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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Setting goals, resolutions, or intentions might be on our minds this week. We've probably experienced that "resolutions" don't work -- we don't keep them for more than a week and they just end up making us feel bad about ourselves. So what does work?

As a coach, I support teachers and administrators to make behavioral changes in their professional (and sometimes personal) lives. Here are a few tried-and-true tips that work. Follow these parameters for your intentions for the new year and you're sure to have some success:

  1. Determine a clear, defined goal that really matters to you (and that will impact student success)
  2. Take small steps towards this goal
  3. Focus on new actions rather than on trying to avoid old behaviors

Goal: Three Hours in the Evening for Myself

A year ago, a teacher I coached, let's call her Samantha, had had it with spending every evening grading papers and lesson planning. She wanted support in changing this experience and we used a process similar to what is described in this article to set a goal for her for the new year.

First, we reflected on what had been working and not working. Samantha shared that the time she spent lesson planning was really paying off -- her lessons had never been more organized, she felt confident when delivering them, and her students were learning. She attributed this to the planning that took about an hour every evening.

What wasn't working was the amount of paper-grading she was doing. She collected daily exit tickets, which took about an hour to review and enter into her tracking system; and she spent about an hour and half to two hours every evening grading homework.

"What evidence do you have," I asked, "that reviewing the exit tickets is helping your students master this content?"

"That's easy," Samantha responded. "I use that data to plan the lesson for the next day. The time spent on exit tickets is essential. Without it I'd have no idea how my students were doing or what to do next."

Our conversation around homework wasn't as smooth or clear. Samantha felt attached to assigning the piles of work that had always been her routine, but she recognized that she couldn't point to the impact it was having on student learning. On the other hand, the impact that grading it was having on her evenings was clear. We decided to tackle the homework dilemma.

Samantha's goal became the following:

I will have three hours in the evening for myself. After I finish teaching, I will spend an hour reviewing my formative assessment data, an hour on lesson planning, and then I will be done with work for the day.

Reducing Meaningless Homework

We then did some reading and research on homework. As a coach, I've noticed that many teachers give homework as a routine, because it's expected, because it's used as part of a grade, or because they hope that students will master the skills through homework assignments. I also hear many complaints that students don't do homework, or when they turn it in, that teachers have too much to grade (and frequently don't grade it).

Homework is a hot issue right now. Many middle and high school students (predominantly in middle class and affluent schools) are assigned four to eight hours of homework a night. Students' exhaustion and stress levels are health concerns and parents are pressuring administrators to change their school's policies. Some elementary schools have banned homework until sixth grade.

So What Is Useful Homework?

Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, asks teachers to consider homework assignments through these three questions:

  1. Does the assignment give your students autonomy? (Do they get to decide how and when to do the work?)
  2. Does it promote mastery of a skill by offering an engaging task?
  3. Will students understand and believe in the overall purpose of the assignment?

When Samantha reflected on these questions, she recognized that much of her homework did nothing to further students' mastery. "No more meaningless homework!" she decided.

Initially, it took Samantha time to construct homework assignments that were meaningful and more time to explain them to students. But quickly she noticed a number of changes in her classroom: students were engaged in their "Extension Work," ("EW") and the assignments deepened the understanding they developed in class. Students seemed to look forward to EW -- 95 percent of students were turning it in on time, and parents were thanking her for reducing the amount of worksheet-homework she'd previously given. Best of all, Samantha met her goal: She had three hours (and often more) to herself in the evening. She was elated with this discovery.

"It was so easy," she said some months later. "I'm often done with work completely by 5:00pm. I thought it would be so much harder to make a huge change in my life, but it wasn't!"

That's really a myth, that making significant change is hard, I told her. I also explained to her that it can be much easier than we think if we focus on the right goal, take small steps, stop doing some things, and focus on what we want to do more of.

I'll be meeting with Samantha this week to help her determine her goals for this year. I'm excited to hear what she wants to take on.

Edutopia readers: What do you want to do more of this year? What will you stop doing? What small steps might lead towards a big goal?

For more reading on the homework debate:




Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tammy King WIDA blogger's picture
Tammy King WIDA blogger
ESL/bilingual education specialist and blogger for the WIDA Consortium

Great post! Thanks for reminding us about the importance of formative assessments and meaningful homework assignments.

Christina W's picture
Christina W
4th grade teacher

Homework is a big debate at my school. I personally come from the stand point that kids need to be kids in the evenings. Let them play! In addition, I want my personal time. I do not want to spend every evening making plans and grading papers. Homework has become more difficult in recent years. My school has seen a increase in poverish families in the past few years. Many of my students do not have parents home in the evenings to assist with homework. Often times if it goes home, it will not come back.

A goal I have this year is to incorporate more project-based learning with technology. I am taking a class right now that will hopefully give me guidance on how to do implement the technology!

John at TestSoup's picture

I will definitely be sharing this one with the TS twitter followers. This teacher is a great example of what all teachers should be doing. That is: concentrating on examining their classroom practices and refining them so that they benefit students but don't create unnecessary work for anyone -- not the student, the parent, or the teacher.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

We are making a real effort to reduce homework school-wide, and I'm cutting way back for my 8th grade science students. Kids copy each other's homework in the class before mine, and copy stuff for their next class etc. through the day. So frustrating when I catch them at it.

Most homework is done as fast as possible with as little effort as they can get away with UNLESS they have some level of choice and they see real meaning in it. And that varies between kids - some knock themselves out for a photo assignment, some for review to ace a test. But mostly, I strike a deal - you CAN get this whole lab done in class if you work efficiently. It's due the next day.

My relationships are better with students when they can enjoy and engage IN CLASS with the feeling that I respect their time at home. So I am finally relaxing and not seeing the feared decline in test scores. Oh, and I don't mind having less grading either.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely want my students leaving with high level understanding of science concepts and the ability to think critically, I'm not about being lazy. I'm just being more careful to make any homework engaging and purposeful. Thanks Elena for the back-up: It's easy to feel like I'm somehow not doing my job compared to more homework-intensive colleagues.

David Orphal's picture
David Orphal
Introduction to Education and Cyber-High teacher from Oakland, CA

I think the three questions from Drive are excellent guidelines for homework. I also like the flipped classroom movement. Instead of lecturing class and asking students to practice at home, teachers can put the lecture on you tube for students to watch at home, then reserve class time for guided and group practice and discussions.

Mindy Dunn's picture

It seems that most teachers that I work with, especially in special education, primarily give homework as reinforcement and practice of material taught in class. If it's not for one of these two purposes, then it is work that the student did not complete in class. Meghan Carey, my mentee, and I do not believe that students should be given homework just for the sake of having work to do in the evenings. Many of the students we work with do have support at home or the motivation to complete homework, so we like to focus on getting as much accomplished while the students are in the building with us. As far as goal setting, we both really liked the idea of keeping the focus on creating new goals rather than trying to change old behavior. It is so easy to focus on what we think needs to be changed, instead of trying to create new ideas and goals for the classroom. In 2012, we would both like to work together to create new goals for the upcoming semester, instead of just trying to "fix" what isn't working.

Mrs. Harman's picture
Mrs. Harman
5th grade teacher from CA

Personally, I wish we could do away with the way our school has structured homework. Our math program has a homework component (worksheet) that is extremely difficult for parents to understand and support their child. It is pretty much a review page of what we did in class that day. If I were to replace this worksheet page with math homework that is meaningful, what are some resources other teachers use for math? I like the idea of task-oriented or project based homework assignments.
Nonetheless, I think there are apparent inequities with homework. Some children do it. Some do not. Some parents support their children and some do not. Furthermore, not all students have access to the same resources at home.
Finally, I agree with Tammy King...We need to limit the amount of homework we give students. I see more and more cases of extreme pressure and stress with our students. Take my son for example, his homework load is impossible. He is a 5th grader and required to read 25-30 pages a night for core lit (1 hr. to 1 1/2 hours), type a grammar page (25 minutes), achieve 80% on a online math program IXL (usually 30-40 mins.), plus spelling and book reports. It takes him about 3 1/2 hours a night. We had to take him out of karate classes because his was not having enough time to do his homework. He has been sick more this year than any other year. I believe the stress is getting to him.

Amy Barker's picture
Amy Barker
5th Grade Intervention Specialist from Grove City, Ohio

We have recently tried this in our classroom. We have devoted homework to work that students didn't get done in class and/or reinforcing a skill that was already learned. The students are happy with this, but it seems that every time a parent comes in they question why their child doesn't have homework. When we explain to them our reasoning behind it they tend to agree with us.

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