Saturday, December 3, 2016

Homework in a Competency-Based Classroom

Over the last several weeks I've received number of inquiries from parents about how homework will be handled as we move forward with competency-based teaching and learning at Belmont High School.

A common misconception (certainly not unique to Shaker Regional) is that teachers will "not count" homework or perhaps not even assign homework at all.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the way we think about homework may change, working at home will remain an integral part of the educational experience at Belmont High School.

In my last post, I wrote about the effective use of learning targets in the classroom. Once teachers have identified learning targets, any work they assign should be designed to help students hit those targets.  This is just as true for homework as it is for work that is completed in school.  We shouldn't look at homework as a unique category in a teacher's gradebook that is mathematically calculated apart from work done in school.

In a high functioning competency-based classroom it's simply regarded as work.  Some of that work will be done at school and some will be done at home.  The reality is that if students are off task in school, they will likely have more work to do at home.  Likewise, if students are struggling to meet learning targets and are required to "redo" assessments, they may have alternative or additional assignments that need to be completed in order to demonstrate what they have learned.  Again, some of this work will be done at school, and some will be done at home.  Students who are working towards exceeding standards will also likely have meaningful work that will need to be completed outside of the classroom.

The key is the quality and purpose of the assignments.  The value of homework should never be measured by volume.  Just like any other assignment, work done at home must be directly connected to desired learning outcomes.  Students should know exactly what they are expected to learn and the criteria for success should be clear to them.  Homework should never be busy work.  At Belmont High School, teachers are working collaboratively to re-examine and improve all aspects of their teaching, including how they approach homework in a competency-based classroom.

In the article I've included below, Rick Wormeli writes about various ways teachers can make homework more meaningful for students.  Originally written for the middle level, I have adapted the article to make it more pertinent to the work we have begun at Belmont High School.  The strategies Wormeli presents apply not only to homework, but to all assignments, and they ring true in any classroom at any level; competency-based or traditional.

Throughout my career, I've observed teachers use many of these strategies in their practice. In classrooms in which teachers use them regularly, rates of homework completion are consistently high. In classrooms in which these strategies are absent, homework completion is often inconsistent. They really do make a difference.


13 Ways to Make Homework More Meaningful
Adapted from Rick Wormeli's Smart Homework originally published in MiddleWeb, August 2014 


1. Give students a clear picture of the desired outcomes using sound learning targets. This doesn’t mean everything is structured for them, or that there aren’t multiple pathways to the same high quality result. Authentic "voice and choice" are critical to student motivation. Students must know exactly what is expected, however. Clear learning targets set purpose for doing the assignment. Priming the brain to focus on particular aspects of the learning experience helps the brain process the information for long-term retention. Setting purpose for homework assignments has a profound impact on learning as well as the assignment’s completion rate.

2. Allow students to collaborate in determining how homework will be assessed. If they help design the criteria for success, such as when they create the rubric for an assignment, they “own” the assignment. It comes off as something done by them, not to them. They also internalize the expectations—another way for them to have clear targets.

With some assignments we can post exemplars from previous years (or ones we’ve created for this purpose) and ask students to analyze the essential characteristics that make these assignments exemplary. Students who analyze such assignments will compare those works with their own and internalize the criteria for success, referencing the criteria while doing the assignment, not just when it’s finished.

3. Avoid “fluff” assignments. For example, assigning students to create a life-sized “dummy” or a 3-D poster of a person found in a novel (or in history, in science, in math, etc.) doesn’t further understanding. It’s a lot of coloring, cutting, wadding paper, and stapling for very little return. Make sure there is a clear connection to curriculum, not just something that would look cool when displayed in the classroom. Students will figure out how empty these assignments are very quickly. They’ll see homework as serving little or no purpose other than to give them something to do, which sinks motivation like a big chunk of granite.

4. Give students an authentic audience. Create an audience for the students’ work other than the teacher. For example, when students work on something that uses technology – whether it’s a PowerPoint talk over the internet, a project blog, or Twitter and other social media, it’s not the technology that’s motivating—it’s the fact that there will be an audience other than the teacher. Somebody will see this, they realize. What will they think of it? they ask themselves. So how can you create real audiences for homework?

5. Incorporate a cause into the assignment. Teenagers are motivated when they feel they are righting a wrong. They are very sensitive to justice and injustice. As a group, they are also very nurturing of those less fortunate than them. Find a community or personal cause for which students can fight fairly and incorporate your content and skills in that good fight— students will be all over the assignment.

6. Incorporate people whom students admire in their assignments. Students are motivated when asked to share what they know and feel about these folks. We are a society of heroes, and teenagers are interested in talking about and becoming heroic figures.

7. Allow choices, as appropriate. Provide a "menu" of assignment options to choose from. Let them identify their own diet and its effects on their health. Let them choose to work with partners or individually. How about allowing them to choose from several multiple-intelligence based tasks? If they are working in ways that are comfortable, they are more likely to do the work. By making the choice, they have upped their ownership of the task.

8. Incorporate cultural products into the assignment.
If students have to use magazines, television shows, foods, sports equipment, and other products they already use, they are likely to do the work. The brain loves to do tasks in contexts with which it is familiar.

9. Spruce up your prompts. Don’t ask students to repeatedly answer questions or summarize. Try some of these openers instead: Decide between, argue against, Why did ______ argue for, compare, contrast, plan, classify, retell ______ from the point of view of ______, Organize, build, interview, predict, categorize, simplify, deduce, formulate, blend, suppose, invent, imagine, devise, compose, combine, rank, recommend, defend, choose.

10. Have everyone turn in a paper. In her classic, Homework: A New Direction (1992), Neila Connors reminded teachers to have all students turn in a paper, regardless of whether they did the assignment. If a student doesn’t have his homework, he writes on the paper the name of the assignment and why he didn’t do it.

I’ve had students add their parents’ telephone number so I could call home and share what the student said about his homework. Calling parents usually results in a terrific homework completion record for students—at least for a few weeks. An added dividend is that classmates don’t get as many opportunities to see who didn’t do their homework—a reputation to avoid.

11. Do not give homework passes.
I used to do this; then I realized how much it minimized the importance of homework. It’s like saying, “Oh, well, the homework really wasn’t that important to your learning. You’ll learn just as well without it.” Homework should be so productive for students that missing it is like missing the lesson itself.

12. Integrate homework with other subjects.
If teachers share the same students, one assignment can count in two classes. Such assignments are usually complex enough to warrant the dual grade and it’s a way to work smarter, not harder, for both students and teachers. Teachers can split the pile of papers to grade, and assess the learning targets pertinent to their class.

13. Occasionally, let students identify what homework would be most effective. Sometimes the really creative assignments are the ones that students design themselves. After teaching a lesson, ask your students what it would take to practice the material so well it became clearly understood. Many of the choices will be rigorous and very appropriate.

Consider your true goal with homework: learning that moves into long-term memory, right? Cramming is the stuff of partial memories to be parroted for a test that week, then dumped in the brain’s recycling bin, never to be seen again.

If we are genuinely committed to teaching so that students learn and not focused on appearing rigorous and assigning tasks to show that we have taught, then we’ll carefully consider all the effects of our homework expectations. Our students will be more productive at school and have healthier lives at home.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Learning Targets at Belmont High School

This year at Belmont High School we have been spending a great deal of time talking about learning targets. Teachers are beginning to use them in the form of "I can" statements in all of our classes. The effective use of learning targets at the classroom level is a critical compontent of our transition to competency-based teaching and learning.  A teacher's ability to write good learning targets is far more complex than it may appear on the surface.  It's more than just posting  daily objectives on the board. Good learning targets should describe what students are expected to learn, why the learning expectation is important, and what the work will look like when the target has been met.

Writing good learning targets is an important skill that teachers must practice in order to master.  In the following article, Susan Brookhart and Connie Moss write about the importance of good learning targets.  Brookhart and Moss assert that effective learning targets will:
  • Describe exactly what students will learn by the end of a day’s lesson.
  • Use language students can understand.
  • Be stated from the point of view of a student who has yet to master the knowledge or skill being taught.
  • Contain a performance of understanding that translates the description into action – what students will do, make, say, or write during the lesson.
  • Include student look-fors or criteria for success in terms that describe mastery of the learning target, not a score or grade.
  Please take the time to read the article that was published in the Educational Leadership journal, October, 2014.  I hope you enjoy the article.