Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Homework Should Be

I have three grown sons (22, 21, 18) with my last son having graduated high school in June 2010.  Parents have a tough job raising kids these days.  I’d like to focus on one aspect of this job: homework.  I don’t know about you but as a parent I found it progressively more difficult to motivate and help my kids as they climbed the years through their K12 education.  Homework was that dreaded task that we had to encourage, bride, coerce, force, argue about, etc. with our kids.  My kids grade 8-12 years were in a self-directed school which made this process even more interesting and difficult.  I always found it frustrating that my kids had to push through content before they “got it” at various stages.  Homework often further reinforced what they already felt, that they didn’t understand the concepts yet.  By doing more problems, tasks, etc. at night they got progressively more frustrated with what they didn’t understand.

I just read a refreshing and encouraging article in the September 2010 (vol. 68 no. 1) issue of Educational Leadership titled The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework.  The author, Cathy Vatterott (associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis), states “Homework shouldn’t be about rote learning.  The best kind deepens student understanding and builds essential skills.”  Wow, if that would have been the case for my kids I think their experience would have been quite different.  The author lists five fundamental characteristics of good homework: Purpose, Efficiency, Ownership, Competence, and Aesthetic Appeal.  I’m interested in how we can best leverage technology for teachers, students, and parents to support good (great) homework.  Maybe a change in homework practice supported by technology can move us away from busy work, reinforced frustration, dread, and ill-equipped parent helpers, etc.

Let’s start with Purpose.  What if students had the option to use online tools like discussion boards, wikis, or their own blog to write about or record as an audio or video reflection about the homework they are doing (students can choose the method).  U1120W_01[1]Flip video / audio camera / recorders are in the $150 range.  Perhaps classrooms could be equipped with some of these that can be loaned out to students.  Build in reflection time with homework using technology to help the teacher read, hear, or see what their students know, struggle with.  The purpose then is to help teachers know where each of their students are at and so they can adjust their teaching or reinforce / reteach material to ensure all students “get it”.

Or how about Competence.  Professor Vatterott says “If all students are to feel competent in completing homework, we must abandon a one-size-fits-all approach.”  My degree is in Computer Science and Math but unfortunately my boys didn’t receive any of the math gene from me – they all struggled significantly with math.  They definitely did not experience a sense of “competence”.  The one-size-fits-all approach was evident in the homework.  I know in school (remember, self-directed), they were able to work at their own pace, receive help when they needed it (in theory) from teachers, etc.  But at home, there was no access to differentiated homework.  Perhaps math curriculum could be fully supported by online resources.  I know there are a lot of sites that help with math concepts and problems but it’s difficult for parents to connect them to BC curriculum and grade appropriate material.  What if BC had their curriculum online with homework assisting tools and materials that could track student competence at each stage?  Teachers could review where their students’ competence sits with the material and surgically help them increase their competence (and confidence!).  What might a tool like this look like?

To finish up, Professor Vatterott says “Meaningful homework should be purposeful, efficient, personalized, doable, and inviting.  Most important, students must be able to freely communicate with teachers when they struggle with homework…”.  I think technology has a huge role to play here.  With better information, efficiently collected as part of homework activities, teachers could be better informed about each students struggles.  Also, perhaps students would feel better supported knowing that they will get specific help even when they can’t articulate exactly what they need.  I encourage you to read Professor Vatterott’s article and leave me some thoughts on this topic and specifically how technology might be able to help.