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The learning diversity of their own children motivated Connie Hamilton and Starr Sackstein to ditch a traditional view of homework and focus on how to best support student learning.
"Through our friendship, we have the experience of kids in elementary … and secondary. But my educational experience in the workforce is at the elementary level and [Sackstein] is a high school teacher, so we brought that whole perspective through and kept each other fresh, trying to look at [homework] from a K–12 perspective," said Hamilton.
In their interactive session "Hacking Homework," Hamilton and Sackstein asked participants to divide into the four corners of the room based on whether or not they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with statements about homework.
As participants responded to the statement, "Homework teaches responsibility," the "agree" corner of the room held the largest number of participants. However, the presenters shared that they strongly disagreed with the idea.
"It's that teachers teach; assignments definitely don't teach," said Hamilton.
She described the difference between expecting students to be responsible in completing their homework, versus giving them strategies and support to assist them in their assignments. Hamilton encouraged teachers not to attach negative character traits—like "irresponsible" or "unmotivated"—to students who don't complete their homework, but instead consider alternative explanations, like things that are going on at home or how they might be learning in other ways through other extracurricular activities.
One method Hamilton mentioned for teachers to support and teach responsibility is to use job charts that require presence in the classroom, so that students can feel in charge, and ask questions such as, "If I'm not here, who's going to take the place for me when I'm absent? ... Because if I'm not here my job doesn't get done, and that's my responsibility to make sure that that happens."
Another tip is to partner with parents to teach responsibility at home, not just expect it—through methods like rewards for completed work or charts that demonstrate the student's homework progress.
Sackstein said at the secondary level, a practical takeaway she employs in her classroom is to provide her students with syllabi at the beginning of the year. She uses long-term projects in place of daily homework to encourage students to manage their time and organize themselves.
Hamilton and Sackstein discussed the detriment that hours of homework can wreak on a student's social life. The presenters encouraged a more integrated approach to social and homework time.
Even the social media tools students are already on can be utilized for classroom help.
"Why not let them do their homework on these social places? They're on it, and this is just another way to think about it. Why not use Twitter to give them extra help?" asked Sackstein.
A few practical tips include using a class hashtag on Twitter or encouraging students to engage with #BookSnaps—using Snapchat to annotate and share portions of books that they're reading.
At this statement, every participant moved to the "disagree" or "strongly disagree" corners of the room. Some of the reasons for such widespread disagreement included that the students cheat, the parents do it, or students copy it from Google.
Hamilton said the zone of proximal development is at play here. The zone of things a learner can do with help is where support in the classroom comes in, with tactics like scaffolding and questioning.
"[The zone of proximal development] is not the target for homework," said Hamilton.
Assignments shouldn't require outside help because there is no way to know whether every student has that help available.
Sackstein and Hamilton concluded with the notion that homework shouldn't be thrown out altogether; just redesigned.
"We don't want you to walk away with the idea that we're saying no homework, straight up. Our message isn't necessarily that we're not going to do homework at all," said Hamilton. "We want you to be intentional and purposeful and thoughtful about all the things around homework."
For a more in-depth look at how to craft your homework to best support student learning, check out Hamilton and Sackstein's book Hacking Homework: 10 Strategies That Inspire Learning Outside the Classroom.
Kristen Hardy is a fourth-year communication studies student at UCLA. She works as a copy editor for the Daily Bruin and a writer for the UCLA Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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