I went to a workshop recently and we got assigned “pre-work”, which is just another way to say homework for adults. Right before the workshop started you would have thought that we were a bunch of high school students if you just heard the conversations.
Did you do the pre-work?
What?! We had to do pre-work?
Someone else chimed in- I just did it 5 minutes ago…
Another person offered that they spent hours reading all the articles and completing the assignments. This person was in the minority.
The facilitators asked us to take out the pre-work as we launched into an activity and there was an audible tension in the room because the majority of people hadn’t completed it. Just to be clear, this was a group of dedicated educators who are deeply invested in this work but likely got busy, missed the (multiple) emails that mentioned this assignment or just were too busy to get to it. Thankfully, none of us were forced to miss our break or publicly humiliated for not doing our homework. But, it makes me think that if dedicated and passionate educators aren’t doing homework, why in the world are we expecting kids to spend their precious free time out of school doing more work?
It’s not really a secret that I am not a fan of homework or pre-work or whatever you want to call it. I didn’t like it as a student. I didn’t assign it as a teacher and I really don’t like it as a parent. It’s not that I am against hard work at all. I probably do more work at home than I have ever done but it is because I want to do and it is what I am inspired to do, not because someone is making me do it for a grade. This isn’t really about me though. I am writing this because I want to have a conversation about why we are still assigning homework. Not just what research says (by the way it’s not in favor of it) but why we as a culture expect it, continue to assign it, and what we could do instead.
The live #IMMOOC chats with both Jo Boaler and Alice Keeler really resonated with me and helped me move from venting about homework and it’s lack of purpose (especially for elementary school kids) to thinking about some constructive ways to talk about it. So, here are three ways that I think can help me (and hopefully you) have productive conversations about homework and talk about why we are still assigning it.
Let’s Talk About Our Goals
One of my neighbors who is a teacher and who I admire greatly was telling me about the homework she assigned and how she felt this made her a really rigorous teacher. As we got to talking about the impact that is had at home and how it took time away from the family and that there was very little research showing its effectiveness, she began to reconsider her approach. As a dedicated teacher, she thought that she was supposed to be assigning homework and this is what everyone expected of her. After our conversation, she went home and did a little more research on her own and the next day told me that she had decided to stop giving homework and shared her reasons with her students’ families. Guess what, they were thrilled about it!
I think there are a lot of assumptions that we hold about homework and because it has always been part of school, we think it is what we are supposed to do. Many believe that it’s the responsibility of the teacher to assign homework, and as parents, we are good parents if we set time aside to do the homework, some are so invested they even do it for the kids:). I am asking that teachers who are assigning homework really think about why you are assigning it. I want parents to think about why they push for it. As I have talked to parents, teachers, kids, administrators I have never heard anyone say, “I love homework. My kids get so much out of it!” Most teachers don’t love grading it or putting all those packets together, but for some reason they do. Many parents that I have talked to (myself included) loathe arguing with kids and spending the precious moments we have at home nagging kids to get their homework done. Lots of administrators tell me they are in favor of no homework. Yet, most kids are still coming home with lots of homework and I think we (parents, teachers, administrators) need to talk more about our goals for learners and reassess the value of homework to move towards practices that align with what we want for our kids.
Reorganize Your Class Time
It is no secret that there is a lot to “get through” so sometimes we assign homework in an attempt to cover it all. I firmly believe that if it is important we have to make time to do it in class. When I had half of my class turning in homework and their grades were suffering because they weren’t doing homework, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that something had to change if I wanted all of my students to be successful. This aligns with Jo Boaler’s acknowledgment of the inequities are caused by homework practices. Without knowing what kinds of support or resources exist at home, we put many kids at a disadvantage unnecessarily, especially when it is graded.
If we move past this assumption that we have to give homework and look at what the learners need, we can think about how to organize our time better in class to ensure that we are supporting learning not assigning and evaluating homework. Alice Keeler argues that it’s individual practice that learners need and we need to make time for that during class so that we can give real-time, meaningful feedback to actually meet learners where they are.
Here is a simple example of how one teacher chose to restructure her time:
She was spending 30 minutes daily teaching isolated grammar skills and an additional 30 minutes practicing spelling words. When she reorganized the class time to allow students to write about their own ideas and incorporated spelling and grammar practice in authentic writing tasks together, she created a 30 minute block each day for students to get personal support and practice based on their needs. When the time in class was used for more personal support that allowed students time to practice and learn with peers and the teacher for support, the need for homework was eliminated.
Make it Meaningful
At home, I would much rather have my kids spend time reading or exploring and investigating their own ideas, playing sports, and just enjoy being a kid. To be honest, my kids learn more from some youtube channels than they learn from bubbling in multiple choice questions about the moral of an excerpt from a story or practicing editing a sentence in a worksheet because they are just going through the motions and it isn’t relevant or meaningful, at all. As a teacher, this also takes a lot of time to grade and record and too often it is just evaluation of what kids know, not true opportunities to learn and practice or revise. Sending home a packet of practice problems and reading passages that you have used for years, isn’t personal or connected to what specific learners need to know. Instead, it feels like busy work. If you have to give homework, or any work, think about how to make it meaningful and connected to the learning and learning goals.
Going back to the 1st day of the workshop I mentioned where very few people completed the pre-work because they had little context, and therefore it wasn’t meaningful, it was a task and many opted not to do it. The irony is by the second and third day of the workshop there was no homework assigned but we were so inspired by all we had learned that our dinner conversations were all about processing and going deeper into the content. Because we learned valuable tools and practiced throughout the day, we continued making connections and read more on our own because we were inspired and wanted to learn more.
As we think about what it means to be “smart” and what we will value, we have to acknowledge that information is abundant and rather memorizing and regurgitating content, we need students and educators who can learn, think, and act in ways that create new and better opportunities for those we serve. This requires that we examine traditions in education, like homework that may actually get in the way of learning and innovation.
Studying all night should not be a badge of honor, more homework does not make your class more rigorous, good grades don’t guarantee you will make a difference in the world. With the increased amount of stress that kids are under as we try to cram it all in, I hope these three ideas can provide some points for reflection and be conversation starters to talk about what we want for our kids and think about traditional practices and how they help move towards our desired goals (or not). We can’t just keep adding more for our kids and teachers, it’s time to look at what we value and how we can use our time differently to meet the desired goals.