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March 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 6
Getting Personalization Right
Individualized homework can put new life in assignments.
In my 23 years of teaching, I have never seen a group of students get this excited about homework," said Kelli Meade, a 4th grade teacher.
Are we in an alternate universe where kids actually enjoy homework? Not quite. Meade is a teacher at Vinal Elementary School in Norwell, Massachusetts, which has introduced a strategy that has led students to eagerly take charge of the work they do outside of school.
Teachers at Vinal, a high-performing PreK–5 school with about 500 students, have embraced individualized homework since the 2015–2016 school year. At that time, the school's principal, Patrick Lenz, read some of my research about homework in his graduate studies. (I only learned of Vinal's work after a reporter contacted me for an article she was writing about the school's homework pilot!) The school's methodical, standards-based approach to homework zeros in on big ideas and enduring understandings from the curriculum. Students set personal goals related to the standards, practice the skills they need to work on, select learning strategies that work for them, and monitor their progress toward mastery of the standards.
For instance, an auditory learner who needs practice with multiplication tables may choose to create a song with lyrics featuring multiplication facts as his homework instead of completing a worksheet. In other cases, students demonstrate specific skills by exploring topics they enjoy and by creating their own homework assignments to document their progress.
Research on the brain, motivation, personalization, and student-centered learning validates the importance of student empowerment and autonomy in learning (Cushman, 2010; Dweck, 2007; Hattie & Yates, 2014; Jensen, 2000; Kohn, 1999; Pink, 2009). Individualized homework, in turn, promotes learner confidence and taps into the intrinsic need for students to control their own learning.
Students at Vinal express this need clearly. "You get to work on what you might be struggling with so you can grow as a learner," one student said. "I choose topics and projects that I need to improve skills in and that I am interested in," another student commented. And from a third student, "The benefit of doing individualized homework is really getting to focus on one thing I need rather than the needs of the whole class."
Principal Lenz saw all the evidence he needed to see during the pilot year: "What I saw in these classrooms was a group of young people who were intrinsically motivated to learn and then apply what they had learned outside of school."
Individualized homework is also consistent with the school's focus on standards-based learning. The principal and teachers understood that it was ineffective to implement standards-based learning using the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach to homework. They realized that for all students to reach mastery, the paths to get there must be personalized. "In a standards-based system, if students are able to meet or exceed standards without completing homework, then what is the value of the assignments?" Lenz asked. "Or on the flip side, if students are assigned one-size-fits-all homework, and students are unable to use homework to reach the standards, then what is the value of the assignments?"
Individualized homework is currently being used by five teachers (one at each grade level) at Vinal Elementary School. Each teacher designs homework a little differently depending on the maturity and independence levels of the students, but all teachers share common strategies. The teachers start the year by helping students identify their learning preferences, using surveys about learning styles, multiple intelligences, and interests. Through reflection and conferences, students pinpoint their strengths, their weaknesses, and their hopes and dreams for the year.
Students, parents, and teachers work together to set measurable goals correlated to learning standards. Homework is used as a tool to meet those goals. The first homework goal-setting meeting takes place between the teacher and parents in the fall, after the teacher has had time to get to know each student and his or her interests and level of performance. Depending on the students' age and teacher, some students participate in these meetings as well.
The teacher uses the information from this meeting to create each student's homework goals and the action steps needed to achieve the goals. These steps allow students to chart their growth and document their progress in their portfolios. For example, Maria's goal was to create well-detailed writing about texts she read. Her action steps included working on a project that required her to focus on a specific part of a book, write about the character traits of a chosen character, and cite the text to further explain the trait.
From there, the teacher guides students in choosing learning tasks, drawing on students' level of mastery and consistent with their learning styles. In Debra Coggeshall's 1st grade classroom, students self-select books at their reading level for reading homework. They also choose from such activities as board games, listening centers, and puzzles to master specific standards. The students love to borrow these classroom tools and are excited to show their families how to use them.
As students are given choices, they begin to create their own homework tasks. For instance, one of Robin Thibodeau's 2nd graders wanted to do her homework as she waited for her brother's tae kwon do class to finish. She saw trophies and got an idea to use them as the foundation for her addition and subtraction problems. She counted the blue ones and added them to the red ones. She wrote word problems about them and added illustrations.
Thibodeau allows her students to show their understanding of learning standards through a variety of homework options—writing, presentations, movies, art, and music. "This ownership yielded definite improvements in their assignments," she said. "The assignments were generally longer, had more depth, and were much more creative when compared to traditional homework I had assigned."
Although students have choices, there are some teacher-specified tasks as well. For instance, each Monday, Tracy Simmons gives her 5th grade students a homework agenda to plan their week. The agenda includes some teacher-specified goals with choices in reading, writing, and math. Students may have a math choice to review concepts already taught, practice concepts currently being learned, or challenge themselves with problem-solving activities requiring deeper understanding. Students are responsible for reflecting on their personal goals for the term and deciding which option to take.
In all five classrooms, students' ability to set goals, pursue interests, and self-reflect are crucial to their progress. Kelli Meade's 4th graders create individualized homework on the basis of interests, goals, learning standards, and feedback. Students look through their portfolios and journals to reflect on areas where they need improvement. They then apply the relevant skill or concept to something that interests them.
Goal setting requires a great deal of explicit teaching—what a goal is, how to develop it, and how to work toward it. One 4th grader who has trouble speaking in front of the class might set a goal to improve his speaking and listening skills by presenting on a topic of interest, drawing on self-reflection and teacher and peer feedback. Because this particular student loves airplanes, his presentation could be about paper planes.
The student would set his goal, decide on a time frame, and work backward to plan the steps from start to presentation. The student would use an individual project form and action plan to reach his goal. For homework, he might research the science behind flight, learn how to make paper planes fly, and create a PowerPoint presentation to teach the class what he learned. Other students might apply learning standards to their individual interests—bubblegum, snakes, 3-D structures, and so much more. No matter the topic, students are excited to share their knowledge with their classmates.
A common concern among teachers is that individualized homework will be difficult to monitor. They worry that keeping track of so many different projects will be cumbersome.
Yes, it does require time to provide individual feedback and to work one-on-one with students as they design tasks. But the teachers at Vinal find time when other students are involved in individual and group work. All students are working from the same standards, and for the most part it's the students—with some teacher input—who are creating the homework tasks. Gretchen Abbott makes the process more manageable by providing her 3rd graders with a list of key concepts, such as reading fluency or area and perimeter, that she would like them to work on.
Tracy Simmons explains, "It's definitely more of a challenge to monitor the various assignments when homework is personalized." However, she acknowledges that the extra effort is worthwhile because it gives her the opportunity to provide students with meaningful feedback.
Educators at Vinal Elementary expected that parents would be concerned when the school made the switch to individualized homework. After all, neither students nor parents had experienced this type of homework before. They were quite accustomed to traditional prescribed tasks.
Teachers proactively held parent meetings to explain individualized homework, the educational rationale behind it, and concrete examples of what it might look like. Some parents had to be convinced that enjoyable homework could indeed be legitimate learning.
Parents were unsure of their role with student-designed tasks, so communication was crucial. Teachers asked parents to be facilitators and to provide an environment conducive to their child's learning style. They also requested that parents not do their child's homework. (If a student is unable to complete the work, then the teacher needs to be made aware.) Curiously, as students began to take ownership of and pride in their assignments, they often wanted to work without their parents' help, sometimes to their parents' chagrin!
Parents who were skeptical at first became more comfortable after they understood what was expected of their children. And once they saw their children perform a task that wasn't a worksheet with competency and enjoyment, they felt even more at ease.
Students who had never experienced choice or ownership of homework weren't always sure how to handle the change, either. They didn't know what to do when given a voice in directing their own learning, and most of them had no experience with self-assessing their strengths and weaknesses.
Robin Thibodeau explained: "At the beginning, many of my students and their parents needed a lot of modeling and gentle guidance in choosing appropriate homework experiences." After a bit of trial and error, she created a double-sided sheet of homework suggestions—one for language arts and one for math. Every Monday morning, her class generated ideas to add to the homework suggestions list.
A consistent challenge at all grade levels was for students and their parents to decide when to complete the homework. Students and parents were used to the regimen of daily homework, but now students had extended time to complete a series of tasks or larger assignments.
In Robin Thibodeau's 2nd grade class, she assigned the homework choice sheet on Mondays and had students return their work the following Monday. Even though she modeled different ways to organize the work, there were still adjustments to be made. "The students quickly learned that the responsibility was on them—that their choices were not only what to do but also when to do it," she said. "Students realized that putting off assignments until Sunday was not a good plan, and many came to love the blank calendar sheet where they could fill in a homework schedule."
Tracy Simmons's 5th graders had a similar experience. In the past, Tracy had given weekly homework on Monday that was due on Friday, organized nightly but with some flexibility. Upon shifting to the new model, her class thought having the weekend might be helpful, so she allowed the students to experiment. "A few students quickly realized this may not be their best option, as they tended to procrastinate, leaving too much work for the weekend," she said. The experience provided students with helpful insights into their work habits. Without this opportunity, they may not have learned these lessons until much later in their education. For students who continued to have problems with procrastination, teachers worked with them individually to customize a plan.
As with traditional homework, there were also some students who struggled to complete tasks altogether. Assigning homework in weekly blocks (instead of nightly) eliminated many of those problems. To aid students who needed more structure to finish assignments, teachers often provided nightly expectations and conducted more frequent check-ins. Gretchen Abbott has used a 15-minute block of time at the end of the day to work with students who struggle to do homework at home. These students may also be required to do some reading homework during reading time.
On balance, there have been fewer problems with noncompletion than in the past because of the nature of individualized homework. According to Tracy Simmons, individualized homework hooks students' interest. "They are motivated and interested to complete what is assigned," she said. "It is meaningful to them, so they do it—it's as simple as that!"
As I saw the examples of individualized homework at Vinal Elementary, memories of my son's elementary school years flooded my mind. I thought about how, so many years ago, I struggled to get my son to complete joyless homework tasks like worksheets and vocabulary lists. And I remembered how enthusiastic he was about the homework in which he wrote his own book about his guinea pigs, which is still in a box in the attic.
In a 1991 Educational Leadership article, Elliott Eisner wrote about how, amidst the noise of standards and the "merely measurable," we had some-how lost the idea that the essence of schooling should be to nurture curiosity, wonder, and the excitement of learning something new. Individualized homework at Vinal Elementary School has excited students and revitalized teachers. As Eisner said, "the journey is the reward."
Author's note: The following educators from Vinal Elementary School contributed to this article: principal Patrick Lenz and teachers Debra Coggeshall, Robin Thibodeau, Gretchen Abbott, Kelli Meade, and Tracy Simmons.
Cushman, K. (2010). Fires in the mind: What kids can tell us about motivation and mastery. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine.
Eisner, E. (1991). What really counts in school. Educational Leadership, 48(5), 10–17.
Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. R. (2014). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. New York: Routledge.
Jensen, E. (2000). Brain-based learning. San Diego, CA: The Brain Store.
Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes (2nd ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.
Cathy Vatterott is professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning (ASCD, 2015).
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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