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Formulaic thinking

Posted on: October 12, 2016

After reading this review of research on homework, my mind raced to how some people might resort to formulaic thinking.

This was the phrase that seeded it:

Based on his research, Cooper (2006) suggests this rule of thumb: homework should be limited to 10 minutes per grade level.

What follows were examples and an important caveat:

Grade 1 students should do a maximum of 10 minutes of homework per night, Grade 2 students, 20 minutes, and so on. Expecting academic students in Grade 12 to occasionally do two hours of homework in the evening—especially when they are studying for exams, completing a major mid-term project or wrapping up end-of-term assignments—is not unreasonable. But insisting that they do two hours of homework every night is expecting a bit much.

If you assume that people would pay more attention to the caveat than to the formula, you assume wrongly. Doing the former means thinking harder and making judgements. The latter is an easy formula.

Most people like easy.

If those people are teachers and administrators who create homework and homework policies, then everyone who is at home will likely suffer from homework blues.

Am I overreaching? I think not. Consider another example on formulaic thinking.

I provide professional development for future faculty every semester, but this semester was a bit different. There was a “social” space in the institution’s learning management system (LMS) where a certain 70:30 ratio emerged.

A capstone project for these future faculty is a teaching session. The modules prior to that prepare them to design and implement learner-centred experiences. At least one person played the numbers game and asked what proportion of the session should be teacher-centred vs student-centred.

I provide advice in person and in assignments that the relative amount is contextual. My general guideline is that student-centred work tends to require more time since the learners are novices and that the planning should reflect that.

However, once that 70:30 ratio was suggested in the social space, it became the formula to follow. It was definite and easier than thinking for and about the learner. It allowed future faculty to stay in their comfort zone of lecturing 70% of the time and grudgingly attempt student-centred work 30% of the time.

But guess what? When people follow this formula or do not plan for more student-centred activities and time, they typically go over the 70% teacher talk time and rush the actual learning. This pattern is practically formulaic.

Formulaic thinking is easy, but that does not make it right or effective. In the case of the course I mentioned, the 70:30 folk typically return for remediation. It is our way of trying to stop the rot of formulaic thinking.

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