Honors Isn’t About More

I received a text from a friend of mine about a month ago. She was a bit upset that her daughter was spending yet another night at her desk with homework that would take, based on every other night thus far during the school year, about six hours to complete. That six hour estimate was a hopeful one, with the idea that the math packet would come easy that night. 

For that night, her daughter had to complete the following tasks:

  • Three math pages, totaling 30 problems, on fractions
  • A science packet about the microscope
  • 25 vocabulary words to define and write into her notebook for Social Studies
  • Read chapters 9-16 of Blood On The River for English (over 50 pages)
  • Complete a question packet for the above reading
  • Write a summary of the short story read in English Class
  • Study for a Vocabulary Quiz for English Class
  • Study for an Art Final Unit Exam

That was one night.

It was all due the next day.

With the exception of the Art Final and the Vocabulary quiz, none of this was known ahead of time. 

So, let’s just map this out for a second. Let’s say that this young lady gets home from school at 3:30 PM. She takes a half hour to decompress, get a snack, change her clothes, and walk her dog. That gets her to about 4:00 PM before sitting down to do her homework. 

Let’s say that the math takes her an hour. She gets fractions, but there are 30 problems; you have to show your work and explain your process. Math is all about repetition, but 30 seems to be a bit more about rote skills rather than understanding concepts. But, anyway, it takes an hour.

Now, we are at 5:00 PM. She heads right into Social Studies. Looking up 25 words and writing them down takes about an hour. It might have taken less time, but her dog wanted to go out again and her Mom talked to her when she first got home from work.

Now, it’s 6:00 PM. This young lady has the great fortune of having a family that eats dinner together. They sit down around this time and eat together. They laugh, talk about their day, and talk about her busy schedule coming up as this was a rare day that she was home right after school. 

Dinner is finished and her parents tell her that she doesn’t have to help cleanup so that she can finish her homework. She goes back into her room, writes a page and half summary of the short story she read in English class that day, according the the guideline sheet her teacher gave. She takes about another 45 minutes to study her vocabulary and art. It’s now past 8:00 PM. 

She decides to take a shower and then sit down to read her 50+ pages of a novel written about Captain John Smith in 1606. She hasn’t taken a speed reading course, but isn’t exactly a slow reader so she is able to get her reading done around 10:30 PM.

She’s in the home stretch…just the thick question packet to finish. 

Her parents feel terrible and even encourage her to just go to bed, but she perseveres. She answers each and every question with complete sentences and finishes after midnight. Her parents are sleeping; even her dog has crawled quietly into his crate as she is still up finishing her work.

In less than six hours, she’ll be up and getting ready to start it all over again. But, she knows that she has fall softball practice that night so she probably won’t be as “lucky” to get to bed a little after midnight this time around. And, truthfully, she was lucky because that marathon of homework last night didn’t include an essay, which is a regular assignment as well. But, that effort resulted into two good grades as she aced her vocabulary and art tests. 

For the rest of her work that didn’t allow her for one moment to watch television, talk with her friends, or do something she is passionate about, she was rewarded with the prized check mark in the book.  

That’s right. Over six hours of work was rewarded with a check mark. Ok, there were multiple check marks, but we are seriously talking check marks. There was zero feedback given, only the next night’s “work”. When I asked my friend about the type of writing instruction her daughter receives, she tells me an even worse story. They haven’t received a piece of writing back since the start of the year with feedback. Her daughter actually asked the teacher what she can do to improve her writing and the teacher responded with “you’re good.”

Now, you may have looked at the title and realized that this young lady is in an honors program. She is obviously a smart young lady with a work ethic that cannot be questioned. But, honors, as the title says, does not equal more. More work doesn’t equal higher education. This young lady was given multiple packets, a writing template to complete, and words to memorize that took up time. None of that is higher level. It was time consuming. 

Oh, I forgot the best part: she’s a seventh grader.

Let that sink in a bit; this true story is about a seventh grade student in a middle school honors program. 

Attacking The Obvious Absurdities

Let’s get the homework thing out of the way as it is the most glaring, but not the most important issue at hand. There is zero research that definitively proves that homework teaches responsibility, that homework is equivalent to course rigor, or that homework truly enhances learning. Perhaps the argument can be made that the right type of homework would do all of those things, but take a look at that list of tasks; that list isn’t doing any of those things other than having students conform, jump through the teacher’s hoops, and literally checking the boxes in the grade book. 

Now, there is some research out there that does point out some positives of homework. Duke University saw a correlation between achievement and completion of homework. But, it also makes a point to say that when too much time is spent on homework, the returns diminish. For middle schoolers, Duke’s research saw diminished returns after 90 minutes of homework. In other words, too much is harmful to kids. Six hours of work seems downright abusive.

And, let’s just question the idea of achievement and homework. There is the distinct possibility of a logical fallacy making its way into research findings. Are students truly learning more because of homework? Or, are they receiving higher grades because they are fulfilling requirements? My money is on the latter.

Stanford University’s research on homework makes it clear that too much homework can be harmful to a student’s well being. That is exacerbated when students are given upwards of six hours of work that leaves them no time to pursue passions or to develop other necessary, real world skills. 

Another absurdity is the type of homework given. Typically, when homework reaches this type of time commitment, it is usually comprised of rote tasks that do not foster inquiry, passions, or any other communication skill that will be needed post academic life. If homework was done correctly, it would be more long term and would require more thought, more depth. Students would learn how to manage time, communicate with others, synthesize subject matter and skills, and produce authentic work that is meaningful to them and to the world. But, many honors programs focus on the “more” rather than the quality of work. 

The other, more important absurdity is the lack of feedback. How can any student go through almost three months of school and not receive any sort of feedback on his/her writing? It is negligent on every level, but it seems particularly poor considering this is seventh grade, just a second year into the middle school standards. How is an answer of “you’re good” acceptable?

That is not feedback. That is not helpful. All it is telling a kid is that she doesn’t matter, her work doesn’t matter, and her desire to improve doesn’t matter. It is telling her that school is about doing what the teacher says so you maintain that precious honors placement, maintain that average so you can move into AP classes in high school, and then, maybe, just maybe, colleges will accept you.

Here is another disturbing example. That 50 plus pages of reading along with the packet? The packet work wasn’t reviewed. It was one of those check marks. But, here’s the best (worst) part: the class was given a quiz on the book without ever having discussed the book in class. There was no teaching of the book, just a packet to complete. There were no discussions on the relevancy of the 1600’s to their lives today. There were no discussions about writer’s craft and how those bright, honors students could use some of the techniques employed in the book in their own writing. When my friend questioned the teacher about quizzing a class on something that wasn’t reviewed, the answer was, “this is an honors class.”

We wonder why students are so concerned about the grade; it is because of teachers and programs set up like this that force that shift. It certainly isn’t about the learning or growth. It’s about jumping through hoops that seemingly get made up at the whim of a teacher. 

We can argue the validity of having an honors program in seventh grade—honestly, I am not sure where I stand on this—but we cannot argue that six hours of mostly rote tasks per night with little feedback is not an honors program. It’s not even a non-honors program. It is poor pedagogically and damaging to the students both academically and socially. 

Perhaps, more importantly, it turns a learner from wanting to go to school each day to a student who answers the question, “how’s school going?” with a simple shrug, a disgusted face, and moves on to a different topic of conversation. There’s no joy in school for this young lady. Even though she is achieving and maintaining her standing, she isn’t excited and isn’t being challenged to be a better thinker. 

What Honors Should Be

Clearly, this young lady and her classmates are in a program that is placing unreasonable and useless demands on them. This is shame for many reasons. First, it is making school a negative experience for these bright young people who are the very ones we should be focusing on stimulating. Second, it isn’t preparing them for anything in higher level education or the real world. Third, it is stopping growth for a group of kids who a bright, hard working, and well rounded. 

An honors program, in theory, is a great idea. The program should take a group of high achieving kids and encourage them to go deeper into their learning, not just do more work. Meaningful—not quantity—should be the key word. With a few common sense tweaks, a middle school honors program could set a path for students to go beyond curriculum and continue to love education.

Treat Students Like They Deserve To Be There

When the first thing out of a teacher’s mouth is “this is an honors class”, the negative tone has already been set. Those five words tell kids that the number matters more than anything else. They are not co-pilots in their learning. They don’t have a say or even an opportunity to explore a passion. They must do what they are told, when they are told, and how they are told in school and when they get home. And, just to prove that they belong, they have to do more than everyone else.

Aren’t you glad you’re smart? You’re getting punished with more work, less of a life outside of school, more stress to keep up, and dealing with work that is accompanied with less instruction and, more importantly, feedback. And, let’s be honest—these workloads and delivery methods have zero to do with college. College courses do not have these types of demands.  

This has to change. We can welcome students into honors classes by congratulating them. They’ve worked hard to get there; they’ve shown ability in their classes. They are now going to be rewarded with better teaching, more real world application, and more depth than just rote memorization. 

We must dim the spotlight that is on the grade. They already know that grades are important; it’s why they are in honors in the first place. We don’t need to throw the grade requirements in their faces, not allow for revisions and redos, or not allow for creative thought.  

We can set high expectations for students, we don’t need to threaten them. Almost every honors student is there because of a drive to do well. We can foster that drive by honoring them as people who want to achieve, rather than looking to put fear in them to chase a number. We can tell them that they will work hard, but that hard work will be about depth, not quantity. They will work hard to produce real products, not piles of worksheets. Bright students need to see that their talents translate to the real world and that they are capable of making their mark on the world. We can show them that just by treating them like the smart people that they are.

Honor Their Intelligence

This is directly aimed at the concept of homework. If a student in an honors program instantly gets the math concepts, why must he/she complete a packet full of them to prove that? Why can’t students be given a menu of options to demonstrate their understanding? A student who needs more repetition can complete problems. A student with a higher understanding can work on advanced applications of the concept. Or, a student can use that time to pursue another area of passion. 

Honors students are more in-tuned with their needs than they get credit for. These are the kids that will seek extra help and do extra work if they do not understand a concept. When they do not meet with success, they will work until they do find that success. Honor that intelligence, trust them, and teach them how to monitor their own learning and progress.

Inquiry Based

One of the advantages of a middle school program is that it can really begin to develop student ownership of learning. We can begin shifting the role of teacher from the person who is transferring knowledge to the class to a role of facilitating learning. That shift will allow students to be more active in their learning, begin to fully explore passions, and develop skills necessary in today’s changing world.

Inquiry based work is important in an honors class (really, any level class) because not only does it allow students to pursue their own interests, but it also connects content to their lives, even reading a story that takes place in 1606. 

Once a teacher presents some of the content, students will develop questions that they are interested in answering. This usually comes in the form of them developing a problem statement. They would then spend class time researching. This is where the role of the teacher becomes more a guide. The teacher will still be teaching them content skills, but will guide them through research, source reliability, citing sources, and how to refine the question as research takes place. But, the students will be finding the content, acquiring information about their topic. Once they find their information, students will work on presenting their findings to the class. These presentations can incorporate writing, public speaking, technology skills, and can use a number of mediums. 

Inquiry based allows for that deeper understanding that we are aiming for in honors programs. It can be used in any content area, allowing for students to present findings on any content from a variety of different perspectives. Instead of spending time with packets, writing out and memorizing vocabulary words, and sitting in class passively listening to a teacher, students own their learning, are required to go deeper into concepts, and are required to show their learning in a much more comprehensive way. That sounds like the goals of an honors program as this fosters high expectations and a deeper understanding of the content.

Constant Feedback

All students need feedback. Honors students crave feedback. They want to know what they can do to improve. In an English class, writing conferences should be an almost daily occurrence. Students should be allowed to take chances in their writing, incorporate strategies that they see other writers use, and complete different forms of writing. They should conference with the teacher regularly to continue to revise their writing. Those conferences allow for deep discussion and offer students opportunities to grow in a meaningful way because they are receiving feedback while they are working, rather than weeks (or months) later.

Instead of reading packets, small group discussions, whole class discussions, or literature circles where the teacher “fish bowls” for a time and then gives feedback is more meaningful. It will allow for students to actually read the assigned books, rather than hunt for the answers to they don’t lose points. Those discussions, when done right, will inspire students to read further. 

That goes for any subject area as well. Science classes should be about discovery and testing hypothesis. Math should be about applying concepts to real world scenarios. Students should be allowed to fail in their first attempts, get feedback, and then apply that feedback for a more successful attempt. Feedback while working through problems leads to greater understanding.

Monitor Workload

Honors teachers tend to think that their class is the single most important thing in a student’s life. Not only is that untrue, it isn’t even the only class in the student’s life. We can all agree that six hours of homework is not educationally sound. While I will argue that honors students would be fine without homework, the idea of giving inquiry based work, practical, real world problems to solve, options to practice skills, or to deepen knowledge can be accepted. 

But, that workload must be monitored. A teacher saying that he/she only gives 45 minutes of homework per night doesn’t really matter considering the student usually has six or seven teachers. 45 minutes per teacher adds up. It is the obligation of the honors teachers to monitor workload. On a middle school level, that is simple. The team can discuss which class will be giving work on a certain day. Or, the school can designate days for each area such as Mondays and Wednesdays for humanities homework and Tuesdays and Thursdays for math and science homework. 

With workload monitored as well as the type of assignment given, students will be more productive and more willing to continue to deepen their knowledge. 

Closing Thought

Certainly, these concepts should be applied to all classrooms, regardless of the level. Learning should be student driven and be more about incorporating passions and interests with the content presented. It isn’t just an honors thing. 

But, it is vital that an honors program change from the idea of more work that is often just busy work to meaningful work where bright young people are challenged to make connections, go deeper into a subject matter, and own how they transmit that knowledge. 

The young seventh grader described earlier is an amazing young lady. She is smart, compassionate, and has a drive to do her best in all areas of her life. Despite being given zero feedback this year and hours of homework, she is driven to succeed. She is the type of student and person that all teachers would want in their class.

She deserves better than to be put in an environment that values task completion, fear of a grade, thick packets, and volume of work. She is the type of student who will endure the year. But, why should kids have to endure a year of school? Honors programs shouldn’t be about endurance. They should be about deeper, more meaningful learning.