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September 2010 | Volume 68 | Number 1
Giving Students Meaningful Work
Janet Alleman, Rob Ley, Barbara Knighton, Ben Botwinski and Sarah Middlestead
Meaningful homework serves the curriculum and connects school and home.
Imagine working diligently to complete an assignment, toiling over the details of the task, bringing it to school on time, and carefully placing it in the homework basket. Then you wait … until it is returned. No excitement, no discussion, no real feedback.
No wonder students often feel less than enthusiastic about homework assignments. Even high achievers often appear to be just going through the motions. All too often, the homework that we ask students to do is neither memorable nor meaningful. Students frequently report finding no purpose in their work and no relevant connection to their lives.
Although homework has been the source of continual debate, it is an important and often overlooked component of the learning cycle. When teachers carefully and purposefully consider the role of homework in furthering curriculum goals, they can turn a homework task into treasure.
Meaningful homework activities enrich the school curriculum by challenging students to think deeply about important questions and solve genuine problems. Charting a course toward meaningful homework means understanding that any given assignment falls on a continuum (see Figure 1), and even incremental movements toward meaningfulness and authenticity have merit.
Source: From Homework done right: Power learning in real-life situations (p. 6) by J. Alleman, J. Brophy, B. Knighton, R. Ley, B. Botwinski, and S. Middlestead, 2010. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, p. 6.
Especially powerful are homework assignments that give students opportunities to create authentic products that can be used in meaningful ways in the classroom. Let's look at a few examples.
In a social studies class, the goals for a new unit of study are that students will
The teacher first presents a series of photos and a digital story addressing the question, How does government affect my life from the time I get up until the time I go to bed? Then students engage in a class discussion of this question. The teacher then asks students to go home, explore their surroundings, and compile a list of additional ways in which government regulations have an impact. She encourages them to get family or community members involved. Their specific assignment is to prepare a chart that shows all the ways government regulations affect their lives and bring it to class for an upcoming discussion.
One students writes on her chart: pound of package meat found in the refrigerator. Her comment is,
The government has created the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration to ensure that all food items that we consume are inspected to make sure they are safe. All food products sold in stores display seals or other markings indicating they have been inspected.
Another student's response includes a list of ways the state and national departments of education connect to the lives of students in the classroom:
The department of education makes sure teachers have the proper preparation, that suitable instructional materials are available, that there are a certain number of school days every year, and that students have access to certain curriculum materials (such as the approved textbook series).
During the following week, the students look for examples in the media (television, newspapers, and magazines) and add them to their charts. They engage family or community members in conversations about the government's power and influence. At home and in class, students write individual essays on the role of government regulations. All of these student homework assignments serve as essential preparation for the unit's culminating classroom debate on the question, Does our government have too much power? Not enough? Why or why not? What is the evidence?
In a literacy unit on communication, one goal is to develop students' awareness of how online media influence thinking and behavior. The teacher wants to personalize the learning by helping students become aware of how much time they spend each week using media. The students' homework assignment is to keep a record of their Internet usage for a week; then, in class, they combine the individual data to construct a graph of usage patterns that serves as the basis for the class discussion.
Another class is beginning a math unit on measurements. For homework, the teacher asks students to interview members of their family or community about their knowledge and use of the metric system and what knowledge and skills family members thought their children should acquire about it. The whole class uses the results to discuss how important this topic is, the multiple ways the metric system is used, and how valuable it promises to be in the future.
Inviting an audience beyond the immediate members of the classroom community to view the product of an assignment can also be a powerful way to add an element of authenticity to the homework process. In one 4th grade class, students and their families create real-life math problems. The teacher provides a list of all the aspects of measurement and time that the class has studied during its current math unit and asks each family to create two math problems associated with the topic, drawn from family experiences when possible (traveling, shopping, constructing, eating, cooking, and so on). She suggests ideas for the problems, such as converting days to weeks, adding hours and minutes, and calculating time zones. One family comes up with the following problem:
Our family is planning a trip to Switzerland. Our plane will land in Zurich, Switzerland at 8:00 a.m. What time will it be at home in Lansing, Michigan? If I want to call my sister at 6:00 p.m. Michigan time, what time would I need to place the call in Zurich?
The students collect the problems into a classroom math book, which they not only use themselves but also share with other classes.
Families' approaches to their children's school and homework seem to fall into two extreme categories: completely hands-off and disconnected, or hypervigilant and demanding. Meaningful homework assignments can encourage all families to feel welcome.
Early in the school year, teachers should communicate their vision regarding homework, including its purpose, their expectations for students, ways families can contribute, and how homework products will be used in class. Because meaningful assignments often look and feel different from the traditional assignments that parents are familiar with, set the tone early by communicating to families how valuable these assignments will be for their children and for the classroom learning community. Here are some important concepts to note:
In many classrooms, we give homework tasks with the false assumption that students have the necessary resources—including books, technology, basic school supplies, or even money to purchase materials—to complete them successfully. In these situations, homework tasks may only highlight student deficits. For example, a mathematics assignment that can only be completed with a calculator doesn't benefit students who don't have one. To transition homework from a task to a treasure, teachers must design assignments that highlight student assets and accommodate their diverse backgrounds and the tools to which they have access.
Meaningful homework can open endless possibilities for students all along the learning continuum. An open-ended homework assignment encourages students to pursue personal interests, use their abilities, and engage in new social relationships. For example, in a science unit about the chemical composition of polymers, students could interview people about their recycling practices. Students will naturally differentiate this assignment for themselves—some may be able to interview just a family member or two; others may interview 20 people and even visit a local recycling center, going far beyond what a traditional homework task would have required. Students whose families speak little English can also easily carry out this assignment by interviewing family members in their primary language. All of these students will be able to make a valuable contribution to the ensuing classroom project of creating a bulletin board display about recycling.
Traditional homework tasks generally have specific correct answers. In meaningful assignments, many solutions, thought processes, and ideas typically contribute to the "answer." For instance, students in a social studies classroom could be assigned to collect evidence that shows the First Amendment at work in their lives. Instead of each student simply restating the First Amendment (a single correct answer), students can contribute many different, meaningful answers. Students might bring to class an editorial from a newspaper, pictures of different worship centers in their neighborhood, a flyer advertising a rally for public education at the state capitol, and so on. Regardless of abilities, socioeconomic status, or cultural background, all students can be equally involved in the assignment and the class discussion that follows. As the fear of "one right answer" dissipates, all students will begin to contribute and may become respected in new ways by their peers.
Meaningful homework is closely connected to what students learn in class; it extends the in-school curriculum and provides opportunities for students to master skills and cement their understanding of big ideas. These assignments often offer students the chance to apply what they learn in the classroom in authentic out-of-school contexts, and vice versa. Homework of this nature emphasizes the here-and-now and serves as a valuable source of information for class discussions that go far beyond the textbook.
When teachers cash in on the homework treasure, students will view their learning as meaningful and memorable because it applies to their lives, expands their sense of efficacy, engages them with adults in responsible ways, celebrates their diversity, personalizes the curriculum, exploits learning opportunities that are not easily accessible at school, and keeps the curriculum up-to-date. The results enrich in-school learning for all students.
We challenge you to turn homework tasks into treasure!
Editor's note: More strategies for creating meaningful homework assignments are available in the authors' new book, Homework Done Right: Power Learning in Real Life Situations (Corwin Press, 2010).
Janet Alleman is a professor in the Department of Education, Michigan State University;. Rob Ley is a 3rd and 4th grade teacher in the Haslett Public Schools in Haslett, Michigan. Barbara Knighton is a 4th grade teacher in the Waverly Community Schools, Lansing, Michigan. Ben Botwinski is a graduate student at Michigan State University. Sarah Middlestead is a middle school mathematics teacher residing in Lansing.
Copyright © 2010 by ASCD
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