How Is Homework Helping Students Learn?
Practice, or reinforcement of a skill, is part of the educational process. Practice in classwork and homework is an important part of guaranteeing students are learning what is being taught. Skilled, targeted practice is what is planned but the art of practice is both complex and simple.
In sports, theatre, and music programs, a model for how to develop expertise lives right in front of us. To acquire a skill, practice is necessary. Yet, when practice is unsupervised and lacks immediate feedback, frustration can arise, motivation can wane, and bad form can be embedded. Learning is either limited or non-existent without the practice feedback loop ongoing. In sports, a targeted skill is focused on and the coach gives consistent feedback as the player practices that one skill. In the arts the same is true. Skills are identified, modeled, and the students or players or actors, or musicians are given feedback on the skill(s) identified so that practice becomes both targeted and informed. Feedback is key. Encouragement is essential.
Homework is the best example of how educators can improve the use of practice. No matter whether as an educator or a parent, homework as practice remains a standard that might serves many purposes. Teachers use homework to offer students a chance to reinforce what they have learned and what they complete contributes, most often, to a grade. Parents use homework to see what their children are learning and some use it to become partners in the learning experience. Interesting, if it happens that way. Homework has the intention of reinforcement but often lacks the narrow focus for practice. In addition it sends children home without the teacher's knowledge or confidence that the practice is based on knowledge attained. It can become reinforcement of doubt, frustration, or worse, reinforcement of incorrect information or skills. Doing something over and over is good if it is targeted and informed; if feedback is timely and consistent.
How Teachers Are Taught
After teachers gain their degrees and certification, they rely on professional development opportunities throughout their careers to continue their learning. Often these opportunities have been what has become known as 'one and done' professional development opportunities. These were usually selected to impact the broadest sweep of faculty at once. However, the follow-up, reinforcement, and support varies depending on the amount of attention school leaders give following the 'one and done'. Other ways teachers continue learning is individual. They apply to go to a conference or training, are approved, attend, and return. Whether what is learned is embedded in their future practice is often left up to the teacher. After all, how many new things can a leader keep track of, follow up, and support?
Ericcson and Pool argue that "deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance" (p.98). Deliberate practice is informed practice, guided by "the best performers' accomplishments and by understanding of what these expert performers do to excel" (p.98).
How do we know for certain, that all homework, particularly in the early grades, teaches what we want it to and what Ericcson and Pool describe? Some might say it teaches responsibility. But for those students who left the classroom without an adequate grasp of the material, it may undermine its intention. Instead it develops frustration and kills motivation. It has the potential of reinforcing the wrong way to do something, or even a belief that 'I can't do this'. These happening in the early years can stop students from pushing forward, developing grit, and finding success.
Change the Environment for Teachers' Learning
Change how we work with teachers so they can change the way they work with their students. No matter the behavior or skill targeted, might we be able to change the environment to be one of learning, continuous learning, for the adults in which targeted practice and feedback are valued and excellence is recognized? The shift in thinking that this can put in motion requires that the leader remain constant in their role that focuses on the agreed upon skills and behaviors that are being practiced. It required consistency and dedication. It invites the development of professional collegiality where those learning new skills practice together and give feedback to each other.
Before shifting the manner in which teachers plan for practice for their students, consider implementing it with the teachers first. Teaching and learning is not an exact science, like playing an instrument or playing tennis. However, we, in education do know the complicated factors that affect learning. Taking that into consideration, isn't there a way to use deliberate practice where it applies? Rather than assigning independent work because we always have, assign it with the knowledge that the practice will be correct and effective and supported with immediate feedback. Discussions and feedback about what is being implemented and how it will affect the practice of the teacher are essential. Changing the way teachers receive feedback and are asked to practice new, targeted skills offers the model for what you ask them to do with their students. Consider being a model of the change.
Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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