Homework: A Place for Rousing Reform
Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Brenda Dyck reflects on a year of shapeshifting -- a year in which she and her colleagues (begrudgingly, at first) came to a new understanding about the value and relevance of homework assignments.
It was exactly a year ago that my vice principal came to our team and announced that we would be re-evaluating our homework policy. Having had plenty of negative feedback regarding homework, we were being asked to consider
I clearly remember the negative body language exhibited by the teachers upon receiving that message. (I'm sure my body language was no different!) I recall the begrudging attitude we brought to the assignment. We didn't believe our homework expectations were out of line. We liked the wonderful projects we were assigning. And we couldn't imagine getting through the curriculum without the assistance of homework.
THE PROCESS OF SHAPESHIFTING
During the next two months we discovered a truth about education reform:
The better the idea, the more resistance it will stir up.
As much as we resisted changing our homework approaches, as we discussed the purpose of homework we discovered a number of outdated mental models existed among us. With hesitation, we began to question our homework practices -- and even our favorite assignments. We were shapeshifting.
Our shapeshifting adventure led us to consider the changes that had occurred in families in recent years. We thought about all the single-parent families, the working moms, and the students who were deeply involved in ballet or hockey or other activities. We realized that many students did homework in a very unsupportive environment or in the car on the way to piano lessons.
Reflecting on the homework we were assigning helped us see that our assignments were sometimes unclear or complicated; parents and students had difficulty making sense of assignment expectations when working on them at home. Equipped with this new understanding, we began to restructure the methods we used to articulate our assignment expectations. That resulted in improved assignment sheets with clearer benchmarks and rubrics.
We also discussed whether students were doing the homework assignments alone or with parents' help. Did we really know that the work we were marking was an accurate reflection of our students' knowledge and ability? As a result of that question, we decided to start having larger parts of written assignments done in class, so teachers could observe the thinking/writing process in action.
Finally, we discussed whether lengthy projects -- some of which took several weeks to complete -- merited the time and effort involved. We evaluated what learning actually happened and whether the same learning could occur with less time-intensive assignments? The result was that many of us gave up favorite assignments. No one mandated it, but honest evaluation forced us to admit that some of our assignments amounted to a lot of fluff.
SHAPESHIFTING CAN BE MESSY
As shapeshifters, we debated -- and sometimes even argued. Nothing was sacred ground. It became common for us to challenge each other's thinking; we were on a search for relevant truth. Changes in homework policy resulted. For the rest of the year, homework tension among teachers, students, and parents became a non-issue.
What my colleagues and I learned along the way didn't have as much to do with homework as it did with discovering how to implement meaningful change by reshaping the learning environment. This shapeshifting, we discovered, could be a messy and exciting process -- but well worth the effort!
ADDITIONAL HOMEWORK RESOURCES ONLINE
Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.
Article by Brenda Dyck
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