Multiple Guess

Whilst the actual value of “homework” is a matter for some debate (Finland stopped using homework as part of it’s strategy to improve education and moved from the same kind of spot in the leagues as the USA inhabits, up to be top performers), the fact today is that it’s part of the life of most children here in the USA at least.

My son is 11, and to be fair, the amount of homework that he has is really pretty minimal. It consists of about 3 times a week being given math homework, that seems to be m mix of going over recent teachings and stuff a 5 year old should be able to do (I believe this is considered “reinforcing the basics”), and an occasional one off piece of basic comprehension, or a science quiz or something of that nature. Really not much.

I do my very best not to get involved with the doing of the home work, but I do insist to see the finished result before it goes in. This is part of my ongoing effort to help him get to grips with presenting work that another human being can actually read and make sense of. He’s a bright kiddie and generally if he gets something wrong it’s because either he didn’t read the question correctly, or his workings are so messy he’s got himself crossed over with his numbers. Either way, after sending him back to try to find the errors for himself first, I go through his mistakes with him so that he can see why he’s got something wrong.

To me, this is all part of learning. It’s not much use having information or ideas in your head if you can’t communicate them in a way someone else can easily understand. This involves not only knowledge in the subject at hand, but also practice in the art of general neatness and presentation. And also it’s an important part of learning to be able to see where the holes in knowledge exist.

This is part of the reason I have a bit of an issue with what seems to be a growing trend in the work he’s bringing home. About half of the math he brings home seems to be Multiple Choice. Invariably when its multiple choice homework, the normal 20-30 minutes spent doing the piece of homework will now be down to about 5 minutes. I get presented with a sheet of coloured in dots.

My first bug bear is that this approach teaches nothing of presentation skills. My bigger issue is that it really doesn’t allow the same scope for mistakes to be made and wrong answers to occur. Supply a chimp with a crayon and it should make 25% on a multiple guess test. If a 25% mark can be achieved by luck anyway, what’s really the point?

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of the way this new math curriculum is teaching math in the first place. Our son is also in the “Gifted and Talented” stream, which I had hoped would mean that he would have the chance to move a little ahead of the curve, in terms of the level of what he was being taught. Unfortunately it just seems to mean he gets taught the same thing, just more of it.

That said, I’m not singling out math, it’s just he seems to get more of that homework than anything else so I see these things more often. My issue really is with the multiple choice format for tests (again, you won’t see them in high achieving educational countries like Finland). Getting things wrong is a huge part of learning. In fact I always tell my son that the first time is not actually getting it wrong, the first time is learning (be it in school or in life, the real trick is to only make the same mistake once, then it’s all just learning).

I want to see mistakes. Mistakes mean that we look more deeply into where the error came from. Mistakes show us gaps in understanding and make sure that those areas are covered again until he understands. Mistakes help make sure his knowledge is complete. With multiple choice, he could have just got a question right by luck, and I’d never know without going through the whole thing anyway, so he can demonstrate the correct answer and how to get there.

I do like to see the teaching my son gets at school as only part of the learning picture, rather than it being the school’s responsibility to educate him. I try to make sure that a lot of the gaps and errors that exist in the things being taught (every time he comes home and tells me Columbus discovered America makes me cringe) are filled in. At the same time, I try to be careful not to confuse him over what he’s being taught, just because the method of teaching is a lot different to what I grew up with.

This means I need to see the holes in his learning in order to help him. In something like math, I’ll stick offering other him other methods of solving a problem (he tends to have more difficulty with the new curriculum methods that the old fashioned ways I was taught), and trying to integrate the way he’s being taught into it so he can see what’s going on. Whichever method he uses I don’t care so long as he’s comfortable with it and accurate.

In other subjects (History is a biggie for “up-teaching” as there’s a lot more out there than the American history he gets fed at school), I will supplement his learning and put some of what he’s being taught into the bigger world picture that it is a part of to give him a better understanding.

The long and the short of it is that multiple guess really isn’t a way to educate kids; it’s just there to make it easy for a machine to mark tests. I want to know where the holes in my son’s knowledge are, so that I can help him fill them. Education shouldn’t be about helping children to pass tests.

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