Sunday, January 26, 2014

Homework - What's the Alternative?

In the past few days, and indeed over the 16 years I've been teaching, there has always been the debate over homework - Do we give homework?  Should we be giving it?  The research says it doesn't work.  The research says it DOES work.  How much is age-appropriate for the different levels.  Parents want it so we give it.  Parents hate the amount - it's too much, too little, and on it goes.  It really is hair-tearing-out stuff!!

I think we're going about it the wrong way.

We want our students to become confident, connected learners who question, debate and create their own knowledge with our support.  I'm not convinced that homework in its current form achieves this.
An example.  Spelling lists.  The students learn their words - they may even put them into sentences.  We test them, they do well on the test.  Try testing the same words a few weeks later, (I've done this to prove in my own mind the  value - or otherwise - of this method of 'learning' words).  What happens?  Their stellar results often slip to well below par, unless we've combined that learning of spelling words with learning and knowing the spelling strategies or using the words many times in daily writing.  If we're just giving lists to rote learn then most of our students will 'remember' the lists but they won't learn them or transfer that knowledge into their long-term memory.

I've asked students about homework many times over the years and have consistently received the same answers - It's boring.  We do it because we have to.  I already know this....  It's too hard, it's too easy - often from the same student in the same week!!!  I don't need to go on because you've heard them all too.  The idea behind homework is that it is designed to reinforce the learning in the classroom but does it really do this?  Unless it's tailored to individual learning needs and is personalized to those needs, then I'm not so sure.

So what's the alternative then?

Preparation for Learning - or, as my class shortened it to - Prep for Learning.

I wanted to find a way that engaged the students more fully in what we were learning in class.
We use our blogs for many different learning tasks so I wanted to harness the enthusiasm the students had for blogging in some way.  We've used our class blog and our Literature Circles blog as the basis to make a change and it's been one that has stimulated class discussions and changed our attitudes to learning towards developing an eLEarning philosophy - that our learning happens anytime, anywhere and in so many different ways.  Not just in school but anytime - this was the key part and also included the parents in their learning in a much deeper and more meaningful way.

  • The main philosophy around Prep for Learning is to have the students thinking about the learning they are part of all the time.
  • Questions are posted on the blog prior to new learning to get the students to begin thinking about the learning that is coming up.  This can be in any learning area.  For example questions can be posted prior to an inquiry to get the students to Tune In to new learning / ideas. (Check out Kath Murdoch's website - one of my favorite Inquiry gurus!)  In maths, it could be a new Geometry topic coming up and you want to know what they already know and understand.  (The Prep for Learning can be a great formative assessment tool too!)
  • Students jump on and add their current thinking in preparation for discussions in class.  This means that they are coming prepared to think, debate and join in the discussions.
  • Sometimes students will go a step further and take ownership of the learning by posting further questions for others to think about before they come to class to discuss them.
  • The purpose is also to engage thinking in the learning areas.
Students still read every night - often joining in the discussions on the Literature Circles blog, and they still have their maths Basic Facts but the main 'homework' is now all around engaging in their learning by participating in thinking about and discussing that learning.  The isolation of filling in one sheet for the whole class for homework has gone.

Another bonus - you are building very strong home and school links by parents and caregivers being able to see what their children are learning - and they are also encouraged to join in and add their thinking too, as are our global collaborators.  This gives the learning a whole new and very powerful bonus - local and global collaboration that really does impact teaching and learning in a concrete and very relevant way.

Yet another bonus - most parents have commented on their child's renewed enthusiasm for school and learning and best of all - they don't have to fight to get 'homework' completed!!  Has to be a good thing!!

Students who don't have computer access at home don't miss out either as they get class time and have requested computer time before and after school, and at break times, to be able to join in the online discussions.

Our students are 21st Century learners.  We need to adapt to their way of thinking as consumers and creators of knowledge - not vessels into which knowledge is poured and then 'spat out' again without any meaning having been made of it.