SUNS 57 & 58 ‘HOMEWORK’ and ‘DIRECT INSTRUCTION’

NOTE: Readers are welcome to use this material, but acknowledgement of the Suns newspapers in which columns are published would be appreciated.

HOMEWORK: A BLESSING OR BANE

Homework is an issue that has been doing the educational rounds for decades. Some educators believe in homework while others would like to discount it altogether. Similarly, some parents appreciate homework while others would like it to be abolished. Those in favour of homework believe it reinforces and consolidates learning through extra practice at home. Opposition to homework comes from those who think ‘enough is enough’; that beyond the school day, children should be freed from learning tasks. Some parents and commentators suggest that homework is the teacher’s way of handing their responsibilities to parents.

I believe there is a place for homework, but it should never be offered as a substitute for teaching. Lessons taught at school can however, be consolidated and reinforced through follow-up tasks completed at home. Homework can be a link between home and school, in helping to keep parents informed of what their children are learning and how they are progressing. It is important that parents know assignments are set for children, rather than believing tasks are set for them to complete on behalf of children.

Primary students

For primary aged children reading, spelling list words and practicing their tables at home, reinforces basic learning needs. Rote methodology is a part of learning and homework set around basics, reinforces key understandings.

A comments sheet which can be signed off and commented upon by both parent and teacher, may be attached to these tasks. This simple communication helps keep parents aware of children’s academic development. Progress charts kept by some teachers remind students of their accomplishments. Homework should have relevance and meaning to children and parents. It must be more than busy work set by teachers.

Homework might ask for the completion of a research project or construction task. Requirements ought not be so complex or time consuming that parental intervention is needed to complete the exercise. When this happens, both children and parents become frustrated. Set homework tasks should be acknowledged, marked and outcomes recorded. If that doesn’t happen, children lose interest.

In some primary schools, outside school hours care programs offer homework support for attending children. This may include supervised after hours access to the school library. The City of Darwin Council also makes its library facilities available to children for homework support purposes.

The establishment of homework habits for younger students stands them in good stead for their later years of secondary and tertiary education. It builds within them confidence and independence, together with the knowledge that study at home is part of their educational contract.

What do children think?

Interestingly, the homework debate is between parents, practising teachers, school leadership teams and academics. No-one has bothered to ask school children and students what they think and feel about the issue. Students are the recipients of homework policies and it would be worthwhile to seek their opinions. I believe many would respond in a mature, forthcoming and supporting manner.
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DIRECT INSTRUCTION IS EONS OLD

In recent weeks, Northern Territorians have read and heard a lot about Direct Instruction (DI) as the new and preferred method of teaching in remote schools. Education Minister Peter Chandler and Department of Education leaders have twice visited Cape York to learn how this model works. The program is being delivered by the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy (CYAAA), a part of Noel Pearson’s highly regarded Cape York Institute. DI has impressed Minister Chandler. It will be introduced as the preferred teaching method into many NT remote schools from the beginning of 2015.

We could be forgiven for thinking that direct instruction is an altogether new method, when that is far from the case. This approach to teaching and learning has always been a part of educational strategy. “Direct instruction is a general term for the explicit teaching of a skill-set using lectures or demonstrations of the material, rather than exploratory models such as inquiry-based learning.” (Wikipedia definition)

Terminology can confuse

The way in which elements of education are packaged can be confusing. One of the profession’s habits is that of constantly changing terminology and labelling. Old ideas and established practices are regularly re-badged to make it appear they are altogether new concepts. This may well be the case for direct instruction because this method of teaching is universally practised and eons old. Direct instruction methodology was one of the earliest to be recognised and applied in educational settings.

In our modern times, simple and effective educational methods have been supplanted by technological gadgetry that adds a bells and whistles approach to the discipline. Schools have been saturated by an infusion of computers,
smart boards, iPads and other devices. While students can gain knowledge and understanding from their use, it is altogether too easy for them to switch from education to entertainment. Some teachers may place too much reliance on computer generated learning rather than direct teaching.

DI Drives Practice

“The Direct instruction strategy is highly teacher-directed and is among the most commonly used. This strategy is effective for providing information or developing step-by-step skills. It also works well for introducing other teaching methods, or actively involving students in knowledge construction.” (Instructional strategies online, Saskatoon Public Schools)

Explicit teaching, lectures, drills, specific questioning, demonstration and the guiding of listening, reading, viewing and thinking are direct instructional practices.

A danger about direct instruction is that it can become monotonous and boring for students. Teaching through this method needs to be engaging, aimed at retaining student interest and attention. If it is all ‘listen to and watch me’ from a teaching viewpoint, students will mentally disconnect, lose concentration and zone out.

Education needs to have meaning and purpose. There is a huge responsibility invested in schools and teachers to ensure that happens. Direct instruction can be too easily supplanted by busywork activities that occupy students’ time without offering them focus and direction. Without meaning attached to learning, students will lose interest and avoid school. That may be part of the reason for the sudden resurgence of interest in direct instruction.
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