Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Homework: Give It Purpose or Give It Death!

I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” 
Lily Tomlin


(This post was co-written with my colleague Marcie Faust, Director for Innovative Learning in Deerfield Public Schools)

My daughter, Jordyn, is 21 and a senior in college. Marcie’s daughter, Valerie, is a 9-year-old third grader. In commiserating with Marcie about Valerie’s recent homework experiences, we realized that not much has changed in the quality of homework assignments during the 12 years that have passed since Jordyn finished, and Valerie began, third grade. Marcie became so frustrated with the inane assignments her daughter was expected to complete that she posted this video capturing her daughter completing a word search (38 minutes that neither of them will ever get back) on a recent evening:


Video: Last Night's Homework (1 minute) via @mfaust

We suspect that Marcie and her daughter could have put their limited evening time together to better use than laboring over a word search. Our PLN pal (also a parent), Adam Bellow (@adambellow), has shared his own frustrations on the topic of homework on more than one occasion, including this wonderful short video he created two years ago about the dreaded “Homework Packet.”


Video: The Homework Packet (1 minute) via @adambellow

Honestly, we are a bit surprised that homework packets, word searches, and other random assignments still go home with such regularity. We have many strong feelings about this issue, enough to fill a book as opposed to a mere blog post. For now, however, let us first take a page from our revolutionary pal Patrick Henry by suggesting, if nothing else, we must either give it purpose...or give it death. To elaborate just a bit, let us share five quick additional points:


  1. First, we are not advocates for never assigning homework. Adopting such a rigid stance presents almost as many problems as having a policy FOR assigning a certain amount of homework each night. Like most issues we face in education, homework is not a black/white, always/never issue and we are well served to align with neither side of extremist stances. What we do stand for, however, is ensuring that any homework assigned is…
  2. Assigned with intention. Every single homework assignment we expect kids to complete should be assigned with a clear purpose in mind--for every student expected to complete it, which leads us to…
  3. Not all homework should be assigned to all students. Even our educator friends who advocate for no homework policies generally agree that, if there is a legitimate purpose to homework, that purpose is to practice skills first learned at school. We find it highly dubious that every child in any given classroom of 20 or more students needs the exact same amount of practice on the exact same content. When we do assign homework for practice, it should be…
  4. Differentiated to meet the needs of each individual student. To use a medical analogy, when we diagnose (through daily formal and informal formative assessments) that a student is showing symptoms indicating a need for some type of support, we might well start by prescribing additional practice during class or at home. However, we should no more prescribe the same type/amount of homework practice for every student than we would prescribe the same medical remedy for wildly varying ailments, as evidenced shown in this video: 

Video: Prescribing Homework (2 minutes) via @mfaust 

In a recent post another friend, Eric Sheninger, touched on key differences between personalizing versus differentiating learning. We think this subtle, yet significant, distinction applies to learning at home as well. When not assigning homework for targeted, intentional practice, we may want to assign it to inspire individual exploration/extension of learning. This type of homework assignment should be personalized based upon the individual student. However, whereas in differentiation of homework assignments, we differentiate based on the academic needs of the student, in personalization we again differentiate, but based on the academic interests, passions, and desires of the student.


CC image by JFXie
Discussing homework often provokes strong reactions among teachers, students, and parents, with views ranging from those insisting on certain amounts of homework nightly to those insisting we abolish homework altogether. Although there is no clear consensus on this topic, we believe it is important to start with a somewhat obvious question, “What is our purpose in assigning homework?” and then--assuming we can identify a legitimate reason--intentionally differentiating our tasks by asking kids to complete additional (but limited) amounts of practice to reinforce learning based on their needs and to personalize assignments by challenging students to extend their learning after school hours by exploring topics based on their interests and passions.

The debate regarding homework is likely to continue and we do not profess to have a one-size-fits-all answer, anymore than we would assign one-size-fits-all homework, but here are two final challenges:


Like many of you, we are not only educators, but also parents, and we have experienced the homework challenge from both ends of the spectrum. Full disclosure: Once we became parents, our perspectives changed a bit as we saw first-hand how homework impacted our families, oftentimes negatively. So as a challenge to teachers everywhere, we encourage a practice we first learned from Nick Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher), who took it upon himself as a teacher to actually complete himself all homework assignments he assigned to his students. We wonder, as he did, “...how much homework teachers would give if they were expected to complete it.” To be fair, however, it is often our parents, not our teachers, who expect and even demand that we assign homework. To parents, we suggest asking your children, “If you could do any kind of work for a homework assignment, what would that be?” Our guess? Your child(ren) will likely NOT ask to do something meaningless like a word search or writing their spelling words five times each. On the other hand, they may answer--as Marcie’s daughter did when asked that very same question, “I’d like to create my own country and design its flag. Then I would build my country in Minecraft for other kids to see.”


Although some of our friends still lament the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we actually believe that when it comes to homework, the Common Core--interpreted at face value and implemented with fidelity--compels us to act in a way that will actually result in a decrease of mindless homework assignments. The overarching goal of the CCSS--to ensure that all kids leave their PK-12 experience college and career ready--is a noble goal; we are hard pressed to argue against kids leaving us fully prepared for the next stage of their lives. Alas, assigning mindless homework to all kids, without taking into account their current knowledge and skillset and not allowing choice and interest to play a role in whether or what kind of homework to assign strike us as ways to actually do the opposite.

So, we ask: Is the work we are assigning our kids to complete at home tonight designed to prepare them for their tomorrow? If not, let’s reconsider. Deciding if and when to assign homework can be problematic to say the least; it might behoove us to put on our medical hats when considering what to assign. Monitoring our students’ learning “symptoms,” “diagnosing” their current status, and based on such diagnoses, “prescribing” a course of action (including, perhaps, no homework at all if the “patient” is healthy) is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!





18 comments:

  1. Timing is everything...I recieved a letter today from one of our 4th grade students who wrote to me about what has been the most important experience she has had since the start of school. She wrote about a project she worked on by choice for "homework" in which she researched trees and created a physical replica representing her project. She said the reason it was so enjoyable and she spent so much time and stayed up late at night passed her bedtime to finish it was because she chose the topic and was passionate about presenting it to her class. This was her "homework". In my response to her, I agreed that it's important to have choice in our work and that when we work on things we love we somehow don't mind all the effort we put into it. I encouraged her to continue to work with that same tenacity on things she liked and challenged her to do the same on projects she didn't choose. The reality is that there are times we can choose and times when we can't but we can always choose to put our own signature on the work we turn in. I see homework as an opportunity for us to open up the doors to student thinking and let them produce so WE can learn about their talents NOT their limitations.

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    1. Svetlana,
      Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing this wonderful example of what "learning at home" (as opposed to "Homework") can/should look like!
      Jeff

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  2. Great post Jeff and Marcie. I agree that the "being a parent lens" does add another dimension to the understanding of homework relevancy. Thanks so much for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Brian! I observed my daughter spending way too much time on silly homework assignments, especially when she was in HS, sadly.

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  3. I have a colleague who takes the stance that helping parents learn activities to do with their children in the evening that enhances learning for all of them is a more useful and effective way to embrace learning and build strong parent-child-teacher relationships.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this thinking. If nobody shares, nobody learns.

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    1. Hi Donna,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I tend to agree with your colleague's stance; If/when we assign "homework" (or, better yet, "learning at home" activities), it makes sense to include parents in the process, beginning with clearly communicating our practices and policies in this area. Empowering our parents and kids to extend the learning outside the classroom in relevant/authentic/purposeful ways is a winner. Thanks again,
      Jeff

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  4. Thank you for your post. Well written and it's time we take a shift against assigning meaningless homework.

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    1. Thanks, Kirk; you are a master in this area---assigning meaningful "learn at home" work! Thanks for reading and commenting! Jeff

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  5. Thank you for sharing such an insightful and important post. A message we as educators and parents all need to hear. Clearly, the "bandaids" for all does not work! Breaking the mold of that traditional thinking with regards to homework is such a critical way that we will prepare our students for their bigger and faster tomorrow. Thanks again Jeff. Your post really got me thinking!

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    1. Stephanie, Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Agree that one-size-fits-all does not work at the doctor's office----or at school/home learning! Thanks again...Jeff

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  6. Yes timing is everything. I have been grappling with this very topic. I am a 4th yr. teacher at a low performing school. Many of my students come from families of low SES. I will be adding delight directed homework choices. Thanks for the post!

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    1. Karen, Thanks for reading and commenting; moreover, thanks for serving as a teacher; enjoy the weekend! Jeff

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  7. Wow! What a post, I loved Valerie's comment on what she would want her homework to be. I often ask my students during an activity, lesson, assignment, project, etc. what the purpose of it is. We, as teachers, should ask ourselves this as we assign homework. I do try my best to ensure the homework assigned best meets goals that the students have set for themselves! What a great post, loved the videos, and really pushes me to think! Thanks again!

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    1. Samantha, Thank you for reading and commenting. Thanks also for taking the time to engage your students in convos about the purpose of why they are doing what we ask them to do. that helps them---and us---keep the "why?" in mind. Have a great week; thanks again. Jeff

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  8. I am not a fan of homework as a parent or as a teacher. I am guilty of assigning homework packets to be in compliance with district expectations. I try to be selective so that students get extra practice with things we do in class, but there's no differentiation or personalization. I need to re-think what I'm doing with homework. Thanks for pushing my thinking on this!

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    1. Hi Windy, Thanks for reading and commenting---and for reflecting on your homework practices! In my opinion, part of the problem is when districts or schools have blanket expectations for assigning a certain amount of HW; teachers feel compelled to assign stuff even when it is not authentic to the learning at a given point i time. Thanks again for reading! Jeff

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  9. Great article. I strongly believe that kids need time to have experiences as a means for learning outside the classroom. When we do not give homework, kids have more time to create experiences outdoors, online, through sports, and more. Homework is necessary when it fits, engages, and (lets be honest it should be) fun. When kids have to complete something for the sake of completion it loses its sense of purpose. Some kids even lose interest in an exciting topic because the homework is non-sense.

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    1. Julie, Thanks for reading and commenting! I concur 100% with everything you say. Our kids engage in many experiences at home that are valuable learning experiences; at times, I fear "homework" assignments take away from those learning experiences. We need to move away from thinking about what homework assignments we need to assign and, instead, ask, How are/should kids learn away from school?Thanks again!
      Jeff

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