Much ado about homework

Homework. It is such a contentious topic in education, and a very personal one for so many teachers. I frequently get asked about the homework policy in my standards based classroom. The truth is, I don’t even use that word in my classes. So technically, I don’t have a homework policy. I do however have practice policies.

But before we tackle what practice looks like for my students, I think the bigger question is – What is the purpose of homework? Isn’t it to practice? Isn’t it to inform future instruction and further formative work? If so, does it matter where and when it is done as long as the students are progressing? I don’t think it does. Obviously, we need to practice skills, understandings, and concepts on the journey to mastery, but how much does each student need? In my humble opinion, the answer to this question varies for each student. There is no way for me to assign the same practice each day to everyone and get the same results. Students need differentiated practice no matter whether it is done at home or in the classroom. Building appropriate student choice into the practice routine increases engagement and ownership of learning for our students.

So, what does this look like? In my learning environment, practice is happening all the time. Practice can be orderly or chaotic. Sometimes we do whole group practice; there are occasions when we all need to practice a certain skill or concept. Whole group practice also builds community, and this is an essential component in developing a culture of learning. Other times, we practice in small groups. Small groups provide for more student voice and space to build collaborative skills. Individualized practice is a great opportunity to see where each student is in relation to the standards. I can give valuable descriptive feedback for growth and help them increase their proficiency levels. Varying practice modes ensures that we are reaching all of our students in the manners they learn best.

So let’s get back to policy. How much practice do I assign? The students and I determine how much is appropriate. I don’t mandate that the practice be done at home or at school – that is for my students to decide. You may be wondering at this point if any of my students would practice at home then? The answer is yes. They practice at home when it is necessary. Do all my students choose the right amount of practice? Of course not – this is when I step in as the professional in the room. I have a 1 on 1 conversation with the student to see where their practice is lacking. But then it is up to them. They have to decide that the practice is valuable and will contribute to their growth, and I can’t do it for them. They are in high school and need to be provided opportunities to make their own decisions. We need to trust our students.

What about when they fail? The student made a decision about practice that didn’t work out and now what? Well, it is time for another conversation and more practice. Maybe the answer is something the student couldn’t fathom, but now they are more open to different ideas. The standards we have in place in our classrooms are worth the work and struggle our students put in to achieve them. It is valuable to have the few that made poor decisions go back and complete additional practice. Once additional practice is finished, the student and teacher can reassess proficiency levels. This teaches them responsibility. Students must accept their decisions and learn how to recover from failure.

Do I live in a perfect world where eventually I get all my students to complete enough practice to achieve mastery on all their standards? I wish, but no. My goal is to get as many of them there as possible by working with them to achieve their goals. Our students want us to work collaboratively with them and yet need ownership of their learning. It is a tricky balance to maintain, yet this is how we best prepare them to be lifelong learners. It is a sloppy journey with many setbacks and stumbles along the way, but  so important for our students. We make such a significant impact on the learners our students become.

So, does it matter what we call it, homework, practice, formative assessment? The title doesn’t matter so much as what we do with it. Practice must be differentiated, respectful, student owned, relevant and needs to inform future instruction and practice. Let’s make sure it is meaningful and valuable for our students.

What are your views on the H word? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!

 

8 Replies to “Much ado about homework”

  1. Well said! I’ve been practicing some of these things for a couple years, but I’ve had to work extra hard to make a case for developing a culture of learning like the one you describe. Your blog posts have been very supportive in terms of providing teachers with another perspective on similar beliefs and practices to my own.

    As my district begins year one of a new grading system, on course for sbg, your posts will be helpful when it comes to supporting teachers.

    Thanks!

  2. Excellent post. I plan on sharing many of your insights with some of our staff that could benefit from changing their perspective from homework to practice. Thanks for sharing your great view point.

  3. Garnet,
    Can you offer any recommendations for turning the ship around, so to speak. I teach 8th grade in a high poverty district, where the universal curriculum is pre-AP. It is rigorous … Too rigorous for the readers that walk in our doors. Many of these kids don’t buy into school or academics and have not for a while. As such, the only way administration sees to make them accountable is to grade summarize and formative assessments. We rarely give homework because it is virtually guaranteed to not be done. Failure on our performance based summaries runs rampant. With a gradebook that is 50/50 f/s, many kids end up failing the term. As teachers, it’s hard. Do we false report their grades so that they experience success, and administration is happy or do we fail them, perpetuating their disdain for school and learning?
    I’m venting, yes. Do you have any resources, or have you given thought how to start small for districts like ours?
    Thanks for reading.

  4. A true testament to the culture of learning you have established with your students is that they practice when they need to, not just when you tell them. This is what we should be all striving for. I wrote a post on this topic yesterday which I ended with this thought:

    Looking at time honored teaching strategies like homework needs to be high on the “to do” list because with each assignment students across the country are turned off from learning and resentment builds towards the educational establishment.

    Its time to move beyond the one size fits all approach to work outside of school! I’d like to hear your thoughts on my post as I think we have developed a similar approach which I think is interesting.

    Meaningful Practice Using #TTTDiff

  5. Garnet,
    Another winner! This is a topic I have “beaten” myself up over this past year. I had a conversation today with my 6th graders about completing their practice from the night before. I mentioned to them that if they did not do the practice, it better be because they did not have to because the understand it. If not, that is what the practice is for! I gave my one 8th grade class problems to do as a “ticket out the door” because several of them were missing chances to show me evidence about the topic.
    I agree completely that it is supposed to be used to drive instruction, regardless of what we call it.
    Bravo!
    Jim

  6. Garnet,
    Another thought-provoking post! I love that you use the term ‘practice’ instead of ‘homework’. I have also heard the phrase ‘extended learning opportunity or ELO’. Thank you for focusing on the most important point: the term doesn’t matter, what really matters is that we differentiate in meaningful ways for our students.
    Can’t wait to see you in July!
    ~Michele

    1. Spot on, Garnet! This post is very timely as we just made the decision to not count homework in the grade book beginning next year. There are several teachers who are blazing the trail now and experimenting with it. Two teachers stood in front of their peers at the faculty meeting and proclaimed success!

      Changing the face of education to be more about teaching and learning than chasing points is hard, but it is the right thing to do. Students will adjust, and I believe the results will far outweigh the work that is involved. Great article!

      Thank you for getting us thinking!

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