This is a revised version of a post originally to my own blog.
When I’m doing math homework, I just really go fast and crazy, and in the end I still don’t understand it, really. It’s just a lot of pressure. And it shows: I’m always tired in class, because I spent all my night doing my homework! Teachers don’t see “Vivian totally understands that.” They see “Vivian did her homework.” – vivian (Fires in the Mind)
Vivian’s words should be a source of reflection for everyone involved in education. What is the purpose of homework? Clearly, in Vivian’s experience homework is about getting some busy work done. It is not about consolidating learning or mastering skills and understandings. Is her experience different from those of students in our classrooms? Worth pondering.
I’ve just downloaded the kindle version of Kathleen Cushman’s “Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell us About Motivation and Mastery” after thoroughly enjoying the sample chapter addressing the issues surrounding homework shared by Lyn Hilt during a previous #elemchat on twitter. That chapter alone now falls into the category of “must reads for educators”, in my opinion. It asks us to reexamine our current practices when assigning homework to our students. The homework discussion also resonates with recent discussions we have been having about how to incorporate the practices associated with mastering a sport or a musical instrument (effective and timely feedback, small instructional chunks, practice, practice, practice, etc…) into our teaching and learning.
Through listening deeply to students’ voices on the topic of homework as deliberate practice, Cushman proposes the following “four R’s of deliberate homework”:
- Readying themselves for new learning
- Repetition and application of knowledge and skills
- Reviewing material learned earlier, and
- Revising their work.
All of these categories require mindful work on behalf of students, which leads me to wonder how we best prepare students to work meaningfully at home? When we begin a new instructional year, are we explicitly teaching the skills and attitudes students will draw upon to make the most of the time they spend working independently at home? This goes back to the skills of acquiring, evaluating and synthesizing information. A basketball player who goes to the neighbourhood court to practice lay-ups doesn’t do so without practicing with the immediate feedback and encouragement of a coach and/or peers first.
And it is important to ask why the same kid who spends hours on the court might rush through homework assignments or neglect them altogether. A few questions to consider:
- Is the homework assigned personally relevant to the needs of the learner?
- Is everyone in the class getting the same homework regardless of their individual strengths and needs?
- Is homework being assigned because of a policy / parental pressure / because it has always been assigned?
- Is homework only consolidation or learning or preparation for upcoming lessons, or could it be service-oriented and ongoing?
If the last people being considered when homework is assigned are the students, something is amiss and someone needs to initiate the conversation. Taking a cue from Cushman, I would be very interested to know what students want to see when it comes to homework. Consider the following pieces of advice from students with whom Cushman worked:
- Make sure we know what purpose the homework serves. Write it at the top of the assignment, so we remember it!
- Use our homework! Look at it, answer our questions, and show us why it matters.
- Don’t take off points for wrong answers on homework. It’s practice!
- Cooperate with other teachers so our total homework load is reasonable.
- Give us time to start our homework in class, so you can help if we have trouble.
- When appropriate, assign different tasks to match what each of us needs.
- Match homework to the time we have available. Let us know how long you expect us to spend on it, and don’t penalize us if we can’t finish.
- Don’t give us homework every day. Having several days to do it helps us learn to manage our time.
- Create places in school for sustained academic support: tutoring time, study halls, hours when you are always available for help. (Fires in the Mind)
Finally, if you are looking for some alternatives to traditional homework, Cushman’s students provided the following:
(Fires in the Mind)