Homework and Rubber Bands by Ben Snyder, Head of Upper School
When JoAnn Deak visited Nobles and shared her insights about the wonders, challenges and frustrations of working with the adolescent brain, myriad questions arose for Nobles parents.
How can my child get more sleep?
Can we accelerate the speed at which his brain matures?
Where does homework fit in with the development of my child?
What can I do to help her stay properly hydrated and eating well?
During her presentations Dr. Deak asked us to think of our brains as containing numerous rubber bands—some bigger, some smaller, some stronger, some weaker—that correlate to different neurological and cognitive aptitudes and abilities. She was clear that no brain has the same size rubber bands in all sectors and that some of those rubber bands are naturally bigger and stronger than others.
Dr. Deak maintained that to develop a facile brain, it is critical to stretch the bigger rubber bands to identify intellectual passions and to continue to use the smaller rubber bands to build a broad range of necessary skills. This approach endorses the approach we take at Nobles in maintaining a breadth of requirements while also allowing students to forge ahead in areas of particular talent and interest.
Following her presentation there were many valid questions raised about the efficacy of homework at Nobles—how much is given, its relevance to learning, and its impact on sleep. Over the years, and especially since her visit, the Nobles faculty has put significant time into considering the kinds of homework that we give, its connection to the goals of each course, the amount of time it should take, and the impact on student learning.
In the Upper School, Nobles teachers aim to give 40-45 minutes of homework each night—understanding that writing a major paper or studying for a test will take longer than that. If students use their free periods well and utilize their time at home properly, this amount ought to be manageable. It is important to understand what Nobles teachers are trying to accomplish and to consider ways to help students navigate their way through their outside-of-class work.
First, Nobles teachers try to minimize "busy work" they assign. In certain disciplines (math, language) repetition is critical to building certain skill sets. While at times it may feel to a student as though doing 10 of the same kind of math problems is repetitive, there is ample data supporting the need for that kind of reinforcing work.
Second, we know that the amount of time a homework assignment should take varies dramatically among students. What takes Charlie 45 minutes might take Susie 30 minutes and Alvin a full hour. Sadly, that’s the nature of the differences in all of our brains. Over time, Nobles students learn to manage their time to accommodate the varied amounts of time it takes for them to complete their work. This variability has its greatest impact in humanities courses that require significant reading. However, we also know that young people are reading less these days and that the best way to improve as a reader (and writer) is to read more.
Third, any parent of a teenager today can attest to the impact of social media and technology on the daily lives of kids. Our work with students indicates that significant productivity (and hours of sleep) are lost to the constant interruptions from text messages, tweets, emails, chats and much more. I’d humbly offer these suggestions as you try to help your child become more productive and to get more sleep:
Insist that the phone is off (not on vibrate) or in a different location during homework hours.
Consider installing a program such as Self Control (selfcontrolapp.com) or Net Nanny (netnanny.com) and determine with your child the most appropriate parameters to set. Net Nanny is a more comprehensive way to supervise your kids online.
Demand that there be a 30-minute "technology free" window of time before your child heads to bed. Considerable research supports this approach to calming the brain before bed.
Don’t let your child use a phone as an alarm clock as it will be buzzing constantly with texts and tweets during the night. An old fashioned CVS digital alarm clock can help a great deal.
Finally, for those students who have significant commitments outside of Nobles (club sports, music groups, etc.) it is critical to plan for school work well in advance and, at times, to step away from those obligations in order to get that work done. If it looks as though—even with good planning—that your child won’t be able to get it all done, have him/her reach out to the advisor or to individual teachers for support and strategies.
We hope that Nobles is concurrently a challenging and supportive community that will help your children appropriately stretch those rubber bands of the brain both in and outside of class.