Homework For Learning

My mom life has recently begun to get a little more hectic since my son added school sports to his already demanding schedule of competitive soccer.  We have always advocated that he use his class time as efficiently as possible so that we don’t have to deal with the homework issue that often.  However, I do appreciate there are times when stuff needs to or should come home, and I’m delighted when I can engage with my children about their schoolwork.  After all, it’s what I do. I’m not much of a “milk and cookies” mom, or “playing with Barbies” mom, or (God help me) “arts and crafts” mom, but I am definitely a kick-butt “help with homework” mom.

Having said that, knowing from personal experience how hard it is to balance life’s demands, I am deeply respectful of other people’s time, which includes that of my children and my students.  So, I don’t mind the homework, but I want it to be deliberate, purposeful, and meaningful.

1) Practice is Not One Size Fits All:  In the spirit of differentiated instruction, and just plain common sense, not everyone needs to practice in the same way.  I think of all the athletes I’ve ever played with at any given time – some were developing the jump shot while some still needed to slow down the footwork for the lay-up (I was usually the latter). And I know their practice time was not spent in the same way. Likewise, if a student can do the three hardest questions on the page (again, not me), perhaps she gets a night off, or maybe her task is to design an interesting question to challenge the class.  If a student is struggling to do the basics, then pick the few that focus on the fundamental skills or concepts that need to be addressed. If the student needs a bit of repetitious practice to develop automaticity, then so be it. Know what your students need, and design their homework accordingly.

2)  Do More With Less:  I recall my husband telling me that in University his math homework usually consisted of one question for the week, but it took him hours to figure out.  Design tasks and questions that allow kids to go deep, to play with the ideas, to look at them in different ways.  I had a conversation with a teacher today about why students could not transfer what they had learned with their practice on one page, to similar practice on a different page in a different book.  I suggested that perhaps that should be their homework for that night – a journal response that asked them to reflect on the strategies were working for them, and what was challenging about the new work.  Ask students to represent a response in different ways:  with a word definition, with a picture, with examples of what it is and what it is not, with a reference to a piece of music or a movie, with a skit, with whatever’s relevant and inspiring. It’s important students learn to look at things through different frames and make the connections.

3)  Feedback is Essential – And the More Interactive, the Better:  There is absolutely no point in practising anything, ever, ever, ever, if noone is going to help you see how you are doing and how to get better.  And that doesn’t mean it always has to be the teacher giving feedback (you’ll develop unhealthy dependencies to cope with the marking), and that doesn’t mean we make the students do the marking while someone reads out the answers (Can you say “ca-ta-ton-ic”?). I’m a big fan of students getting into groups and talking about what they found to be the most challenging, sharing their strategies, and then picking one question to discuss with the large group.  Another version of that is to do a snowball activity where students write a response to a challenging question, crumple it up and throw it to the middle of the floor.  They pick up someone else’s paper, and discuss with their group the challenges in the anonymous response. It liberate kids to analyze and talk about the difficulties of the work without identifying themselves. Something simple I used to do was to have students leave their assignments on the corner of the desk.  While they were working on the current task, I would go around and ask students to talk to me about what they had found challenging.  That helped me to re-address anything I thought the students had missed as a group, as well as have some one-on-one conversation with the students.  I usually didn’t get around to everyone in a class, but I probably hit everyone every 2 or 3 classes. And last but not least, use online technology such as blogging or backchanneling to foster conversation about the work. Post a math problem or a question about a piece of literature and see what students have to say about each other’s strategies and interpretations. The purpose of all this is to see how students are thinking, not just to see if they are getting it right or wrong.

5) Freedom to Practice without Risk: Notice that none of this involved giving a mark.  ‘Nuff said about that.

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    • Carolyn
    • November 3rd, 2010

    This is such an important topic on a variety of levels. First and foremost, as you eloquently address it, teachers need to be purposeful in all of their aspects of instruction including practice and homework. All students need to have an engaging learning experience and not just churn through the same old same old. Students are becoming wiser and are increasingly able to articulate why a learning activity suits or does not suit their needs. As well, more and more parents who have come through our current education system realize how a lack of personalization in learning leads to a lack of relevance and disengagement. They don’t want that for their children and homework is their closest look at what their children are learning and doing in their program. The homework better be good if we’re going to keep them on side.

    • Glen Peterson
    • November 3rd, 2010

    I have taught main stream – about 20 years, plus my program since then has always been a strongly modified academics class and I’ve never been a fan of homework for many reasons:
    a)I used to call it hallway work because that’s where I see most of it being copied. Every morning.
    b)I prefer the reward of working hard in class to get the night off to maybe do something with your family.
    c)I’d rather help the student than their parents “this is the way we used to do it”, “what is your teacher doing” comments from home.
    d)And hopefully these kids have something better to do, teams, clubs, cadets, a job – papers flyers

    That said I do believe in “if you aren’t done, do it tonight, and show me first thing in the morning!!”
    Also educationally I don’t believe in spending the most important time of the class – first 10 mins correcting mistakes of a few and boring the rest . Start the lesson with something fresh not old.

  1. I often ask myself this question: is homework about marks (grades) or comprehension? If my students understand, I am not worried about the grades then. That is to say, I won’t give more practice at home if they get the concepts in class. However, the students that are struggling with the basic concepts will go home to practice some activities in order to investigate more about the concepts. So some students have homework, some don’t. Sometimes, different students have different homework.

    I also believe that the learning is happening in the classroom. It is important to know the students’ particular needs, what challenge them and what make them struggle. So the teachers would provide appropriate strategies to help and support them in class.

    • I think it is important to ask the question about the purpose of homework. I don’t have a problem with giving homework to develop automaticity. We want students to have certain facts ready to use and apply, and sometimes repetitious practice is the way to get there. Sometimes, homework should be about going home and thinking about concepts and deepening understanding. That would look very different, like a journal entry.

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