road, for example, adult passengers quite sensibly stop talking. They know that distracting the driver is not a good idea (Kahneman 23).
I love this driving analogy, and I bet even my non-driving students could relate to it. Of course driving is not the same as listening to music, but I bet I can prove that students do better work when they are not distracted.

For years, I've been mystified by a pattern in student work. Take-home essays (ones where students had time to plan, draft, conference with me) are usually no better than in-class essays (ones where students had only 30 or 40 minutes to write). In fact, formal take-home essays are sometimes worse than those done under a strict time constraint. You would think that even the laziest student, the one waiting until the last minute to write that formal paper, would have benefited from all that extra time to think about the topic. But it simply is not true: many, many formal essays come back completely incomprehensible, while in-class essays by the same students are at least on-topic.

I've always considered limited explanations for this difference:
  1. Procrastination makes the task ultimately impossible; many students simply run out of time and throw together random ideas.
  2. The extra time creates extra pressure. When forced to write in class, students grab an idea and go with it.
  3. Or perhaps I grade harder on the take-home work, expecting better results because of all that extra time.
Now, I wonder if the difference comes down to distractions: At home, students usually have something else going on, while in the classroom, there is silence. Simple.

An adult passenger would not distract a driver making a difficult maneuver, but many teens distract themselves and each other while performing an equally challenging task -- thinking. And System 2 simply cannot focus properly while System 1 is dealing with song lyrics or text messages or any one of a hundred different attention-seekers. 

My goal is to convince my students to maintain silence while doing homework. But maybe it would be easier to convince me not to assign homework in the first place. But that's something Kahneman hasn't addressed yet.

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