#OCA’s: Intentionality with Homework

There are very few more polarizing topics in education, regardless of environment, than the discussions centered around homework. 

The mere word evokes responses backed by a near unwavering passionate faith in the reasoning behind the response. 

Many hail homework as integral to rigor, requisite for high level academic experiences, and central in developing accountability in students. 

Others claim there is no research that supports growth in any of these areas and hold it up as another example of an antiquated education system that is potentially more harmful than nurturing. 

There are then the majority that falls somewhere in between the two extremes. 

Whatever an educator’s position, being intentional about approach and communicating purpose on a regular basis are of utmost importance. 

Here are some thoughts on developing such intentionality. 

First, call it something else.  The reality is that with increasing frequency, these activities are not being completed at home. 

Further, the word work is in some of the most cringe-evoking terms in all of Ed-dom.  “Busy work” and “worksheet” are some major  components of the aforementioned antiquated system.

So what do we call it?

I like OCA.  Out-of-class Activities.  

Activities that students do outside of class to achieve a specific objective that renders the time and effort immediately relevant to learning. 

What are the objectives we should be intentional about achieving when assigning OCAs?

I thought for a long while on the types of assignments that I assigned as a classroom teacher, and what many of the teachers with whom I shared a learning community have assigned.  (A 9 hour car ride affords such deep exploration).

Ultimately the most meaningful, purposeful assignments fall into one of 4 categories.  

Practice
Preparation
Pursuit
Projects

I wonder if we explained to students and parents the nature and purpose of each category, then used the category label when giving the assignment, how much better all would understand “why” and thus make more meaningful the effort invested?

I also wonder how such intentionality would support teacher practice in making any work for students to engage in outside of class immediately relevant to what is happening in the classroom. 

That last part, immediate relevance, represents my own personal pre requisite for all OCA- is the activity immediately relevant to what is happening in the classroom?

If not, then the activity is probably work, meaningless, and not intentional. 

Before moving on the discuss each of the 4 P’s, it is important to share two more thoughts. 

1) One of the most dangerous attitudes in education is that there should be equity amongst teachers when it comes to this type of outside of class effort.   The reality is that not all classes “need” to assign an equal piece of the out of class activities. When teachers get territorial about the work they assign, the intentionality goes out the window. 

2) Homework does not equate to rigor, quality academics, challenging teachers, or a good school.   That sort of thinking is why busy work and work sheets exist and are likely wasting our children’s collective time. 

Ultimately, teachers should assign OCA’s when there is a meaningful intention.  

Let’s consider what it would look like if teachers were to label homework assignment according to objective.  Please note these categories are merely a brainstorm, not a tried and true lexicon. 

If the work is preparation for the next day, a student might be reading or watching a video that provides a context or background information for the following day’s lesson.  The student knows that the purpose is to gain this requisite background for the following day’s lesson.  They know why they are doing the work.  The flipped classroom model is a great example of using OCA to set up the immediate learning in the classroom. 

If the work is practice, whether of existing skills, of new skills or skills required to attack new concepts or problems the following day, then the student knows that the practice is relevant to future learning activities.   Even if the skills are those that have been previously mastered, a student knows why the skills are being revisited. 

Perhaps the work is of a higher level a d thus the pursuit of mastery with new skills.  These activities nurture a number of different skills.  If the OCA requires students to attack concepts, questions, problems that they have not seen before, but possess requisite skills to succeed, then we are looking at reasoning skills, and more important, the ability to iterate-fail-reflect and iterate again.   Further, these assignments inspire in students an exploration of what they don’t know, resourcefulness in finding those answers which includes self-advocacy in asking the teacher for help.  

The key here is that the student knows when he or she leaves that classroom that this will be the nature of the OCA.  It is intentional that the work might be in that Vygotskian zone of proximal development, likely lessening any frustration during the process and inspiring in the student the desire to advocate and ask good questions about the assignment.

Before I go on, it is important to note that when assigning OCA’s, teachers must be mindful that students have prerequisite skills to grow from the intended objectives.   For example,  an assignment might require students to build compound words by cutting and pasting words into a template, but if the student is weak with cutting and pasting skills, are the compound word building skills being developed or is something else getting in the way? Might we mistake a child’s fine motor challenges to be literacy challenges?  Again, thoughtful intentionality is integral. 

The last category is projects. These are significantly more substantial assignments that require an ever evolving skills set, are assigned over longer periods of time, and are engrained with a complexity that builds and manifest both academic and organization skills. 

Typically, teachers are most intentional with assigning projects.   Rubrics, instructions, respurces, check ins etc.  In fact, projects generally encompass the other OCA objectives of preparation, practice, and pursuit.   

Amidst all of this verbiage it is important to acknowledge once again that assigning student work beyond the classroom is not essential, required, integral etc. Each teacher needs to make decisions about what is best for student growth. I see excellent teachers guiding students through a process of teaching, modeling, guiding practice, providing feedback and nurturing mastery every day in our classrooms. If the high level process happens daily in class, perhaps the need for out of class process is less or not at all.

Ultimately, whatever the approach a teacher, school etc take with regards to how we assign student activities to be completed outside the classroom, being intentional and communicating that intention clearly renders the effort more meaningful, purposeful and immediately relevant. 

 

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