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Where Does Homework Fit Into the Big Picture?

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puzzle-654961_640.jpgIs homework worth talking about? We think it is. Actually homework, whether it has value, whether to assign it, whether to grade it, what type it should be, how often it should be expected and whether it is fair ... is a complicated and important issue. But handling homework as a stand-alone issue contributes to the nibbling-at-the-edges method of school improvement that may have helped us along but has yet to produce the kind of success we hope for.

From ASCD's January 2017 Education Update:

"We've had doubts about whether homework was good or not for a long time" says Cathy Vetterott education professor and author..."We still can't prove it's effective. The research is flawed and idiosyncratic".

There is still research being conducted into whether there is a difference in the effect of homework on primary vs. secondary students. There are also questions about homework's affect on students living in poverty vs. all the others. Thinking about homework alone occludes big picture thinking. So let's step away from the issue of homework as an issue and look at the larger picture.

Think of Curriculum Differently
Curriculum, most often, is thought of as the information and skills included in a subject. But maybe that, itself, is a limiting thought. Perhaps, we should abandon that definition and think about the gestalt of the student experience and leaders should ask these questions of their teachers as they plan their 'curriculum':

  1. As each student enters the door in the morning, what is the student bringing that will effect the school performance? 
  2. What knowledge and skills possessed by the student set them up for success?
  3. How sure are we that what we ask of each student will be relevant and valuable to the student and can be met with the background and the skills the student brings?
  4. How do the practices of the school support the success of each student?

With these as the centrally held focus of curriculum planning, the definition becomes broader.  How anything is planned for and accomplished as both student-centered and standards focused calls for a constant back and forth cycle between content/standards and the student experience.

When thinking of curriculum planning in that way, homework becomes one important facet of the larger discussion. Educators bemoan the affect of what happens outside of school on what can be achieved in school. The differences in home lives of our students are extraordinary. So wouldn't it be considered curious to hold every student to the same standard for production of work when the environment each lives within is vastly different?  And in the cases where homework is graded, when looking at it from this vantage point, doesn't it leave one asking why and what is really fair? 

Does Homework Work?
Curriculum, and homework within it, is a school-wide consideration.  Looking at it from the students' vantage point, if the manner in which curriculum is viewed and implemented varies from one classroom to another, from one grade level to another, the student experience is a bumpy one.  Homework is not a single issue to be considered but it can be the factor that can open the door to other curriculum conversations and decisions and big picture thinking.

No matter whether homework is the opener of the professional conversation, or some other topic becomes catalytic to a reflection on current practice, how things fit into  the bigger picture has to be considered. If educators change the way continue to think about the pieces of the puzzle, like homework, and miss the way they come together as a whole picture, they miss an important opportunity. 

By doing so, we are failing to modeling the type of thinking and learning the students, themselves, need. An article in InformEd, entitled Educating for the Bigger Picture, addresses this:

Jane Gilbert, Professor of Education at the Auckland University of Technology, warns..."Future-focused education has become the flavor of the month with concepts like twenty-first century learners and digital natives, but actually, a lot of what's being said isn't at all future focused. We're still working within the same twentieth-century framework. The thinking hasn't changed. It's just couching what we've already done in much fancier production values. It looks cooler and more digitized, but the underlying educational objectives have not changed."

There are many places in educational practice that harken back to days of yore (that's a couple of decades ago) and they have a place in today's schools.  But there are many more that do not.  And they are not secrets. Teachers and leaders know many of those defining characteristics that interfere with truly allowing them to function with the bigger picture informing the way students are taught and learn.  True innovation has little room for emergence in the structure we preserve with enthusiasm. But if the process begins with just the four questions and the resulting responses are held in a facilitated decision making process by a leader and those willing to lead beside her. The constraining walls can come down. Then current limitations won't prevent big picture thinking. 

Spoiler alert:  This is not a one shot event.  This becomes the ongoing practice and culture of the organization.  Once professional thought occurs in terms of the four questions, changes will be sought. The belief that the structure limits innovation will be overturned and true innovation and big picture thinking, teaching, and learning will take place. Watch a child learn to put a puzzle together. Younger ones don't look at the big picture first, they use trial and error. But adult puzzlers look at the picture and then find and fit the pieces. There is no preexisting picture for educators to use so they need to combine a bit of that young child willingness for trial and error. We are creating the picture and that is part of the joy we experience when we see a student's eyes light up in the way they do when a learning moment happens.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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