Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Friday, November 11, 2011

How meaningful IS homework?

Knowing what kind of homework to assign and how much continues to be a hot topic among educators and school systems across the country. Here are some things worth considering...

Homework: Which Questions Should We Ask and Why?

El Cerrito education professional Evie Groch examines the qualities that can make homework an effective learning tool instead of drudge work that students dread and either avoid or quickly forget.
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When I was a young new teacher, our principal insisted that we issue books and give a homework assignment starting day one.  I’m sure he had parents to impress, and he felt it set high expectations for the year.  In some ways, he was right. 
In our high-achieving high school, parents and students expected homework, but we were never coached on how much or what kind to give.  It took years of learning, practice, and feedback to discover why and how to assign homework and how to hold students accountable for it.  As pedagogy continues to evolve, with the help of educational psychologists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists, new disciplines emerge that help us understand how children learn, retain, and apply knowledge.  So instead of asking if our students are being assigned too much or too little homework, we should ask how their assignments advance their learning.  We should ask about the relationship, if there is one, between quantity and quality, and we should ask how much help, if any, a student should receive at home.
One-third of parents polled in a 2008 survey on homework rated their children’s homework as fair or poor, while four in 10 believed that a great deal of it was simply busywork.  Their belief is supported by the study results in the Economics of Education Review, which shows that homework in English, history, and science has very little impact on test scores.
So how do we go about making homework assignments smarter and helping students remember what they learn?  There are two levels of answers to this question.  One deals with five fundamental qualities good assignments exhibit and the other with how the assignments are constructed.
According to Cathy Vatterott (Five Hallmarks of Good Homework):
  • The student (and teacher) should be clear about the assignment’s purpose. Believe it or not, the majority of the time it isn’t clear. Teachers aren’t always clear on why they are assigning certain work.  Students need to understand how the homework connects with prior learning and why it is important to know it.  Instead of assigning pages 12 to 25 in the novel and the questions which follow, a teacher can ask students to look for evidence in the reading that supports the cowardice of a particular character, or the bravery of another.  She can talk about why it’s important to understand these traits and how they relate to the novels they’ve read before.
  • The assignment should demonstrate the student’s learning and knowledge. Well crafted questions involve critical thinking, problem solving, and are not conducive to merely copying answers from an textbook.
  • The student should find the assignment relevant (by having some choice in some aspect of it that interests him). Without relevancy or interest, there is little motivation to complete an assignment.  If given choices among which to choose a topic, a method, or a product, the differentiated assignment will become more valuable and meaningful for the student.
  • The student should be able to complete it without help for the most part. Some grappling with the assignment is good, and the students can ask clarification questions, but the homework is not for the parents.
  • The assignment should look inviting and interesting. Page layout, diagrams, and relevant clip art raise student interest and avoid the dry appearance of an assignment which at first glance looks dense and full of drudgery. It shows the teacher has put some time into its presentation and cares about her students.
Not all students will complete the homework in the same amount of time.  There’s nothing wrong with differentiating the assignment for different types of learners.
Keeping in mind how we build long-term memory, Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins, shares some counterintuitive methods that researchers have found to positively influence learning.  Spaced repetition lets students see the same content in shorter sessions spread over more time.  Practice is more effective when done in small doses over several days or weeks.  There is no need to overwhelm learners with 30 questions on extensive reading on one topic in one night.  The results will not be productive.
Retrieval practice reinforces knowledge.  Every time we pull up a memory, we strengthen it.  Self-tests and teacher tests help accomplish this.
When we work hard to comprehend information, we hold on to it better.  This cognitive disfluencyinvolves introducing something challenging in the physical delivery of the information, like omitting some punctuation or shrinking the font size.
The last strategy is interleaving, mixing up in the assignment many different types of problems so students cannot predict the kind of knowledge they will have to draw on.  Their brains will have to work harder to identify solutions.
The best questions we can ask about homework are:
  • How does it advance learning?
  • Is it quality homework and relevant to my child?
  • Is my child capable of doing it alone?
  • Is its purpose clear?
  • Is it challenging, interesting, reasonable in length, and multi-tasked instead of predictable?
Rare is the parent who can answer yes to all of these, but the more conversations we begin to have with our students and teachers about the level of homework being assigned, the closer we will come to positive answers.

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