Homework: Much Ado About Nothing?

Dear Faculty and Staff:

Homework-free ASD? Who would say such a thing? In all seriousness, the reaction from students, faculty, and parents has been interesting to watch. I have always believed that homework gets too much credit for academic success, and at the same time, too much blame for what is wrong with schooling. The debate on homework goes back more than a century, and the quantity of homework has waxed and waned.

The voices of anti-homework advocates (I count myself as one) have grown louder in recent years as we learn more about the brain, how students learn, and the skills and dispositions they will need to thrive in today’s marketplace. In my opinion, viewing the homework debate as binary—homework or no-homework—is a mistake. There is surely learning best suited for the school setting, and learning best suited for the home environment.

“But homework worked for us!” goes a common retort from parents or teachers when the convention of homework is challenged. Did it really? If you think back on activities or assignments that were memorable, would they include completing worksheets, practicing long problem sets, reading textbooks, and responding to questions?  Perhaps endeavors such as reading novels, writing stories, creating art, or practicing music were more memorable. I would argue that the former has no place in today’s educational context, and the latter shouldn’t be labeled as “homework”.

Let us not forget that schooling as we know it was set up in 1892 by the “Committee of Ten” to sort students into university- or vocational-bound silos, and high schools in particular remain remarkably unchanged since that time. Because the current  generation of students is the most compliant on record, the excessive time spent on low-quality homework is leading this generation to also become the most maladjusted group of our age. (To learn more about what the homework research says, and specific suggestions for teachers, see this white paper by Stanford University’s “Challenge Success” consortium.)

I often turn to New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman to synthesize my thoughts on our world today. His latest book, Thank You For Being Late, does a fantastic job at explaining to a lay person like me the monumental acceleration that’s taken place since 2007 due to advancements in technology. In the past, there were high-wage, high-skilled jobs; there were middle-wage, middle-skilled jobs; and there were high-wage, middle-skilled jobs. It’s the last one (high-wage, middle-skilled) that has disappeared in the marketplace. “Average is officially over”, writes Friedman. This helps explain the current pressure on the North American middle class.

Adaptability through self-motivated, on-demand learning (aka “re-skilling”) is widely deemed by futurists as the top attribute this current generation needs, even more so than social and emotional competencies (though those are very important), and much more so than most of the content knowledge we convey in traditional schooling (what Harvard’s Project Zero guru David Perkins calls “niche-learning”).

More from the book (p. 205):

Thriving in today’s workplace is all about what LinkedIn’s co-founder Reid Hoffman calls investing in “the start-up of you.” No politician in America will tell you this, but every boss will: You can’t just show up. You need a plan to succeed….

Today, argues Zach Sims, the founder of Codecademy, “you have to know more, you have to update what you know more often, and you have to do more creative things with it” than just routine tasks. “That recursive loop really defines work and learning today. And that is why self-motivation is now so much more important”….

“In today’s knowledge-human economy it will be human capital–talent, skills, tacit know-how, empathy, and creativity,” (Byron Auguste) added. “These are massive, undervalued human assets to unlock”–and our educational institutions and labor markets need to adapt to that. (p. 207)

We are hearing more and more from ASD’s graduates that these sentiments are true—that their lived experience in the workforce has required constant re-skilling in order to remain competitive.

So where does homework fit into this equation? To me, it makes the case for eradicating bad homework much more urgent. “Bad” is perhaps too strong a word, and it is not meant to be a criticism of you, our amazing teachers. On the contrary, I have been impressed by the good work the three divisions have done on this issue. We’ve made excellent progress, but there is a final push necessary to get us to where we need to be.

Let’s rebrand homework as home learning. We, the educators, drive the learning at school (as we should). Should we not, then, given what we know about today’s context, allow students to drive their learning at home? It’s a prime opportunity to promote “voice and choice”, an ASD initiative fundamental to our improvement agenda.

In the recent crowdsourcing endeavor with middle and high school students through allourideas.org, over 28,000 votes were collected in just a few days. Students voted on a variety of home learning choices (as either favorable or unfavorable), and they could submit their own ideas. Here is a list of responses that received more favorable than unfavorable ratings, in order of strength:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Spending time with my friends and my family
  • Following a passion which is outside the scope of the school curriculum
  • Being physically active, such as playing sports
  • Getting work experience in an area I am interested in
  • Enjoying a hobby of my own
  • A balance of school and freedom
  • Having time to explore my own interests and learn about the world
  • Learning and practicing skills
  • Practicing problems that I choose myself based on what I’m struggling with
  • Practicing important skills for class and personal enjoyment
  • Having free time to do whatever I want
  • Getting involved in school activities and different community service groups
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Visiting museums, art galleries, fashion shows, theatre performances, etc.
  • Doing service learning in the community
  • Building something with my hands
  • Having optional work to do if I want extra support in a class
  • Teaching back what I learned that day to another student or person to solidify my knowledge
  • Learning something new, when I become interested in it, until I move onto the next thing I am interested in
  • Doing art: drawing, painting, sculpture, etc.
  • College transition program (how to live alone, etc.)
  • Play (unstructured)
  • Having a discussion with someone at home about what I learned in class
  • Enjoy the city I live in
  • Revising something that I got feedback on in class that day
  • Doing some independent research
  • Practicing without having to be told what to do

Out of the mouths of babes! There is nothing in there that I would brand as “bad homework”. Instead, this is the home learning that aligns with future-readiness.  

It is the first and last items that particularly caught my attention. Sleep speaks to the fact that our current generation of students (and teachers) are exhausted on a regular basis. (As I write this on a Saturday afternoon, my daughter is fast-asleep.)

“Practicing without having to be told what to do” can be reworded as “Directing my learning without having to be told what to do.”  Here’s the crux of the argument: let’s give our students the space, guidance, and encouragement to direct their learning—to not only prepare for the next lesson, but to prepare them for life. Let’s take the homework-bull by the horns and release our control over it so we can focus our time and energy on more impactful facets of the learning experience, i.e. the curriculum, instruction, and assessments. We need only to look to our colleagues in the elementary school, who have already rebranded homework as home learning, and have achieved homework-free environments. Let’s finish the K-12 vertical alignment.

What’s next? Shift will not happen overnight, though you can take the sentiment in this blog as permission to continue revising your approach to homework—to not feel pressure from our parents to give homework that you know is not good home learning. In October, I will convene a task force to envision what Home Learning (a homework-free ASD) could look like, and suggest some sensible strategies and actions to put into place. Speak to your Principal if you are interested in this opportunity, to seek clarification on how far you can go with your homework disruptions, or simply to share your experience with this issue.

In stewardship,

Dr. Paul Richards
ASD Superintendent

Opening Letter to Students – HS Version

Dear ASD High School student,

Welcome to or welcome back to ASD! I hope your summer provided opportunities for rest, renewal, reading and other learning experiences. If you are like a typical young person of your generation, I’m sure you also consumed hours upon hours of digital content, but I’ll get to this later.

This past week, as the Richards family worked on getting over our jetlag, we watched “Ready Player One”. Steven Spielberg is a brilliant director, and it’s not easy to take a great book and do it justice on the screen (yes, Ready Player One started as a book by author and self-professed “full-time geek”, Ernest Cline). The dystopian world, less than thirty years into the future, is quite depressing, yet Spielberg and Cline give us a lot to think about: escape from reality through VR, real versus online relationships, and the influence of mega-corporations on us. Now, I know most people will just focus on the love-interest-driven plot, the awesome special effects, and who wins in the end. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but did you notice at the very end that Wade, now in control of the Oasis, turned it off on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week. That made me smile, and also made me want to use this example to begin my annual letter to all students.

90:9:1

What is this ratio? You may have seen this before. It’s popular in technology circles, usually cited when describing people’s behavior using social media. However, to illustrate my point, I’ll use the ratio in the following way:

90 – the % of people who consume digital content

9 – the % of people who create digital content

1 – the % of people who curate digital content

Consuming digital content has its place both in school and in leisure. We all appreciate binge-watching Netflix on occasion, or checking Snapchat, Instagram or Twitter. The problem lies when this consumption becomes a distraction to forming real relationships, or it gets in the way of responsibilities such as completing your homework. In addition, if you were honest, you would likely admit that your consumption of digital media leaves you either wanting for more (like a sugar fix) or feeling strangely empty, after the ephemeral thrill is gone.

Creating digital content transitions away from passive consumption and in to actively building of something new. Creating takes thought and pays it forward (hopefully, through a positive impact). This might involve making a How-To video for YouTube, or joining an online forum that contributes ideas or codes algorithms to solve complex problems. You will likely find this type of contribution highly rewarding, and the impact may even last years and years.

Curating digital content is the highest order skill set, which allows one to create communities of learning and discovery (and even entertainment). You are organizing a digital platform that brings people together for a common purpose, whether it’s educating the world on an issue important to you, or simply networking with people who share common values and interests, but are geographically all over the world. Think Khan Academy, or Pinterest.

Which skills are employable (i.e. will allow you to make a living, independently, doing something you love)? Certainly not digital consumption. If that were the case, everyone in the world would be independently wealthy! Unless you are one of the very few YouTubers who can make videos that entertain the masses, you likely won’t make a living through digital creation (though these people seem to eventually crash and burn and get banned from the platform). A more realistic approach to this activity would be to treat it like a hobby. It is the curating of digital content that provides great value (and success) in the 21st Century. This is a skill that AI cannot compete with humans. And it’s something you can do from any location that has a decent wifi signal (like the Maldives!).

I challenge each and every one of you to reflect on where your own behaviors fall in this 90:9:1 ratio. The key here is to find the right balance to ensure your consumption or “escapes” do not dominate your wakeful hours. Why? Because there are so many amazing things to discover if you just unplug for a while. And then you can take these discoveries back to the digital realm and make the world a better place.

“If we teach today’s students like we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” (John Dewey)

John Dewey is a legend in the field of education, preaching over a century ago the importance of “hands-on” learning through confronting real-world problems. He believed that education is social and that students should be empowered to own their learning. He would surely be gutted to see that many classrooms have not progressed much since his day, still relying on memorizing facts and listening to lectures. I shared this quote with your teachers when we met on Saturday, because at ASD we aspire to offer you the most relevant learning experience we can. Our school mission pledges to prepare you to adapt and contribute to a rapidly changing world. Rapidly changing indeed this world is! We see opportunity in this dynamic reality, and are ready to meet the challenge.

The school has launched a three-year strategic plan that will disrupt aspects of traditional learning at ASD. It aims to make you “future ready”. The theme central to this initiative is personalized learning. This means we want to tailor your education to your interests and needs, because your future is unique to you. We will make available additional opportunities, content, and courses in future-ready fields such as technology, innovation, business, entrepreneurship, global issues, and the performing arts. We will create additional service learning experiences, particularly in Dubai. We will ensure every student has access to these opportunities, and shatter any glass ceilings that exist for highly capable students. This is our pledge to you. And we won’t make you wait! You will start to see some of this right away, this year, and then there will be much, much more to come.

What can you do to advance these efforts? Simple. Join your teachers in co-creating your school experience, for today and for tomorrow. Find your voice. Give us your ideas. Speak up for what you feel is right and appropriate. Advocate. Demand. Own your education. It’s yours, after all, not ours!

Finally, we welcome to ASD this year a highly-capable Principal in Ms. Nadine Richards who will work with you on the day-to-day goings-on at the high school. She will lead the high school faculty in its effort to improve. I am also available to support your learning and development. Please do not hesitate to introduce yourself or say hello in the hallways or after school on campus (and you can always make an appointment with Ms. Gonsalves or drop me a note).

I look forward to meeting and seeing you in the coming days and weeks. Here’s to a wonderful start to the school year and remember… Once a Falcon, Always a Falcon!

Dr. Paul Richards

ASD Superintendent

A letter to students from the ASD Superintendent – HS Version

It Felt Love

How

Did the rose

Ever open its heart

And give to this world

All its

Beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light

Against its

Being,

Otherwise,

We all remain

Too

Frightened.

From “The Gift” (Hafiz)

 

Dear ASD High School student,

Welcome to or welcome back to ASD! I hope your summer provided opportunities for rest, renewal, reading and other learning experiences. As the new ASD Superintendent, I wanted to start my tenure at the school by sharing the poem above. Why? Poet Robert Frost said it well, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” (emphasis added)

For the Richards family—Camille (grade 10) and Zach (grade 8), and my wife Tina—moving to Dubai and starting anew at ASD generates a myriad of emotions: excitement, nervousness, happiness, and sadness to leave friends in Saudi Arabia, among other feelings. Most of all, however, I am filled with awe and anticipation at the honor of serving the 1850+ students of the American School of Dubai. You, the students, are the roses at ASD, and it is up to we, the teachers, to provide the light so you can achieve your dreams and thrive in this world.

The Richards family is excited to join ASD due to the importance the organization places on the community itself. There are many high-quality schools in the world, but there exist fewer schools that go beyond a transactional relationship with its students and families. At ASD, you are part of a vibrant community that strives to be a conduit for your health, happiness and achievement (yes, all three outcomes are possible). ASD has a reputation of being a place that treats its members fairly and with kindness, with care and with empathy. This is exactly where we want to be!

I am writing to you because it may take some time before we can get to know each other, especially since the superintendent does not belong to any particular division or classroom. This is a chance to tell you a few things as the school year starts.

What does a superintendent do? Good question. First and foremost, I protect and keep the Mission of the school, to make sure we are living it: We challenge and inspire each student to achieve their dreams and to become a passionate learner prepared to adapt and contribute in a rapidly changing world. I lead the administration in the day-to-day operations of the school. I also partner with the ASD Board of Trustees—who focus on policy, thought partnership, and ensuring the financial viability of the school.

We take seriously the responsibility to realize ASD’s Mission with each and every one of you. As a result, I share the following commitments to you, which I fully expect you to hold me accountable to:

To listen. As an introvert, this comes naturally to me. I very much want to hear your unique perspective on the school, on your learning, or on life. Speak up. It will help us make better decisions.

To be fair. We will use ASD’s Core Values as the basis of an ethical framework for decisions on issues of programs, curriculum, handbook expectations, and policies. You will always get an explanation of why a decision was made, and the rationale for it.

To be available. My daily calendar is set up in a way that I’ll be out and about campus during and after the school day. If you don’t see me, make an appointment in the main office.  

To uphold ASD’s Core Values. I will strive to do right by the students and the school, and to set a good model for behavior, even in situations where it may be challenging to do so.

I would be remiss if I didn’t communicate some expectations I have for you:

Own your learning. After all, this is your high school experience, not mine. Self-motivation is believed by many as the key to success in our rapidly changing world. Much attention in the media has been given to self-driving cars or sky taxis, but journalist Thomas Friedman advocates for the self-driving you. There is wisdom here.

It is natural to think about the future during your time at ASD, to think of the school experience as planning and preparation for what comes next. It would be a missed opportunity, however, to focus your attention on how your actions today might influence rewards in the future. Instead, and I paraphrase from Stanford Professor Tina Seelig, use your school experience to experiment and explore in the present. In doing so, your natural curiosity and creativity will take over, and the singular focus on producing results will diminish (ironically, you will nevertheless produce results through these behaviors). We, the teachers at ASD, will do our part to create the space and intellectual climate to foster this mindset.

Uphold ASD’s Core Values: compassion, excellence, integrity, respect, responsibility. It takes all of us to model these values, and it takes courage to stand up for what is right, even if it brings discomfort or unpopularity. A community can only be a community if we live and breathe the core values. Otherwise, the values are simply words on a website or a poster.

Go beyond you. ASD strives to personalize the learning experience for all its students, but you also have so much to offer your classmates and community. Share your unique perspective on the world, and help others be the best they can be. The ASD experience is an opportunity to be engaged in a relationship with your community and its members. Relationships are two-way streets, where you can take, but you must also give back.

Finally, work hard, and devote equal effort to rest and recovery. The most accomplished people today and in the past work very deliberately on their rest, and they define this recovery as an active process (not just sitting on the couch for hours Netflixing). Walk, read, practice a skill, laugh, cry, exercise, hang out with friends and family, write notes, etc. Give your brain a chance to consolidate all it has learned in the course of the day. And what do scientists say is most important for you to be at your peak performance? Sleep. (I know. This can be a battle.)

You have a highly-capable Principal in Dr. Leever to work with on the day-to-day goings-on at the high school. I am also available to support your learning and development. Please do not hesitate to introduce yourself in the hallways or after school on campus (and you can always make an appointment with Ms Gonsalves or drop me a note). I don’t carry an email address, but you can find me on WhatsApp and LinkedIn (just ask me for a business card). I also write occasionally on my blog: www.drpaulrichards.com. Check it out.

I look forward to meeting you in the coming days and weeks. Here’s to a wonderful start to the school year and remember…

Once a Falcon, Always a Falcon!

Dr. Paul Richards

ASD Superintendent

ASD Parent Letter

Dear Parents,

Welcome to the soon-to-begin 2017-2018 school year. In the last week we welcomed 39 new faculty members, and several new administrators, to our learning community. I can also claim to be part of this new group! This collection of highly-capable professionals is currently participating in the new faculty orientation program and we believe each will make a positive and profound impact on our school in short order. Returning faculty and staff have also arrived on campus to begin final preparations for the start of the school year.

The Richards family is not new to the Middle East, having lived the past four years in Saudi Arabia, but we are new to Dubai and the UAE. My wife Tina, a nurse practitioner, will take her time to settle in before deciding on her next professional endeavor. Our children, Camille (Grade 10) and Zach (Grade 8) are eager to make new friends and begin school. Even our long-haired Jack Russell terrier, Kiwi, approves of the move, as he now has a social group in the neighborhood.

I want to extend a special welcome to our new families, whether you are new to Dubai or just new to the American School of Dubai (ASD). I look forward to hearing your aspirations for your children and for ASD itself. Please do not hesitate to introduce yourself when on campus. Your children will receive a welcome letter from me on the first day of school; there are a few things I want to tell them directly.

ASD Mission
The mission continues to serve as the driving force of all things at the school, in the decisions we make keeping the children’s best interests at the forefront, and in inspiring us to keep striving toward improvement. The mission is personal: “…challenge and inspire each student…” The mission is aspirational: “…achieve their dreams and to become a passionate learner…” The mission has a bias toward action: “…prepared to adapt and contribute in a rapidly changing world.” The world our children will inherit is not only different than the one we inhabited at their ages, but their world has yet to be fully created. Our graduates must be prepared for disruptions that have not yet occurred, and ASD through its Student Profile — Thinker. Communicator. Contributor. Learner. Leader. — is fully committed to this preparation. As the world changes around us, the school must also evolve its programs and approaches in order to stay relevant to our children’s needs.

Aligned with the ASD mission are the new strategic priorities, developed at a representative summit nearly a year back:

  1. In order to embrace our collective responsibility to deeply embed and fully realize our Mission, Core Values, Learning Principles, and Student Profile, we will develop metrics, report on progress and respond to our performance.
  2. We will develop and implement policies, systems, structures and practices that will meet the diverse learning needs of all of ASD’s students.
  3. We will design, implement and evaluate a community-wide comprehensive learning program that develops and cultivates a mindset to contribute and take informed action.

These statements represent the next iteration of the school’s strategic plan. In the coming months, you will have an opportunity to participate either formally or informally in the creation of results and accompanying action/strategies. You will receive updates throughout this year and beyond on the school’s progress toward meeting these ambitious targets.

ASD Core Values
Core values represent “how we do things around here”, and ASD’s five Core Values are largely ethical in nature:

Compassion: It is our responsibility to give help where needed.
Excellence: Striving for excellence is critical to our success.
Integrity: Integrity and honesty are essential to a safe and trusting environment.
Respect: Every person has equal inherent value. Embracing our diversity strengthens our community.
Responsibility: Each person is responsible/accountable for his or her choices.

It is critically important how we (the educators), you (the parents), and our students in particular, define the behaviors associated with each Core Value. This is especially true with Excellence, the only Core Value that is not ethical in nature. Excellence can be viewed as an activity, resulting from our hard work and ethical behavior, and it can be viewed as an output, where others judge our performance or actions at a high level of achievement. It should not be viewed as striving for perfection, or fostering excessive competitiveness. Please help me in reinforcing this message.

Advancing the Mission of ASD
ASD is well known for its welcoming community and again this year, there are multiple opportunities for you and your family to be involved in ways that strengthen our community and support our school. Each and every gift of time, talent and treasure is valued and supports the success of students and advances the mission of ASD.

We are grateful for the many dedicated parents who volunteer throughout the school and through the PTSA, Booster and CAST parent organizations. The dedication and gift of time create wonderful opportunities for our community that foster friendship and involvement. Please consider how you can get involved this year and I look forward to seeing you at all our community building events, including concerts, competitions, Halloween Night, Santa’s Workshop, Sports Award ceremonies, the ASD Carnival and more.

Last year as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, ASD launched its first-ever Annual Giving program. Providing opportunities to give in support of ASD is common at most leading, independent nonprofit schools (both in the United States and within the international arena). Through giving, you help ensure ASD can fulfill its mission to prepare students for our rapidly changing world beyond what tuition allows.

I want to say thank you to the many parents, faculty, staff and alumni who made a gift through the Annual Giving program or through the 50th Anniversary Gala. Last year’s annual gifts, together with the proceeds of the 50th Anniversary Gala, yielded nearly AED 1.5 million which have been dedicated to a number of outstanding projects that otherwise would not have been possible: the re-imaging of the ES and MS/HS Library projects; misting fans across campus; a new state-of-the-art theatre projector; new school-wide sustainability bins; division learning space enhancements; funding dedicated to support learning projects inspired by students and more. I look forward to sharing more about making a difference through giving to ASD and thank you in advance for your participation.

Home-School Partnership
Our children thrive at school when the support from home and from school are strong and aligned, where support is developmentally appropriate to the age of the student. Psychologist Robert Evans (author of Family Matters) put it well: “Prepare your child for the path, not the path for your child.” We want our children to be happy and healthy thirty-five year olds (and preferably not living with us at our home). This requires a gradual shift from the early years right up to graduation for parent-as-doer to parent-as-coach. We want to resist the parent-as-rescuer or parent-as-personal assistant roles that can be debilitating to the normal development of children. Parent-as-friend is the joyful role that develops once our children leave the nest.

Protocol for Resolving Issues: ASD is fortunate to enjoy the strong participation and support of parents, and you can assist us by talking directly with your child’s teacher regarding classroom issues or concerns at the earliest possible time. In the event that you are unable to satisfactorily resolve an issue with your child’s teacher, please contact the division administrator. If the issue cannot be resolved at the division level or if the issue relates to a matter of a school-wide nature, please contact the superintendent through Reina Gonsalves at rgonsalves@asdubai.org.

Reminders/Announcements

In concluding, the entire faculty, staff and administration are deeply committed to the upcoming 2017-2018 school year being a wonderful year of learning for your children. If we can be of assistance or support throughout the school year, or if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. I look forward to meeting your family.

Sincerely,

Dr. Paul Richards
Superintendent