Rethinking Homework: Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs

I recently finished reading one of ASCD's 2009 Select Member publications, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs.

Full disclosure: A big thanks goes out to Laura Berry, ASCD Communications Specialist, for sending me a complementary copy after I submitted an essay for consideration in one of their themed publications that never came to fruition. I have not received any compensation to write this review and did not receive the book under any obligation to write this post. Now, on to the review.

The author, Cathy Vatterott, is an academic at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is commonly referred to as "The Homwork Lady." In this book, she breaks down homework research and paints a fairly objective picture of the limits of this research as well. In addition, Vatterott lays out the common objectives proposed by homework critics such as Alfie Kohn and attempts to create a practical spin on what this does and does not mean for the average classroom teacher. The third chapter is entitled, "Homework Research and Common Sense" and it lives up to its title from the get-go. Her objective approach is summed up in the following quote.

"...the gist of the research, then, is that a small amount of homework may be good for learning, but too much homework can actually be bad for learning." (p. 62)
With such a middle-of-the-road attitude, it's hard not to at least take her arguments seriously. Vatterott even asks some of the hard questions typically heard in faculty lounges during the lunch hour.
"What if more time spent grading homework equaled less time to plan quality classroom instruction, which could affect the quality and amount of learning that occurs in the classroom?" (p. 79)
Okay, maybe the question has never been posed that formally, but who hasn't heard the occasional griping about the usefulness of homework, particularly when students don't complete it and when grading it takes so much of an educator's time? My guess is that I'm not the only one who hears this sentiment from time to time.

Perhaps the most useful chapter is the fourth one focusing on effective homework practices. The author draws a line in the sand regarding homework and grading - an idea that took me years to agree with, but could cause some readers to immediately close the book and never pick it up again.
"Homework's role should be as formative assessment - assessment for learning that takes place during learning. Homework's role is not assessment of learning; therefore it should not be graded." (p. 112, emphasis mine)
Because I happen to believe that grading homework does indeed get in the way of learning and is counterproductive towards documenting understanding in a way that allows new evidence of achievement to replace old evidence, I continued reading with great enthusiasm.

I especially enjoyed a section describing how "grading homework" is different from "checking homework."
"The purpose of homework should be to provide feedback to the teacher and the student about how learning is progressing....Checking (providing feedback) is diagnostic - the teacher is working as an advocate for the student." (p. 112)
Rethinking Homework was well-written, provides many thought-provoking ideas related to homework, grading and formative assessment. Personally, I had already read several of the articles and books Vatterott quotes in her writing, so the underlying ideas often seemed like old hat. If you've read with great detail Marzano, O'Connor, Fisher & Frey, Stiggins, Guskey and even Robyn Jackson's latest ASCD book (which I recently reviewed as well here), this book may seem like a broken record. On the contrary, if you're looking for a single book to read that might might challenge the status quo in the way you and your colleagues view homework and more largely assessment, I highly recommend Rethinking Homework by Cathy Vatterott.

Lorna Earl's quote from the book, Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning rings true in the context of this review.
"...changing classroom assessment is the beginning of a revolution - a revolution in classroom practices of all kinds...Getting classroom assessment right is not a simplistic, either-or situation. It is a complex mix of challenging personal beliefs, rethinking instruction and learning new ways to assess for different purposes." (2003, pp. 15-16)
Perhaps this book will finally be the spark to unite a blaze of conversations in your school that change the way educators view teaching and learning. How do you think your colleagues would respond to this book's premises?

What's worse than "taking off" points?

I used to penalize students who didn't complete their assignments by taking off a point or two. After several years, I finally realized it was not changing the behavior of my students. The easiest way out for students is to take a hit by missing a few points every once in a while. This year, I'm trying out an experiment in lieu of a different philosophy towards points, grading and late work. In the students' eyes, it might even be worse than taking off points.

I require students to finish work they do not complete the first time.
Here is my thought process:

If the assignment was important enough to complete the day I assigned it, why wouldn't it also be important enough to finish it, even if it's a day late?
I can foresee several rebuttals to this philosophy - many of which end in something like...
Aren't you teaching your students that it is okay to be irresponsible?
In my mind everything I do should revolve around helping students "learn." I will let the rest of the school "teach" responsibility by taking off points for incomplete assignments. In the meantime, I will require students to be responsible by completing the important math assignments I have carefully selected for them to conquer. By requiring them to do their assignments, I believe that I am helping them learn.

Technology Integration: Always? Never? Why?

This afternoon, I facilitated a breakout session for our district's "technology showcase." We've been using a "pick your two favorite 60 minute sessions led by a colleague who volunteers once per year to show off the cool technology stuff in his/her classroom" format for several years now. In the past I've led sessions on Web 2.0 apps and most recently last year an introduction to Moodle. Aside from the English teacher next door who has gone completely paperless this year with Moodle, I have not seen a whole lot of "change" in the sessions I've led or led by others either. In fact, a few colleagues have even suggested that this format, while exciting initially, may have run its course. Many of the sessions (my own as well) have been very "tool-centered" in the past, so a colleague encouraged me to change things up and lead a more philosophical discussion on the proper role of technology in education and the steps we might take locally to move in this direction. The program for the afternoon listed my session description as follows:

TECHNOLOGY INTEGRATION – Matt Townsley – 1:00 PM, Room 409

Always? Never? Why? Come join us for a philosophical discussion on issues related to the use of technology (or not) in your classroom. You will leave this session with a refined outlook on the purpose and relationship between technology, pedagogy and content.

Here are the slides I used. The slides were not intended to speak for themselves as I created them in quasi-zen style, so I'll add some commentary below to illustrate the points I was trying to make.

Slide 1: Put your thinking caps on today. You're going to need them!

Slide 2: Disclaimer: Today's presentation is being recorded.

Slide 3: What is technology? Computers? Overhead projectors? Pencils? Microscopes? (Discuss)

Slide 4: Scenario about George: "George knows how to open Word documents and take attendance online using PowerSchool. He wants to transfer his lecture notes to PowerPoint instead of using the overhead. He also wants his social studies students to create web pages for their final projects rather than doing a research paper. He wonders if this will make a difference in how much his students learn or will enjoy his class." (Discuss whether or not George benefits from days like today's technology showcase; Is George using technology to change the way he teaches? Are George's students benefiting by his use of technology? How can we help George continue this path of using technology to help his students better learn?)

Slide 5: Scenario about Joyce: "Joyce is a teacher who knows quite a bit about technology. She has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and live blogs at her own kids' sporting events. She wants to use these tools in her classroom. She has even gone to a few workshops such as "Blogs in the classroom" and "How to create better wikis." Joyce is always looking at new cool "tools" and wondering how to use them in her classroom." (Discuss how Joyce differs from George. Are her students necessarily learning more/better? Does Joyce benefit from days like today's technology showcase? What does our district do to support teachers like Joyce?)

Slide 6: Stork. What if we've been doing it "wrong"? What if we've been using forks when we need spoons? What if we've been looking at the "tool" too much and not enough at the desired learning outcomes? Some call this "technocentric" planning. Remember the stork in this slide.

Slide 7: Technology in education is a double-edged sword. Cuban hits on the "George's" in our school who use technology to continue doing what they've always done. Mishra & Koehler allude to the Joyce's who need to connect their technology tools with their teaching strategies and desired learning outcomes.

Slide 8: Our district (and perhaps many others, too) has a problem. We have teaching PD (i.e. differentiation, co-teaching, 6+1 traits of writing). We have technology days (like today). We also have curriculum team time where we focus on materials, standards and benchmarks. When do we we have explicit conversations about those areas together?

Slide 9: Solution: We need to be in the middle of this Venn diagram. Discussed example of using Geometer's Sketchpad to match teaching strategy (student-centered "construct a concept" pedagogy) with content (know sum of triangles at a deep enough level to realize it works for any and all Euclidean triangles) with technology (Geometer's Sketchpad allows students to create and manipulate an infinite number of triangles in several minutes so that they can generalize the concept through discovery; this is in contrast to "old" technology of compass and protractor which has potential to lead to miscalculations and student misconceptions). Some of us have bigger technology circles (i.e. Joyce). Some of us don't (i.e. George). Some of us may need to enlarge our teaching circle by looking at new strategies. Some of us may need a more in-depth understanding of our content areas. The key is creativity, per Mishra. We must be able to creatively think about our content and teaching strategies and then how to use software and hardware that is not often created for educational use, in our classrooms. Per other scholars, we need to look at the activity types and strategies that "work" in our disciplines and match them up with the available technology tools.
Slide 10: How do we get there? Prensky proposed a framework several years ago. (Discuss: How do we help dabblers such as George move up? How do we help teachers like Joyce do new things with their technology knowledge?)

Ending comment:
It's not about technology. It's about learning.
Kudos to fellow edu-blogger, Russ Goerend, for an encouraging phone call yesterday as I was putting the final touches on these slides.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments area below.