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August 27, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 24

Transforming Homework into Home Learning

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Social-emotional learning
Far too often, students view any schoolwork that they need to do at home as an imposition—something to get through, or worse, avoid completely. This age-old problem has always been an impediment to learning, but it takes on new significance during the COVID-19 pandemic and the remote teaching and virtual learning it has necessitated. We must address this problem head on, because if students and their parents are of the mindset that learning at home will always be a form of drudgery, then our best efforts to teach remotely will be compromised. Think of it as trying to plant a garden on a concrete slab: No foundation to support growth leads to the inevitable result—no growth.
Although the research on homework's effects yields mixed results, most researchers have been clear that homework can be quite effective if it's designed with principles that put the emphasis on the learning rather than the work. For example, we recently worked with the research team at McREL International to develop teaching tools that help teachers design true home learning experiences and that help students and families break the old mindset of homework as busy work (Silver, Abla, Boutz, & Perini, 2018).
Of course, in the current reality of shuttered classrooms and hybrid-learning models where at least some—and often most—of the learning is taking place at home, we need to do more than merely refine our homework practices; we need to develop a learning culture that empowers our students so that they can learn effectively in their homes for extended periods of time.

The Four Cornerstones of Effective Learning Environments

By conducting a deep analysis of the preeminent teacher effectiveness frameworks and standards (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2011; Danielson, 2013; Marzano, 2013) and working with hundreds of educators to convert our research into a simple and practical model, we have found that all successful learning environments rest on four cornerstones. For each of these four cornerstones, we have developed an essential question adapted specifically to the new challenges of online learning:
  1. Cornerstone One—Organization, Rules, and Procedures: How can we ensure that procedures and task directions are clear so that students can work effectively at home?
  2. Cornerstone Two—Positive Relationships: How can we encourage positive interaction and nurture real discussion in an online environment?
  3. Cornerstone Three—Engagement and Enjoyment: How can we make home learning engaging and enjoyable for students?
  4. Cornerstone Four—A Culture of Thinking and Learning: How can we encourage students to think deeply and build their own understanding in an online learning environment?

The Tools to Make It Work

Using these essential questions to think about how to optimize your virtual classroom is an important start. But to help schools move from abstraction to real practice, we have identified four concrete instructional tools—designed with an eye toward simplicity and practicality—that can help teachers establish an online learning environment that addresses the cornerstones.

1. Seven-Step Directions

This tool (Silver, Perini, & Boutz, 2016) is ideal for addressing the essential question associated with Cornerstone One: How can we ensure that procedures and task directions are clear so that students can work effectively at home? With learning taking place at home, students don't have the same opportunities to ask questions and seek clarification on task directions, nor do teachers get the immediate feedback on students' comfort level with the directions. Students need to understand not just the basic directions, but the process for working through those directions: When should they work on the task? For how long? What should they do if they get stuck? How will the work be evaluated?
The "Seven-Step Directions" tool helps teachers think through this process strategically and write it out clearly so that their own assumptions about what a task will require don't end up derailing students' work process. An added benefit is that this tool helps students become more self-directed by making them aware of the kinds of questions they should ask themselves before they begin working on any assigned task. Figure 1 shows a sample set of Seven-Step Directions developed by a 5th grade teacher to help her students complete a reading and prediction task for a novel they were about to read.

Figure 1. Sample Seven-Step Directions

Source: Developed by Katelyn Jackson of Fieldcrest Elementary, Burlington, NC, using a reproducible organizer from Tools for A Successful School Year (Starting on Day One): Classroom Ready Techniques for Building the Four Cornerstones of an Effective Classroom (p. 13), by H. F. Silver, M. J. Perini, and A. L. Boutz, 2016, Franklin Lakes, NJ: Silver Strong & Associates/Thoughtful Education Press. © 2016 Silver Strong & Associates. Used with permission.

2. Community CIRCLE

One of the great joys of the classroom comes when we see and hear the telltale signs of real classroom conversation: students actively listening to their peers, students expressing their ideas confidently, students working together to pursue new insights. But can we create this same dynamic online? "Community CIRCLE" (Silver, Perini, & Boutz, 2016) is a powerful discussion technique that engages students because it is driven by their personal experiences, values, and opinions. It directly addresses the essential question for Cornerstone Two: How can we encourage positive interaction and nurture real discussion in an online environment? The steps for implementing this technique spell out the word CIRCLE:
CREATE a question or prompt that invites students to share personal knowledge, experiences, or opinions about a specific topic. Lesley Cagle, an ELA teacher at James T. Alton Middle School in Vine Grove, Ky., uses Community CIRCLE to help optimize students' online learning experience. For one of the discussions, she posed this prompt to students: "What are the advantages and disadvantages of online learning?"
INVITE all students to share their responses. With video-conferencing platforms, students are already looking at one another, making the goal of face-to-face communication one that is actually easier to achieve online. What's important is that the discussion is an invitation—an open forum for everyone to share that creates a large pool of responses. Sometimes, teachers ask all students to share; sometimes encouragement without requirement is the best approach.
REVIEW key ideas by having students summarize one another's responses. Typically, the teacher will call on students one at a time. Each student picks another student's response and restates it ("Jahnelle focused on the disadvantages of online learning, especially the way that …"). This step first ensures active listening. Second, it promotes summarization, helping students get a better handle on the information. Third, students are required to use their classmates' names when summarizing their positions, which helps build respect for one another's ideas.
COMPARE responses. During this step, the teacher works with the students to identify the similarities and differences among responses. For example, when comparing the advantages and disadvantages of online learning, students noticed similarities and differences like these:
"It seemed that Wendy and Franklin had the most different ideas of all. Wendy talked about how online learning has some real advantages for her because she really likes to work alone and with no distractions. Franklin seems to dislike online learning the most because it's hard for him to sit at a computer for hours and because he really needs the routine of the school day to keep him on track.
LOOK for patterns. During this phase, the teacher challenges students to develop generalizations based on the collective review of the shared responses. After some discussion and debate, students agreed to generalizations like these about online learning:
  • Online learning is like all learning in that you get out of what you put into it.
  • The biggest disadvantage is not being together in the classroom. The best way to overcome this challenge is for the teacher to hold regular online discussions (not just lectures!) and for students to be prepared to participate in them.
  • Keeping a running list of questions for your teachers and then reviewing them at the end of each day to see which got answered and which you still need to post can help you stay on track.
EXTEND the thinking. Working together, the class created a "Productivity Tip Sheet" for making the most of online learning. The tip sheet was posted to the classroom portal, and students printed out copies to post in their home workspaces.

3. Questioning in Style

One of the most common complaints about extended online learning is that it often amounts to a steady diet of busy work. What's desperately missing is the thinking.
Perhaps the simplest and most effective way to engage students in high-quality thinking is through questioning. But research shows that the great majority of classroom questions ask students to do little more than recall factual information (Hattie, 2012). This is a huge missed opportunity. After all, we've all seen the way good questions can make students scrunch up their faces and scratch their heads. Questions, when used well, are one of the most effective ways for teachers to develop Cornerstone Three: Engagement and Enjoyment.
"Questioning in Style" (Boutz, Silver, Jackson, & Perini, 2012) is a tool that helps teachers diversify their questioning practice so that questions become the fuel for active engagement and deep thinking. To use Questioning in Style with your students, keep the poster at the center of Figure 2 below in mind. Even better, help students internalize it by posting it to your virtual classroom and drawing students' attention to it regularly. What the poster shows students is four powerful ways to "flex their mental muscles." Each way—or style—of thinking represents a different way to activate the mind. Around the poster are sample questions designed by an elementary math teacher and a primary health teacher.
After reviewing these teachers' questions, think about how you might generate questions in all four styles for a lesson you're about to teach online.

Figure 2. Questioning in Style Poster and Sample Questions

Source: How to Flex Your Mental Muscles (Poster) by Silver Strong & Associates, 2018. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Author. © 2018 Silver Strong & Associates. Used with permission.

4. More Alike or Different?

One highly effective way to encourage deep thinking and the active construction of understanding (Cornerstone Four) is to encourage students to call up their "inner lawyers" by inviting them to take positions and develop arguments to support them. Jonathan Osborne, a professor of science education at Stanford University, and Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, both contend that argumentation is so central to learning that it should be treated as a primary goal of education. They argue that teachers should focus on helping students argue positions using evidence so that students learn to appreciate the vital debates that are at the heart of all disciplines.
Enter "More Alike or Different?" (Silver, Perini, & Boutz, 2016), a tool for framing whatever content students are learning as a debate: "Are these two important things we're learning about more alike or more different?" Are spiders and insects more alike or different? Are fractions and decimals more alike or different? How about two literary rebels like Hamlet and Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye?
The instant controversy that More Alike or Different? creates is a great curiosity spark, something that students need more than ever while they're confined to home-based learning. Here's how to turn this initial spark into sustained thinking and learning:
  • Encourage students to compare the two items carefully before deciding if they are more alike or different.
  • Model the evidence-gathering process by showing students how you would collect evidence for a position by looking at specific criteria. ("So, I'm looking for strong reasons to support my position that Duke Ellington and Miles Davis are more different than alike, and the first criterion I want to focus on is their musical styles. Duke Ellington is famous for his big-band style, which is …")
  • Give students the time and practice they need to gather evidence for their own positions. Make sure that they can reach you with questions as they work through the process for the first time.
  • Invite students to share and justify their positions, either in writing, through discussion, or both.
  • Keep at it. Learning to argue is not a one-and-done proposition. The more practice that students have making and supporting arguments, the stronger their thinking will become.
So, there you have it: four cornerstones and four concrete tools to make sure that those cornerstones are well-developed in the online learning environment. At a time when so much of the learning is relegated to the home, developing this kind of culture has never been more important. It is how we can free ourselves and our students from the "busy work trap" and shift the focus from the work to the learning.
More on This Topic: Making Homework Work

Boutz, A. L., Silver, H. F., Jackson, J. W., & Perini, M. J. (2012). Tools for thoughtful assessment: Classroom-ready techniques for improving teaching and learning. Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2011). Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) Model Core Teaching Standards: A Resource for State Dialogue. Washington, DC: Author.

Danielson, C. (2013). The framework for teaching evaluation instrument. Princeton, NJ: The Danielson Group.

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement (2012). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hattie, J., (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J. (2013). The Marzano teacher evaluation model. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Silver, H. F, Abla, C., Boutz, A. L., & Perini, M. J. (2018). Tools for classroom instruction that works: Ready- to-use techniques for increasing student achievement. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Silver Strong & Associates (2018). How to flex your mental muscles (poster). Franklin Lakes, NJ: Author.

Harvey Silver is president of Silver Strong & Associates and Thoughtful Education Press. An experienced educator, presenter, and coach, Silver has conducted thousands of workshops for schools, districts, and state education organizations throughout the United States.

Silver is the author of several articles and books on instructional tools and strategies, including some ASCD bestsellers: The Core SixThe Strategic Teacher,  So Each May Learn, and Teaching What Matters Most.

With the late Richard Strong, Silver developed The Thoughtful Classroom—a renowned professional development initiative dedicated to "making students as important as standards” and collaborated with Matthew J. Perini to develop the Thoughtful Classroom Teacher Effectiveness Framework.

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