Monday, February 9, 2015

More Thoughts on Homework in the History Classroom

Back in October, I wrote a post about homework and the specific problems faced by history teachers. In it, I think I asked more questions than I posed answers. So in today's post, I'm going to revisit the topic. But I'm warning you, I still have more questions than answers.

Part of the problem, for me, anyway, is that much of the education literature about homework focuses on questions of how it helps or hinders students' acquisition of specific skills. Does the homework allow students to practice skills learned in class? 

While we certainly do teach skills in history class, they are not the kinds of skills like practicing math problems or conjugating the past tense of a verb in a foreign language class that lend themselves to homework. Analyzing documents, evaluating evidence, considering multiple perspectives, etc. are the kinds of skills better done in class with a teacher's guidance.

Or are they? Certainly, we could give students a document to read or examine the night before. We could ask a question about it.  For example, look at this assignment which is a speech by Roosevelt about conservation I discussed in an earlier post. Could students do this for homework? Probably.

But that always raises the question of whether we need to give homework. Would we be assigning this so students could "practice" the skill? Or is it just because we don't have time in class to do the full lesson? And is the latter a justifiable reason? If so, now we would have the opportunity to jump straight to a discussion of Roosevelt's policy without having to spend so much class time going over the text.

Another problem is that a lot of the homework I have given in the past involved reading. While sometimes I like students to read in class, I have found that reading aloud can be painful and time consuming. (I hated doing this as a kid. I did not like volunteering to be the reader, and I found it slow-going to have to listen to others.) But it is hard to base a lesson on reading if you can't count on your students to have completed it. I discussed this point before (see #3 in my earlier post on homework).  For some help, see the comments under this post from TeachingUSHistory"The Problem of Class Discussion". There are a few good suggestions from college professors that would work for high school or middle school as well.

Or, an idea I had: How about having our students come up with the questions for the reading? What if they didn't even have to answer them, just ask them? I LOVE coming up with questions for reading assignments and get a kick out of thinking up especially good ones. So what if students did the same? I think you would have to model this, because when I did a lit circle last spring, I had students bringing in very rote types of questions, despite my instructions for coming up with a variety of types of questions.

One technique I like is to explain the difference between "thick" and "thin" questions. This is not my idea. A quick google search of thick vs. thin questions will result in a lot of resources, such as this one about close reading. To model this, you could provide students with one example of a "thick" question for a reading you give them, and then challenge them to come up with two more. You can do an activity like this in class, and have students analyze each others' questions. Determining what makes one question "better" than another requires a lot of critical thinking from students, and guiding them through it will help students see the difference. Providing sentence stems will help, e.g. "What larger issue does ____ raise about _____?" or "What is the historic significance of _____?" (Note that you have to have taught what is meant by the term, "historical significance" too.) "How does the author compare ________ ?" or "What does ____ suggest about _____?" "How would you compare the central problem as explained by ___ to ______ which we discussed in the last unit? Teaching students how to ask and write good questions could be one of the most useful things you can teach them.

A few days ago, I came across some helpful ideas in a book, Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us about Motivation and Mastery, by Kathleen Cushman. She wrote the book with the help of students, and it is enlightening to consider what our students think about their own education (something that, sadly, we don't do often enough).  I have recreated part of the chart below (and changed the order to fit my discussion below):

Is Our Homework Really Practice?

Deliberate practice
looks like this...
but homework often looks like this:
It has an express purpose.
We don’t know the point of doing it.
It involves attention and focus.
We can do it without thinking.
It's geared to the individual.
Everyone gets the same homework tasks, no matter what each person needs to work on.
It leads to new skills.
We don’t use it for anything after it’s done.
(see p. 118 in the book)

So if we wanted out homework to look more like the column on the left, what could we do?

With regard to the first point in the chart, it should go without saying that we understand the purpose, and that we are able to explain it to students.

Second, my idea above about having students come up with questions--if they are good ones--would certainly involve attention and focus. What other kinds of assignments would do this?

What about gearing to the individual? Most of us don't do this, because unlike, say in math class, where some kids get it and others don't get it yet, in history, it is unlikely that some will know the content and others won't. And since our content is tied so closely to the skills, it is hard to separate this out in an homework assignment.

But one way we could do this is offer up different questions--either assign them to different kids (some need the more "factual/recall" type, others may be capable of more analytic questions) or offer a "menu" so that kids can choose for themselves which questions they would prefer to answer. I will try to come up with an example of this for another post.

The last column above points out--rightly, I think--that students rarely see a use for their assignments for anything in the future. Of course, you could have students fill out a chart or take notes on a bunch of stuff and then "use" it for a quiz, project, debate, paper, etc. But I think the criticism strikes at something deeper than that. What could we create in order to make a few smaller assignments (not just homework, but also in-class activities) lead to one larger project or, to use the lingo, "summative assessment"? If our final, summative assessment is one big essay question, or a few essays, or a DBQ, could all the little pieces help them with that? Could they use the smaller, formative assignments as they take the summative one (i.e. an open note sort of test?)

So that brings me back to the concept of flipping the class: might we record some of our lectures, or use some of the many pre-existing ones online for students to watch at home, so that during class we can spend more time analyzing documents?

Here are some "ready made" video resources for flipping your class:

  • Ken Halla's U.S. History Teachers blog today offers up a good one: click here.
  • John Green's crash courses are available here from youtube.
  • Keith "Hip" Hughes videos here on youtube.

This still leaves the problem of access to videos. It is also true, for all the raving about "don't just lecture, lecture, lecture and talk, talk, talk," I have been in classrooms where students groan, "ugh, another document." Sometimes, we can err on the opposite side.

For more ideas, do check out some of the links I gave on my last post about homework. And PLEASE, do comment on this post. Do you have any thoughts on the topic? Any great ideas for thoughtful homework assignments? Or have you eliminated homework? Why? Why not? What do you use it for? I hope to revisit this topic and would love to include ideas from readers. (And more answers, too.)

One last thought: 

There is also the problem not enough people seem to want to discuss, cheating can be rampant, perhaps in some schools more than others. Check out this article from the Huffington Post. And this one in ScienceDaily is really worth reading (very brief). It was referenced in the appendix of the Kathleen Cushman book I mentioned above. It points out that high-achieving students are the ones most likely to cheat, and claims that the best way to reduce cheating is to change the climate of the classroom. A feat easier said that done, but definitely worth contemplating.

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