I have written earlier about the impact of the word “work” in describing the learning activities in which we want students to engage. My thinking was initially triggered by Alfie Kohn’s writing in Students Don’t “Work”- They Learn . Homework defines this conflict for me most clearly. Can it really be a quality learning activity if the same assignment is given to all students? How difficult is it for a student to find value in the effort they are investing if they see the task as a requirement for the grade they will receive? (regardless of the activity’s impact on learning)
I recall one of my first conversations with a parent who had begun homeschooling. I was surprised when she told me that one of the great benefits of homeschooling was that there was no homework. “When we are done for the day: we are done.” This parent voice was reinforced in writing by Heather Shumaker:
“Parents often assume the role of Homework Patrol Cop. Being chief nag is a nasty, unwanted job, but this role frequently lingers through the high school years. Besides the constant conflict, having a Homework Patrol Cop in the house undermines one of the purported purposes of homework: responsibility”.
One school’s approach to this dilemma was to replace homework with home learning. My partner, Michelle, was a key leader in this design. When I mention home learning in my work, I am frequently asked for more details. So here are some questions I’ve collected and Michelle’s responses:
How do you define home learning?
Home Learning is any activity which students are involved in outside the normal school day that contributes to their learning, either on their own or with others. We believe that there are clear benefits for children who spend regular periods of time on different learning activities outside of school. Home learning activities should motivate and engage by developing ‘autonomy, mastery, and purpose’.
Autonomy: The student shows the personal motivation to direct their own learning
Mastery: The desire to become more proficient at something through personal effort and perseverance
Purpose: To recognize that all learning contributes to personal development
(Dan Pink, author of Drive)
How do students decide what they will do as home learning?
Based on their own goals, they select the tasks that will allow them to focus on practicing where they need it the most. This is not always a natural step – in which case, with the support of the teacher, we scaffold the learning experience for the student by making their selection process prior to going home to avoid that particular student from picking a task that is just the easiest choice.
What responsibilities do teachers and parents have for home learning?
Home Learning plays an important part of school life as it encourages the development of self-discipline, independence, and good working habits. Parents are encouraged to help and show interest in Home Learning but are asked to help keep the task student-centered.
Home Learning reflects concepts taught in class and differentiated student/class needs. Free choice is an integral part of student Home Learning in terms of promoting intrinsic motivation. Students must understand the purpose and relevance of a task so they can select tasks which help them to achieve their learning goals.
Is home learning graded? Do students get feedback?
It is not graded but feedback plays a significant role in the learning. Students have the opportunity to give each other feedback in small groups. The teachers facilitate the feedback sessions. Here are the guidelines that we as staff use when considering the importance of that feedback:
Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student:
- Where am I going? (What are the goals?)
- How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?)
- Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)
These questions correspond to notions of feed-up, feed-back, and feed forward.
Where am I going?
- Teachers can assist in reducing the gap between actual performance and desired goal to be attained by providing appropriate challenging and specific goals. (Locke & Latham, 1984).
- Feedback cannot lead to a reduction in this discrepancy if the goal is poorly defined, because the gap between current learning and intended learning is unlikely to be sufficiently clear for students to see a need to reduce it (Earley, Northcraft, Lee, & Lituchy, 1990; Erez, 1977; Frost & Mahoney, 1976).
Where to next?
The power of feedback can be used to specifically address this question by providing information that leads to greater possibilities for learning. These may include:
- enhanced challenges
- more self-regulation over the learning process
- greater fluency and automaticity
- more information about what is and what is not understood
This feed forward question can have some of the most powerful impacts on learning.
How am I going?
- Feedback is effective when it consists of information about progress, and/or about how to proceed.
Closing the gap between where students are and where they are aiming is what creates the power of feedback. Home Learning is authentically relevant to the student’s learning. Therefore, the time and structure that is set-up to allow for effective feedback (as well as ‘feed up and feed forward’) is instrumental in reducing the discrepancy between current and desired understanding.
How long has home learning been in place and what have you found as a result?
As a staff we developed the concept of home learning over an entire school year. We have since had it in place for three years. It did not develop without its complications – most significantly – the parents’ response to it. Many parents felt that the students needed to be told what is their homework – that the students are too young to be able to make those choices. However ultimately, we are setting the ground work for their future, when they need to be the driver of their own learning. This must be a developed skill over time.
I am reluctant to say what the ‘result’ is as home learning continues to evolve and transform – it has not nor will it reach a destination or final result. At present we have seen an enormous increase in the quality, time-invested and motivation in the student’s efforts in home learning. Many students go far beyond what one would anticipate in their furthered learning at home. For those students that still put in less effort – we scaffold their choices and encourage them to identify their own learning needs through discussion with the teacher. But are those not the students that perhaps end up in high school writing their term papers late into the night – the day before they are due? Are they not the students that walk into an exam completely unprepared? So if we support those students when they are in elementary school – do we not stand a better chance of building the stamina and perseverance they will need to be successful down the line? I believe we will…