Robin Jackson starts this chapter by reminiscing about her experiences with homework, then reviews some of the basic Master Teacher principles stated previously. She then states the principle for this chapter:
“Master teachers… spend more time designing quality assignments and assessments than they do creating volumes of work for their students and themselves. Master teachers know that it isn’t the amount of work that is important; it’s the quality of the work that matters.” (p. 156)
As much as kids lament the amount of work we educators give them, they often don’t realize that we end up with that amount multiplied by the 25-30 kids we have in each classroom. The problem for both beginning and veteran teachers is: Often we forget this mathematical horror, too! More work doesn’t necessarily mean that kids will understand a concept more deeply or develop mastery of a skill. Often times it ends up being more work to keep kids busy. Kids pick up on this, too, the author says, which likely explains why they don’t complete or turn in homework. To a student, it’s just not meaningful enough to care about.
The author points out some important things to keep in mind as we design quality, meaningful activities to help our students achieve mastery:
1. FIRST, determine what students absolutely need to know and how well they need to know it. (Remember how we unpacked the standards so we would “Know Where Your Students Are Going” back in Chapter 2?)
2. THEN, decide what learning activities will help students master the objectives.
3. NEXT, provide multiple opportunities & methods to develop and deepen students’ knowledge, understanding, and use of the skills they learn through delivery of curriculum & instruction. In other words: DIFFERENTIATE.
4. ALWAYS use homework wisely. The author tells us of her experiences in a high school English classroom: “The less homework I assigned, the more likely my students were to complete it because they understood that the assignment was not just busy work.” She goes on the state, “Just make sure that the homework you do assign directly connects with the learning goal and that you make this connection explicit. If you cannot connect homework to your learning goals, then you should not assign it.” (p. 185)
5. REMEMBER it’s not about coverage, it’s about mastery. Have supports ready to implement when 1-2 kids don’t meet the objective or expectation. If a majority of your class can’t meet, re-evaluate your methods and re-teach for mastery.
6. Backfill or Build bridges as needed when you find students are missing essential knowledge/skills.
Teach the Need-To-Knows versus Nice-To-Knows
Determine How Well Students Need to Know the Need-to-Knows
Once you have unpacked the standards, it becomes easier to determine what the Need-To-Knows are. You can also look at state-mandated tests, or here in Illinois we can use the Assessment Frameworks. You should also become familiar with the standards for success/mastery at the previous and at the next grade levels, and determine what kids will need to know and be able to do to get from “Point A” to “Point B.” These Need-To-Knows then become the foundation for everything you do in class. According to one author discussed by Jackson, teachers should “spend between 70-75 percent of their time helping students master essential content, 20 percent of their time introducing and extending students’ knowledge of essential content, and only 5-10 percent of their time helping students maintain their understanding of a few key nice-to-knows.” (p. 166)
The concept of Distributed Practice is simple: Divide learning experiences into smaller “chunks” and teach, learn, and assess skills one step at a time. Of course, students will need to perform longer tasks for the summative assessment, but it is more valuable to both student and teacher to assess student understanding of each step necessary for mastery one-at-a-time in order to check for disconnects or gaps during the learning process. Success on the summative assessment will then be more likely assured.