Homework That Motivates
As a parent and a school administrator, I am saddened at times to see the view that my own kids have about schoolwork. Homework is seen as the pursuit of arbitrary points and compliance with a teacher’s request rather than a learning experience. I am fortunate to have two children who are motivated to succeed. They can’t stand to lose points, and they expect the highest grade possible. Notice I didn’t say they love learning and growing in their skills and interest. I said they like to succeed and they see homework points paving the way to success like floating stars in a Mario Brothers video game.
In most of our classrooms, the currency for students is points and letter grades. Currency in our everyday lives is what we use to give something value. Without it, we sometimes struggle to see a purpose in doing. Students believe that points are valuable because we have marketed them that way. Along the way, we have decided that points are so powerful that giving and taking them away can motivate students to learn and be a responsible citizen.
Recently I had the opportunity to read the book Drive by Daniel Pink. The premise of the book was to investigate what motivates us as humans. His findings were contrary to the traditional carrots and sticks method of rewards and punishments similar to the giving or taking away of points. He found three aspects that any task must have in order to motivate and engage: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
I believe these qualities need to be applied to our development of homework and classroom tasks. First, tasks should have student ownership or autonomy in how to complete the assignment. As my math teachers move forward with the new common core standards, we are working to shift homework away from multiple problems that repeat the same task to open-ended experiences that allow students to construct their own path to a solution using previous learning. This is different than simply allowing students to choose between a poster and a PowerPoint presentation. Mastery relates to our own perception of our ability to complete a task. Before engaging in a task, we need to know that the level of difficulty is within our skill set. If an assignment is too easy, our students don’t see the point, but if it is perceived as unsolvable, they tend to give up without an attempt. Since developing collaborative content teams, we have worked to reduce “busy work” assignments such as crossword puzzles, word finds, and “drill and kill” worksheets. Many of our teams have adjusted their grading to focus on the process a student engages in to complete an assignment instead of just focusing on right or wrong answers. The last aspect of motivation to consider is purpose. Does the assignment help students create meaningful connections between the content learned and their own lives and career interests? One simple way to ensure that the assignment is focused on a specific learning goal or objective is to include the goal at the top of the page and take time to explain the purpose to students rather than just reviewing the instructions.
It has been exciting in my building to watch teachers make this shift in their approach to homework. They are energized by students asking what they need to do to improve rather than how much a task is worth. Points are no longer the main goal. Grades still exist and are important, but they seem to take care of themselves when the students are interested and engaged.