IS HOMEWORK STILL RELEVANT IN THE 21st CENTURY?
TO THE TYPICAL SCHOOL PUPIL, it must sound like fantasy: a principal who thinks children spend too much time having facts rammed down their throats and, instead of slogging their way through homework, they should be out playing.
It’s a tantalising prospect, especially if terms like “lowest common multiple” keep distracting you from terms like “Playstation”.
But it’s very much reality for Gavin Keller, the man who instituted a no-homework system at his Cape Peninsula school. Not only is the idea increasingly garnering more interest, but it’s also been great in terms of report card symbols. Even so, in many circles the jury’s still out.*
Keller’s approach may be at odds with the traditional way of doing things, he says, but it’s more in tune with the way the brain actually learns. And, he adds: there’s no denying the positive results.
Boasting a formidable CV as an educationist, Keller is under no illusions about the hard sell facing anyone who proposes overturning conventions. He is principal of Sun Valley Primary School and also CEO of a Section 21 organisation, Silvermine Academy, which essentially acts as the Sun Valley group of schools’ business and fundraising arm.
In the no-homework method, you don’t just get to go home and play. As part of the deal, for instance, pupils have to make certain commitments, such as reading a minimum of 20 minutes a day. Then, the actual instructional part of a lesson may be shorter and tests are immediate and more frequent. “We watch you in action,” Keller says. “Previously, what we got wrong was the assessment. The idea of sending children home to practise, then to present us with perfection.” The schoolhouse, he maintains, has to be the place where that oversight of learning happens.
The no-homework development is recent. During a programme to unlock innovation and creativity through play, it dawned on the participants that the day just did not have enough time to play. “One of them said, we can’t have our children sitting for two hours every day.”
Given a choice between the old methods and this, parents and teachers weren’t hard to sway. “The most difficult group to convince was the teachers. I went from hero to zero in one assembly.”
The reason for that, he says, lies in the belief that the mindset of a good teacher is: “I give homework.” Yet others are also questioning established methods. Which is why he travels a lot, speaking at conferences and schools all over the country.
Brimming over with enthusiasm about education in general, he’s in fact a little peeved by the attention being focused on the no-homework policy. It’s part of a whole, he says: to understand why no-homework works, first you need to understand how the brain works.
So, in July 2015, the no-homework experiment began. As you’d expect with any experiment with pretensions to scientifically valid conclusions, it involved a control group, too. Assessments were held weekly to check progress.
It’s early days yet. But the kids seem to be enjoying their schooldays, he says. And the results are, so far, conclusive: “For four terms now we have seen an increase in performance.”
Schools as we know them today are pretty much a 19th-century concept that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, Keller points out. Essentially, the way they operate hasn’t evolved drastically.
In the 21st century, as understanding of brain function deepened, it’s become clear that, for more effective learning, we need it to be brain-based. “We started looking at how the brain learns. Well, it’s not designed for memory. It is designed for growing memory. So you need to grow memories.” This is not something new at Sun Valley. “For a long time we have been considering neuro-based education,” Keller says. “We have been making revolutionary change in education for about the last 15 years.”
As you might have guessed, his passion for a re-imagined education harks back to his own 12 years in the schoolbenches of an all-boys establishment. “I envisaged for my kids an environment that I would have enjoyed. Where kids would enjoy it. A classroom where they connected with me.”
His early days in teaching had one striking feature: “I was always doing things.”
He didn’t realise until much later that the “games” he was implementing tied in with neuroscience learning.
“What I was doing differently is actually the way the brain learns.” Or doesn’t learn.
The brain (he specified the male brain) has the capacity to absorb for seven minutes. “Then it switches off. We just go to sleep.” There’s little point in stressing it beyond that.
“And our memory is essentially a 40-day memory. The thing is, how do we teach kids to grow memory for 40 years?”
A different approach, one not based on pumping facts into little heads, is needed, involving real life skills. “My five-yearolds are studying eggs. How is it possible that the construction of an egg allows you to stand on them? It’s about the arch design. In the sandpit, they’re actually contemplating Grade 11 physics. In Grade R.”
To those who think that this is some airy-fairy idea aimed purely at a feel-good experience for little Stephanie or Sipho, Keller responds bluntly. “We have always been proud of our academic excellence,” he says.
“My argument is, when you have done six hours of work that day and it has been meaningful, then the brain is finished learning. Now the brain must play.”
He points out that the current generation is filled with anxiety. “My intention was about creating a school where learning was real, meaningful, relevant and transferable.”
It all comes down to education management and a better teaching strategy. “We need to make the most of the six hours we get every day,” says Keller. “And we want kids to really, really enjoy school.” – ANTHONY DOMAN
NO. LIKE TELEVISIONS, laptops and smartphones, they’re all made in China these days. Despite the fact that the US has ceased production of new nukes (and, indeed, has been steadily reducing the size of its arsenal from a high of 20 000 warheads to the current stash of around 4 700), they are still in a position to be a “net exporter” of USDA Prime mushroom clouds for the foreseeable future.
Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Non-proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, explains that present US policy dictates that rather than build new warheads, “we will basically do life extension programmes, where we take existing weapons as they approach the end of their service life and those weapons are refurbished.”
So how do you spruce up an ageing nuke? For starters, you replace the “pit”, the nuclear heart of the warhead, which contains enriched uranium or plutonium and degrades over time. The US has loads of perfectly good extras, many salvaged from decommissioned bombs, along with enough raw material to keep business booming indefinitely. You can also upgrade a 30-year-old warhead’s electronics to modern standards; install new safety features; adjust the “yield,” or destructive capability, up or down; reconfigure the fins on a bomb to make it more accurate and even design a new generation of missile to deliver your calamitous physics experiment to any deserving science fair on the planet. Each of these measures is at least under discussion, so, depending on one’s point of view, the country either has nothing to worry about or quite a bit.
What kind of amenities do skyscraper cranes have? Bathrooms? A general sense of safety?
All of the above – and then some. In fact, after researching this a bit, it wouldn’t shock us to encounter a crane operator ensconced in a Barcalounger enjoying a fresh-baked brick-oven pizza from his perch 40 storeys above the CBD.
We exaggerate, of course, but as construction jobs go, operating what is known as a tower crane can be a pretty comfy one. The operator sits in a swivel chair in a climate-controlled cabin about the size of a large cupboard. Generally he does not stray far from the cabin during a shift, which may be eight to 14 hours long (crane operators bank enviable overtime), so some accommodation for nature’s call is a necessity.
Dave Ritchie, a former crane operator, says “facilities” range from the crude-but-serviceable used plastic liquid container method to a full-blown port-a-potty on a slab next to the cabin. The real amenities, though, come when a crane is equipped with a separate structure known as a doghouse. Some regulations require two workers on a crane, though only one can actually operate it. The other guy gets to chillax in the doghouse, which may contain a portable toilet as well as such five-star jobsite luxuries as a television, microwave, fridge, bunk, you name it.
As for the sense of safety, “tower cranes are probably the safest cranes built by man”, says Ritchie. “They very seldom have accidents while lifting because they’re overdesigned and have limit switches that prevent them from being overloaded.” That said, they do take some getting used to, since they flex and sway in the wind and under load. “The first time I picked up a concrete bucket, I thought the crane was going to tip over,” says Ritchie. “But after you’re up there for a few days, you don’t even notice it. It’s kind of like sitting in a rocking chair and you’re always going back and forth.” Sounds like nice work if you can get it.
How often do runaway-truck ramps get used?
More often than nuclear weapons and less than microwave ovens on cranes, which is probably as it should be.
Actually, nobody knows, as comprehensive records aren’t kept and truckers who experience brake failure on steep grades sometimes use such ramps successfully and depart without further incident or official intervention. A 1981 US study reported that there were about 2 450 runaway truck events that year, of which 2 150 involved the use of a ramp. But that was 1981 and brakes, it is said, are better these days, no matter what your teenage son may claim.
One thing everybody agrees upon is that the ramps save lives. Dave Kingham, assistant public affairs manager for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, cites one ramp on US 16, outside Buffalo, Wyoming, which has been used six times since 2007. “In cases where it has been used, there haven’t been any fatalities or injuries,” says Kingham, “whereas in the cases of truck drivers who’ve bypassed the ramp, I think we’ve had five fatalities.”
Modern runaway ramps are safer and more effective than the traditional gravel or sand ramps. The latest designs use steel netting, along with a series of spooled metal tapes, to lasso errant semis, including in one instance a 40-ton Freightliner travelling at an estimated 130 kilometres per hour, which suffered only minor front-end damage, unlike the car your teenage son drove into the rear of that idling food truck. PM