The idealistic intent of homework is actually good. The idea of taking something beyond the classroom and having students do a deep dive into the topic is exactly what schools should be about. We want kids to get passionate about our lessons. We want them to take our content seriously, learn the importance of the concepts, and we want them to develop and harness those skills for life. And, most importantly, we want to ignite an interest, a passion, and, pardon the romanticism, a lifelong love.
Honestly, I do think that the majority of Teachers really mean to do this when they assign homework, just as they mean well when they believe homework develops responsibility and shows rigor. I strongly disagree, but I understand the intentions.
All Teachers have a love of their content. We were drawn to that topic, most likely, by a Teacher when we were young. There are few things more gratifying than when we see a kid really go all in on something we are teaching. So, there is the belief that homework will develop this love.
But, here’s the thing; we were not drawn to our content because of the nightly homework we received. We were not drawn in by worksheets, recall questions about reading, endless annotations, dioramas, searching for 100 facts in a paragraph, or endless problems to solve (even if the Teacher put our names in the problems). We were drawn in, most likely, because we were exposed to a passionate teacher who exuded love every time he/she spoke about his/her content. We were drawn in because we were given chances and choices to explore.
Isn’t there a way to revamp the classic way of homework so that it actually helps kids achieve all of those things we intend to develop?
There is, but change is difficult in any industry; in Education, change is sloth-like. It can be done, however, if the lens is changed from homework to home learning. That seems like semantics and, for the most part, it is. But, it is necessary. As an industry, we must get out of the mindset that we are assigning work for them to complete when they are home and are on their own time. We work them all day; home time is where we should develop and foster our passions. A shift to the mindset of home learning can help students develop their passions.
For me, home time is spending time with my daughter. It is writing about baseball, teaching, and, yes, my disdain for homework. There is time for television, having dinner with my daughter, and, yes, video games. It’s about reading all things baseball, but finding a really good fiction book to dive into as well.
That last sentence actually just hit home with me. I really liked to read as a kid. When I was in elementary school, I would devour Encyclopedia Brown books or anything written by Matt Christopher. Once I hit Middle School, that love of reading died. It didn’t return until I was in my 30’s.
What happened? If I had to guess, it was that reading shifted from something that I could do to explore my interests into something that was given to me. If I didn’t do it, I would get a zero on a quiz the next day. And, it wasn’t enough to read. I either had to take notes or answer questions. That required reading never, ever had anything to do with sports or computers. So, reading became more like a punishment. I had some great Teachers and I am sure they wanted me to read the classics and develop my love for them and the written word, but it actually had the opposite effect.
I would skim read; Cliff Notes were my best friend. I remember the day walking into the book store and seeing an entire section of Yellow and Black booklets that would allow me to play the game of school quicker and get back to what I really liked. That’s not to say I didn’t read any books. To Kill A Mockingbird caught me from the first words on the page; I finished it in two days as a High School Freshman. It remains my favorite book of all-time. A Catcher In The Rye was a bit different. I loved Holden Caufield from the very first words he spoke, but I kept reading because I was waiting for the baseball part; when I finished, I was disappointed, but the book, itself, really got to me. The difference with those and a few others was that I was interested. Everything else was drudgery.
The naysayers will bring up the point that not everything in life is fun. And, sometimes, you just have to do the boring things. I agree completely; that all should be done within the confines of the classroom. All lessons won’t be about fun. Teaching skills is difficult. Teaching kids to write is hard and every day isn’t fun. But, that’s the job. If the intention is to have kids learn, why should that take place at home? The true learning of skills is done in the classroom. Home Learning is about using those skills to develop a passion.
Home Learning Is Not…
There are so many reasons why homework shouldn’t be graded. They’ve been well documented in education circles. For younger students, there is a variability in parental involvement. Some parents cannot be as involved because they are working. Some students don’t have that type of family life. That’s perfectly valid.
More importantly, it should not be graded because then it becomes a matter of compliance. Students will do the work, either by group chat, apps, or even on their own only for the grade. And, because the assignment is graded, there is a high likelihood that the assignment is a “one size fits all” thing where it may be unfair for some and far too easy for others. Once a grade gets put on something to be done at home, the shift moves to the product rather than the real important part, the process.
Besides, Teachers have so many opportunities to assess kids in the class. If we have to give kids grades–another story for another day–then we owe it to them and the process to make sure that the grades are equitable and actually assessing the standards we are charged to teach. Informal assessments, group assessments, and even formal tests are far better indicators of student progress. Homework does not give that; it shouldn’t be its purpose.
Ok, don’t misunderstand this one. Kids have to finish tasks. That’s not what this is about. Many Teachers—again, with great intentions—will give kids grades for simply completing homework. For some, they believe that it boosts kids’ averages. Again, it’s the best of intentions. For others, it is their way of trying developing responsibility.
If it’s just about completion, it becomes about compliance. And, it also sends an unintended message to kids: “complete what I give you; that’s all that is important, even if you did it all wrong.”
That’s not learning, rigor, or developing responsibility. That’s simply a game. And, it leads to a completely invalid, unreliable grade.
Practicing anything without direct supervision is dangerous. It can develop bad habits. It could hinder progress. And, it is exactly the opposite of the intention. Yes, we want to know if students can do things on their own. We need to see progress during the process. That’s important. Why can’t that be done in class? Why shouldn’t that be done in class? Athletes practice with coaches. New teachers have to student teach and then are assigned a mentor during their first few years. Even drivers have to practice with adult supervision.
Yet, we send kids home with drills to practice without knowing if they understand it. For the kids that do understand the concept, this is pointless. For the kids who are still not as far along in the process, this is also pointless. They are either practicing the wrong thing or are just incredibly frustrated. In either scenario, we are dimming whatever potential passion they would have towards our subject.
The Next Day
Learning isn’t done overnight. We teach that to our kids. It’s kind of one of the pillars of education. Learning is a process. Yet, most kids get homework that is due the next day. Again, that’s compliance, not developing skills or igniting an interest. It certainly isn’t learning as it goes against every single piece of research about the process of learning.
Home Learning Is…
About Options And Skills
Teaching is about helping kids to develop skills. Our content is the vehicle to unlock and develop those talents. Therefore, students should be given plenty of options of how to demonstrate their skills. As an English Teacher, this can be easily done.
We have kids read books for a number of reasons. Obviously, we want them to make connections to themselves and the world. Writers write for a reason and we want kids to develop the skills to discover those reasons. We also want to use literature as the example for writing instruction. And, of course, there are the standards. Students should be able to identify how literary devices are used and why they are used (among many standards). This can be done with a variety of literature. Why are we beholden to teaching one particular novel when we know that we will lose some kids due to a lack of interest? As adults, we pick and choose literature based on our interest. We don’t allow students that choice. And, when kids aren’t interested, they either don’t read it or go find the 2018 version of Cliff Notes.
A common complaint made by teachers and parents is that kids don’t read. Reworded: kids don’t read what we want them to read. Kids, regardless of their academic level, will read if they are interested. One of my favorite ways to get kids to read outside of class is to use Literature Circles.
Literature Circles are book groups where kids form their own groups, choose a group book based on their interest, assign their own reading to be done, assign jobs for them to complete when doing their independent reading, and then meet together to discuss the reading. After the discussion meeting, they assign additional reading and jobs. The process repeats until it is done.
Book choice can be done a couple of different ways. I’ve had groups go to the library and pick out any book. Or, I’ve gone to the book room and picked out a bunch of texts from the curriculum. I give a presentation about each book and then groups pick. I make sure that I have at least one sports choice, one classic, and everything else in between. If a group has a different idea, they can pitch the idea. Why should it matter if all groups are reading different books? If it is about skills, the text is irrelevant. And, if they chose something, they are more invested. If they are more invested, they are far more likely to read.
What am I doing in between meetings? If we are learning skills related to reading, we are either looking at excerpts from different works, using a short story or poem, or even a selection from a group’s book to learn the skills as a class. Or, we are applying those skills in our writing. In other words, they are practicing their skills with me. Hopefully, by giving them a choice of what to read, they will develop a passion for reading or the subject matter.
A Chance To Go Deeper
If we want to inspire kids, our work in the class should make them want to learn more. When students are genuinely interested in something, they make the time to experience more. I’ve seen this in my classroom with writing. Our writing journals are a place where we do creative writing exercises, work on different types of writing techniques, etc. Often, we’ll use a scenario for a story so that they can work on a specific skill. Our 42 minute sessions are usually not enough for students to write a complete story. But, that’s not really the point of these exercises. So many kids, however, go home and finish them. They may not do it that night or even that week, but inevitably I get, “hey, Armida, read this.” That’s awesome.
This also extends into every subject. I just experienced this type of learning with my daughter. Her 4th grade Teacher has a passion for Social Studies. She told us on Meet The Teacher Night and I could tell by how excited my daughter talks about her Social Studies activities. They are currently working on a Revolutionary War research project that will culminate in a “live” wax museum presentation (during school hours). She was allowed to pick her own person and find any sort of materials. The research, the documentation, and much of the project is being done in class. In other words, all of the skills are being learned in the fourth grade classroom.
Because my daughter had a choice, she’s really interested in this project. She chose Major Andre, who, evidently, was a British spy and was hanged for his crimes. I mentioned to her that a restaurant not too far from us was where he was kept during the trial. She wanted to go and take pictures. On her February vacation, she chose to go to this place, which also led to going to a nearby museum of where George Washington stayed and then the actual hanging site. This wasn’t required, but she went deeper because she had choice and was given the opportunity. Kids will want to do more if they are interested.
If we want to students to see the importance of home learning, then they must be included into the conversation. It’s easy to say to a kid: here’s why I believe this is important, tell me what you think. Most of the time, kids will see the importance if they are a part of the conversation. Because of that, they will be invested.
Now, I don’t believe in homework, but I have had students ask for some. One ESL student asked me for grammar work so she could practice on her own. I had no problem doing that and we went over it together. There is nothing wrong with a Math teacher giving a set problems and saying, “If you feel like you need additional work, do them.” If a kid doesn’t feel like he/she needs it or doesn’t want to struggle on his/her own, so be it. That’s what class is for. And, ultimately, the in-class assessment will give an indication of where the student is in relation to the mastering of the skill.
The “Home Learning is…” heading could’ve easily been filled like this:
Home Learning Is Student Driven
For some, that is a difficult concept. The idea of letting “these kids” have a voice in their education runs contrary to hundreds of years of history. That’s kind of the point; it does run contrary to history. We can no longer use the same methods that we used even just a decade ago. The world has changed. The idea of traditional homework has to change. If Home Learning is student driven, it will be about developing individual strengths, addressing individual challenges, and achieving that romantic notion of producing life long learners.
There are so many talented, inspirational Teachers who are capable and willing to ignite these passions in kids. We need to move that mountain of tradition so we make our already good schools, great schools. Homework, in its traditional sense, is an obstacle to developing creative thinkers and problem solvers. We must evolve.
Kids are already evolving. They are already disproving the notion that they are not aware and that they do not care. Recent events have proven what a lot of us already knew. This generation has a far greater capacity to learn and think than they’ve ever been given credit for. They’ve shown that in some of the most real-world situations that our generation has failed to address.
Changing our attitudes and practices about home learning will not only create more intellectually curious people, but it will also make for more creative, engaging classrooms. Our industry can and must evolve to cultivate kids’ strengths and passions.
We owe it to them.