IS HOME­WORK STILL REL­E­VANT IN THE 21st CEN­TURY?

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - How Your World Works -

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

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