The H word

Homework board-928381_1280Homework (shudder). It’s like two perfectly decent four letter words have conspired to become super villainous by joining forces. For most students, it’s part of a nightly ritual.

I get it. My parents used it as a polygraph test, of sorts when I was younger, by asking the same question after school each day.
“Did you do your homework?” 

We’ve all had to go through it, but now as teachers we must wrestle with the pros and cons of having to assign it to our learners…or not.

So as the year begins and questions of “To assign homework or not to assign homework?” bandy around staff meetings and grade teams. I want to share some personal thoughts on this 2 x 4 letter word and ask you to reflect on how you use it in your learning spaces?

Homework is not always where the heart is.

I love home, and I like work. For me, home is a place of relaxation, retreat, and support among family. Work is my home away from home. I have a family of caring colleagues and a classroom filled with students in possession of boundless potential. However, when it comes to homework I feel that things have changed since I was a student. My memories of homework hearken back to 1000s of pages of banal reading from largely outdated textbooks which I like to call knowledge coffins, redundant work sheets, and largely irrelevant content which seemed disconnected from my life.

Like all the good learning soldiers in my day. I did it, knowing of no alternatives. I wonder whether we gained any advantage from the discipline in completing assigned tasks, or lost a little of our desire to learn for never asking why we were doing it and where it would matter to me?

In my class when homework is assigned, it must be relevant to a larger idea that requires consideration beyond the classroom. That might mean asking students to lead a conversation at the dinner table or on the way to hockey practice with a captive audience. I remember assigning my Grade 5 Social Studies class the task of asking their parents, “What they would change about the government?” followed by, “Why do we need the government?” the next night. The conversations that resulted allowed students to lead, share, and gather ideas as they build on in class concepts/schema and then were able to take it back home to add on a broader family perspective. When they came back to school their responses were rich, often humourous, and engaging. Mission accomplished.

Some Irreducible Minimums

I do assign something for students every night, 30 minutes, or more, of reading. Don’t judge me! This is non-negotiable. Students do not have to show me proof, but are expected to develop their own positive habits around reading, its genres, and via any media of their choice.

Additionally, I’ve created and assigned flipped lessons using TED Ed as homework. Students view the lesson content, get to look at the guiding questions, and are able to browse additional resources to establish initial understandings on a topic. When we tackle the work the next day, my students are already familiar with the concept having prepared for it the previous night. I can track their progress via the TED Ed Lesson platform and provide feedback and next steps too.

On other occasions I have encouraged students to help out with the dishes or with other chores without being asked. The results have been so positive for everyone after the initial groans. But hey, they groan when you assign homework too. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the purpose of homework? Kids can thank changes in socio-economics, urbanization, and the Space Race.

It’s only since the early 20th century where homework became de rigueur in education. Even then the fervour in its favour continues to ebb and flow. We have to remember most kids were working at home before and after school to help their families. It’s what people did. There wasn’t time especially when there were chores to do.

Nowadays, more and more students enjoy a quality of life, and abundance of free time far removed from their homework deprived agrarian predecessors. Instead, students are filling their evenings with music lessons, participation on one or more sports teams, tutoring, and or second language classes. With all of the extra-curricular activities there is little time left at the end of the day when homework is added into the mix. I’ve had students say to me they couldn’t complete work citing one or all of the above reasons.

In a his post on homework from earlier this year, Mike Beetham shared a powerful experience in his piece Homework or No Homework. I love the consideration he puts into his practice. The final lines of this post serve as guidelines,  encouragement, and validation of the educator’s ability to use professional judgement when it comes to assigning homework.

“Homework for the sake of homework is not a productive component to any student’s learning. It must have a specific purpose that is helping meet the targeted academic outcomes of the classroom.”

How about you? Where does homework fit in with your pedagogy? Do you assign it to placate parents who insist their child have something to do at night? Do you vary the work from subject to subject each night? How do students who are chronically unable to complete homework get supported? Is the work you assign traditional in the sense of reading and responding to questions in writing? Do you post work via electronic classrooms or other apps?

If you’d like to discuss more about this post or learn more about TED Ed please take time to comment and I’d be glad to share more with you.  Reach out via Twitter or below. Thank you for reading this post.

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Updated: October 4, 2016 — 11:29 am

The Author

Will Gourley

Grade 5 lead learner and SERT at Adrienne Clarkson PS in the YRDSB. Focused on disruptive, divergent, and modern learning. Member of the global TED-Ed(Club) movement, 1 of 90 TED Ed Innovative Educators, and Global Math Project Ambassador. Twitter @willgourley Proudly blogging here and at https://escheweducationalist.wordpress.com/

2 Comments

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  1. Shawna Rothgeb-Bird says:

    Homework is a touchy subject for me. I have traditionally held a “no homework” policy, but I have found that my students need a few things which I am hoping a bit of light homework will address. The first issue I have had is trying to encourage my students to read at home, which they generally are not doing in any meaningful way unless I ask them to complete some kind of task with what they have read. The second issue is that my students need more direct and focused instruction in spelling patterns, being that I teach a second language program, because now that they are in their second year of French Immersion, they can speak reasonably well but really need some help with their writing.

    So this year I have two homework tasks: a dictée list (which is a list of words sharing a common spelling pattern) to be studied and a small reading assignment. Homework goes home on Thursdays and needs to be returned on Wednesday, providing students with a week to complete the tasks at their pace.

    It’s a dilemma, for sure. I use my students’ reading responses to keep tabs on their abilities to summarize, infer, make predictions, identify story elements, etc. while I use the spelling tests to slowly improve their spelling and reading abilities in French. We’ll see how it goes this year – it’s an experiment!

  2. Will Gourley says:

    Thank you for the reply Shawna,
    I appreciate how there is an even greater need for balance in the lives of our students in and out of the classroom. My experiences from the FI panel were pretty similar. Have you ever encountered push-back from families who said there was too much homework? I have heard colleagues and parents (who are friends) say that. My thoughts are leaning towards building a little extra time in class to complete assigned work rather than load students up for home, and perhaps adopting flexible due dates. That way students can decide the amount of time they need to complete a task between class and home.
    Merci!

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