Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Secret To Homework: It's Independent Practice!

I loved the article from CathyVatterott in Educational leadership this month! Just what we need to know: By using homework for practice in self-assessment and complex thinking skills, we can put students in charge of the learning process.

In my discipline – Mathematics - No more p. 238 5-57 the odds for assignments, no more 32 “drill and kill’ math worksheets, no more 90 minute homework assignments, no more going over homework the next day for 25 minutes of class, no more assigning homework at the last minute, no more students not knowing the answers and being able to check your work as you practice, no more homework filled with only lower level cognitive demand tasks! Homework will be worthy of our students’ best efforts? Right?

Not so fast.  

Is homework really an essential element to the process of student learning? The short answer is yes. But the best protocols to follow for homework are not quite as clear.

Mathematics homework is an area that often lacks clarity, purpose and certainty for your students, your parents, your schools’ intervention support personnel, and most importantly for you. Your team asks, “Why do we give students homework? What is the purpose of homework? Why won’t students do their homework? Why do we spend so much time going over homework in class? Why is homework assigned for a grade?” The very idea of homework, and what to do with it is often a conundrum for you, your team and for your students.

Here is what we do know: The assignment of homework can no longer be a superficial exercise for you or your team. My colleagues and I now think the “homework” you assign students, as well as the way you think about homework as an in-class activity is one of the most important team discussions you can have, for agreement, before the unit begins.

Research does indicate that homework can be helpful in improving student achievement if implemented correctly (Cooper, 2008).  Practice is important, but not without first developing student understanding in class.

Matt Larson, a national mathematics expert and lead author on our 2012 Common Core Mathematics in a PLC at Work series and our new 2014 handbook series on Beyond the Common Core in a PLC, suggests that student practice without understanding may be detrimental to students’ development of fluency, and in many cases avoiding this danger means that instruction should place greater emphasis on guided practice in class  – practice that is supported by monitoring and feedback – prior to independent practice outside of class
Research also supports the idea of spaced (sometimes called distributed or spiral) vs. massed homework practice during the unit of study (Hattie, 2012) as having a significant impact on student learning. That is, provide homework assignment (practice) tasks that are spaced throughout the unit, allowing your students to cycle back and perform distributed practice on prior learning standards, including those learned earlier in the unit, previous units, or possibly the previous grade level.

As each teacher on your team begins to honor teaching to the same set of essential learning standards and designing high quality common assessments for your grade level or course, then it is a natural outcome that the nature of independent practice for student learning outside of class (homework) would be designed from the same core set of problems for each student, no matter the assignment of teacher for the grade level or course.

Understanding the purpose of homework

This spring you can and should use the questions in the Collaborative Homework Assignment Protocol Discussion tool to help you and your team develops a better understanding of the purpose, the content and the expected protocols for the units’ homework assignments. Think of it as a sort of spring-cleaning of your current homework habits.

Collaborative Homework Assignment Protocol Discussion Tool

Directions: Work with your course level collaborative team to develop unit by-unit homework protocols for your course level.

Purpose of Homework:

1.     Why do we assign homework for the lessons of each unit? What is the fundamental purpose of homework?

Nature of Homework

2.     What is the proper number of practice problems (mathematical tasks) for daily homework assigned during the unit?

3.     What is the proper rigor (cognitive demand expectations) of the practice problems (mathematical tasks) for homework assigned during the unit?

4.     What is the proper distribution of practice problems or tasks for homework to ensure spaced practice for our students?

5.     How do our daily homework assignments align to the expectations of the essential learning standards for the unit? How do the students know this to be true?

6.     What steps shall we take to identify the homework (independent practice to be assigned and how will we communicate the assignments to students/parents/support staff?  How will we reach consensus on all unit homework assignments? How do we ensure coherence across the team to the student learning and practice expectations?

Use of Homework:

7.     How should we grade or score homework assignments during the unit? (What percent of a student’s total grade should be based on homework?)

8.     How will we “go over”, in class, the homework practice that is assigned to our students during the unit?

9. How will we communicate the Common Unit Homework Assignments to the students, parents and support staff, before the unit begins?

Mathematics homework should be a formative learning activity, i.e. an opportunity to obtain independent feedback and improve learning. Think: Primary purpose of mathematics homework is independent practice. More importantly, successful independent practice. That is, students must understand and use homework as an opportunity for formative assessment learning – while you are not in the room (Hattie, 2012).

Perhaps the homework paradigm shift for you and your colleagues is to stop calling it “homework”. Certainly “Independent Practice” can be done at the coffee shop, or after school in a classroom at school, or on the bus, or sitting in a hallway, or in the car on the way to practice or a game, or with friends at the library, or at the neighbors house. Independent practice does not have to be done at a specific location… it just has to be done.  

The work of your collaborative team is to decide, before the unit begins, what and how much homework to provide for additional student independent practice. Your team must decide how you will communicate the homework assignments to students and parents. And your team must decide the role homework plays as part of your classroom protocols.

Using effective homework protocols

1. Homework purpose: The primary purpose of homework is to allow the student the opportunity for independent practice on essential learning standards mastered in class. Homework can also provide a chance for the student to practice mathematical tasks that relate to previous learning standards or tasks that reflect prerequisites learning standards for the next unit.

2. Homework length of time: How much time should daily homework take students to complete? How many problems should it entail? Homework should not be lengthy (Cooper, 2008) so care should be given in what is assigned. Take into account the cognitive demand level of the tasks or problems assigned. Think no more than 25-30 minutes K-5 and 35-45 minutes grades 6-12 of student time outside of class each day.

3. Homework problem set/task selection: Homework that provides review of previous work and helps to prepare for work to come has been linked to improved student achievement as well (Cooper, 2008). Make sure that all tasks/problems assigned are necessary as part of independent practice, ensure there is spaced practice and not massed practice, and make sure that the tasks assigned for homework actually align to the essential learning standards of the unit.

4. Providing Homework answers:  When Students are provided answers to the homework problems they can check their solutions against the answers, and if their end result does not match the provided answer, they to rework the problem to find their error. In other words, students receive immediate and formative self-assessed feedback of their work (similar to what happens when playing an electronic game). Moreover, a compelling reason to provide students the answers to the homework in advance of the assignment is the time saved not giving out answers during the class period.

5. The role of homework in class: Once the homework to be assigned is determined (before the unit begins), your collaborative team’s discussion should focus on how the homework will be addressed in class, the type of feedback that will be given to students, and what will occur if students do not complete the homework. If most of the class time the next day is spent going over the homework then you lose the impact of successful independent practice on student learning. Your students may be choosing to wait to do homework problems, precisely because they know you will go over the problems the next day. Since the purpose of homework is independent practice, limit the amount of time given in class to grade, score, or go over the practice problems. These daily and unit processes and procedures should be consistent from teacher to teacher within your collaborative team.

Final Thoughts: Why are students expected to do homework? Not because they will receive a grade, not because they hope you will “go over” the problems in class the next day (which makes homework no longer an independent practice exercise), not because they are being punished. 

Only because your students understand the importance of “formative assessment” and successful practice as a critical aspect of their long term memory learning process.

In class students do need your teacher modeling and lots of peer-to-peer guided practice, then out of class, and in a timely fashion, they need to do accurate independent practice with feedback (self-feedback and action or with peers) – well before they are back in your class the next day.

I wish you the best in your homework, oops, independent practice, journey. I hope these protocols and guidelines help as you think through this often-difficult aspect of your teaching and leading students!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Defining Autonomy and Defending Boundaries

I recently ran across a blog titled  Is Common Core the Enemy of Autonomy?” by Justin Minkel (you can go to the link later, but I will tell you the ending up front; the answer is NO). What the Common Core does give us is the very very rich opportunity for Defined Autonomy. 

Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters, in District Leadership That Works, reveal this loose-tight teacher and teacher leadership idea:

How can we find school autonomy positively correlated with student achievement and site-based management exhibiting a negligible or negative correlation with achievement? The question might be answered in light of our other findings . . . Defined autonomy means that the superintendent expects building principals and all other administrators in the district to lead within the boundaries defined by the district goals. (Marzano & Waters, 2009, p. 8, emphasis in the original)

As a PLC leader, you become a boundary defender. The boundaries defined by the district vision and values establish the most critical and coherent work of each school site in the district. Similarly, the boundaries defined by the school vision and goals should be in direct alignment with the district goals and define the most critical and common work of each grade level, department, or teacher team. These boundaries are tight, they are defined, they are non-negotiable, and yes, they are required.

Further, Marzano and Waters (2009) show that the defined autonomy boundaries lower variance and increase the reliability of adult actions that improve student achievement. That is exactly the goal of becoming a professional learning community: high reliability, high coherence and low variance in the quality of the teaching, learning, and assessing of every student. This goal is achieved because “effective leadership at the district and school levels changes what occurs in classrooms, and what happens in classrooms has a direct effect on student achievement”. 

The boundaries thus become an inequity eraser from school to school, grade level to grade level, course to course and teacher to teacher.

Consider the vision and value of student-engaged learning. Do faculty members or administrators have the right to fly outside the student-engaged learning vision and values boundary and not actively engage students? Absolutely not.

In fact, you and those you lead have an ethical, professional, and moral obligation to ensure the shared vision of student engaged learning is implemented by all (no inequities allowed). Those you lead cannot fly outside of the box of the expected shared vision behaviors. 

However, those individuals could use many different structures or methods to implement actions that serve the vision. How to implement the vision can and should be loose. As the leader you give the faculty and staff autonomy, within defined and well-articulated boundaries.

Paul Sullivan, in his 2010 book Clutch, indicates that one way to eliminate the stress in making clutch decisions is to provide parameters that focus the decision-making process. Essentially, the parameters (or boundaries) provide the focus needed to meet the targets for student achievement in a PLC. This is the wonderful paradox of the loose-tight or “defined autonomy” leadership culture. It is another of those leadership practices where the “tyranny of OR” cannot rule.

Adults can work within a defined set of behaviors and have an opportunity for freedom and choice.
Autonomy is different from independence by the way. Autonomy in the loose-tight PLC world does not mean the individualism of going it alone, relying on nobody. Yet as Daniel Pink (Drive, 2009) points out, autonomy “means acting with choice—which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.

Interestingly, according to Pink, the autonomy workers seek is not necessarily over aspects of the vision—the stuff you must be tight about—but over four specific aspects of their work: “What they do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with”. 

These are areas in which a PLC leader can be a bit loose.

What does this mean for you as a PLC leader? How can you be tight about vision implementation and give those you lead—those in your sphere of influence—a sense of well-defined autonomy and control?

     What you do. What you are to do in a PLC is defined by both the vision of curriculum, instruction, and assessment that has been developed by the district, school, or team, and the PLC expectations for team participation and team-based plans that turn the vision into action. “What you do” is developed and created during the action plan process that designs the work of the faculty and administration at the start of any school year.

      Autonomy is built in when you have established an ongoing yearlong process that allows all faculty and staff a voice in those required adult actions for the school year.

      That voice, however, is not a we get to do whatever we want voice. It is a voice defined within the parameters of the vision. As the leader, you must monitor that voice and ensure those parameters are being honored.

     When you do it. Education by its very nature is built around firm time schedules. Most school leaders enjoy the freedom to vary their schedule every day—within the constraints of being in an office or on a campus. The question for you to ask is: are there ways (within reason) to provide some faculty control over when they do certain aspects of their job—especially the opportunity and time to engage with their professional learning community teams?

     How you do it. I have long been a champion of allowing faculty and staff teams to have a lot of freedom and choice over how to proceed as long as it met the expectations of the district or school vision. This freedom is part of professional risk taking—inquiry-based efforts intended to figure out what works and doesn’t work. Teams of adults cannot be afraid or worried about what will happen if a new idea they decide to try is not working.

      One way to feel more comfortable with autonomy over how to get things done is to make sure that every risk-taking action is tied back to some aspect of student growth and learning achievement target, and then evaluating that action based on actual results and improvement throughout the school year. 

     Whom you do it with. This is one of the most under applied aspects of PLC leadership. Well-intentioned PLC leaders understand the necessity for teaching assignments that take into account teacher pedagogical knowledge and teacher relational competency.

Possible assignments at the school or team level are made based on the leader’s understanding and expectations for how well a specific set of adults assembled will actually work and engage together in their PLC teams. In establishing team assignments (whether by grade level or course), the PLC leader attempts to create the best assignments based on pedagogical and content knowledge, as well as teacher relational competency—knowledge and strength in working with others.

Over the years, I learned to place faculty members on various teams based on relational character first, pedagogical competence second, and commitment to the cause third. Character, competence, commitment—in that order.

Every time I placed someone on the team primarily because of competence, it caused a problem for that team if that person was not relationally a good match. More often than not, with the right match of relational skills, the team will help the competencies of the faculty or staff member to grow and be sustained over time. Think about how this issue should impact teacher and teacher team assignment decisions you make for the 2014-2015 school year.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Greatest Teacher I Ever Knew

It is the day after Christmas as I write this final blog for 2013. Didn’t write as many as I wanted to this year. Things got busy. In some ways looking back, there are a lot of things I would do differently or better if given a chance.

I suppose New Year Resolutions are just for that. Making promises to do things a little bit better. Make your life matter a little bit more in this next year. And there is always next year, right?

Not always.

This morning, the greatest teacher I ever knew passed away. Beloved. Joyful. Smart. Grace-filled. Lover of mathematics. Lover of students. All students. And they loved her back. She was humble but confident. Fair but tough. Her gift in life was teaching. She taught Algebra and Calculus for more than 35 years.

She belongs in the mathematics teacher hall of fame. She was a pro among us amateurs. A natural. And she maximized everyone ounce of her God given teaching talent. Every day, every week, every month, every year. If she was having a bad moment, you didn’t know it.

She was beyond popular. She was popular for all of the right reasons. As a student in her class, you would find rigor, wisdom, teamwork, ways to think creatively, confidence that you could do it, and, perhaps most importantly you would have fun! Fun with algebra, Fun with Calculus! Imagine.

Over the years I am pretty sure at Stevenson, we had hundreds of students take Calculus just for a shot at being in her class. One year, I taught Calculus just so I could be on her teaching team. She taught me how to sing songs to get students to remember important rules. Like the duet we did around Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools as we taught the chain rule to our classes.

Unexpectedly last week, Mary became seriously ill. The outpouring of love for her has been amazing and I am sure for her family, heartfelt, real, kind, and perhaps too a bit overwhelming. Events like this reveal a visceral response of thanks, and gratefulness and inner desire, to say, “Do you know how much we really love you?”

And there has been this deep and sudden sadness. The stop your life for a moment and allow yourself to weep sadness. The knowing 2014 will not come for your hero.

No doubt, Mary has left behind an impact and a legacy on us and in our memories that will last forever. 2014 will not be the same. But, I am more determined to give 2014 my best - In honor of her, and her memory.

You know, over the years, Mary would write to me and tell me about how I had been her coach, her mentor, her inspiration to become the best teacher she could be. In the end, I would tell Mary she had it backward. She was my coach, my inspiration, my mentor. She made me want to be the best leader, the best teacher, and best person I could be.

Mary K. Layco was a legacy building, inspirational teacher and friend. She lives in the memories of all of us blessed enough to know her. I will miss her. In fact today, I weep for her and her family. And the Stevenson family too.

And yet, I celebrate her life. I stand taller because of her impact on me. As do so many others. The great teachers are servant leaders. That was Mary. May I take her life and her lessons with me into 2014 and beyond.