Monday, 10 August 2015

The Homework Conundrum

My Perfect Homework System (or so I thought)

I have been a homework proponent for many years, 15 years, at least. I believed that, over this time, I had crafted the perfect method of homework delivery.  My system was easy to follow, it respected the time, abilities & needs of each student and it took family situation into consideration. Concurrently, it did not overwhelm me or unnecessarily waste classroom or professional time.  

As the years have passed, my system has seen modifications and improvements. This past year, it was almost nearly paper-free. Additionally, I have incorporated and refined a “point-based” reward program that respects differentiated instruction, allows for some classroom gamification and lends itself to an “easy to keep” daily recording system - which, informs my marks for the Learning Skills section of each Report Card.

(In Ontario, we report on six Learning Skills  - homework completion can help assess Responsibility, Self Regulation, Independent Work and Organization.)  

I liked my system.  Beyond believing it to be fair, equitable, respectful and manageable - I also felt that it was purposeful. It was connected to both curriculum learning and also to building the habits necessary to succeed beyond elementary school.  Like a proud father, I confidently and eagerly shared my success with all who would listen - particularly Student Teachers (admittedly, a captive audience.)  I gladly absorbed the occasional, friendly jabs from staff-room colleagues whose barbs have involved the words statistics, analytics or even sabermetrics.  Undaunted, I plodded on. Besides, that stuff works - just watch “Moneyball”.

Open to change

Courtesy Teacher Tech Blog 

As I have expanded my PPD (Personal Professional Development), I have made some fantastic connections with other educators through both Twitter and Edmodo.  I was alarmed to discover posts and tweets (some with aggressive attention-grabbing pictures) that cautioned teachers about the perils of homework.

Most disquieting for me was the realization that the authors of these startling mandates were educators that I had grown to respect.  I had learned so much from them in such a short time and I regularly co-opted and implemented the wonderful resources they shared.  I had read a number of their blogs and felt as if I had found kindred spirits on my journey through the wayward pines of pedagogy. Was I wrong?

"Glass Half-Full" - My Open Mindset Mantra

I quickly realized that I was reacting to bold Tweets and startling images.  I had not sincerely or systematically evaluated the essential arguments of their blog posts.  So, I  began a journey down that rabbit hole - encountering the following articles on the way....

I even reviewed the other side of the coin (or my side of the coin, I suppose) by reading this post from

John Walkup’s Cognitive Rigor to the Core blog

A Strong Case for the Prosecution

In order to evaluate the concerns of the homework detractors, I have distilled them into the following list.  It becomes clear, quickly, that sound concerns are being raised.
  • Homework doesn’t connect with the real world.
  • Homework cuts into family time.
  • Homework that is not understood leads to frustration or requires parent involvement.
  • Homework widens the inequality gap and adds frustrations to those on less equal shores.
  • Adults don’t do homework every night, why should kids?
  • The teacher should be present to support independent work
  • Reviewing it the next day eats up valuable time
  • (Some research suggests that) rote practice does not pay satisfactory dividends to justify it.
  • There are much better things students can do at night (See links from Jason Wigmore below)
  • Homework is not fun.

In my own Defence

I reflected on this and revisited my rationale for homework.  In the process, I realized that my methods are not without flaws and I know that I need to continue to modify my approach. However, I have decided that I will continue to assign homework while adhering to the following considerations.

1./ Homework should be relevant.
It should reflect the concepts we are learning in a practical way.  Consequently, it should rarely be a worksheet. It should be an investigation that has a real world implications.  For example: After learning the area of a rectangle, students could be asked to find the area of three common items in their household (cloth tape measures provided on request). They could then be asked to use Edmodo to provide their results and respond to a critical thinking question about their discoveries.  “Why do you think the area of your television is important to your parents? Is it important to you? Why or Why not?”  **This year, I hope a shared Google Sheet will allow us to analyze the varied results.
2./ Homework should not be daunting.  
It should be modified when necessary and should be able to be completed within a short time.  (I use the familiar “5 minutes multiplied by the grade” formula). If a student does not understand the work, I encourage parents to direct them to another activity for an equivalent amount of time and to send me a quick note - through Edmodo, ClassDojo, email or on paper. I am now better informed and can prepare support (often the same evening, but certainly the next day).

Additionally, I assign homework every day on weekdays only (Monday to Thursday).  I want the weekend off - the kids should have it too. This allows parents to learn and know the routine. "I don't have any homework." is never a true statement on weekday nights.

3./ Homework should never be used to determine a grade for a subject.
As I have mentioned, homework completion informs my assessment of Learning Skills but I never use it to determine a grade in a subject area.  Students and parents should see it as a practical opportunity to expand their knowledge, independently explore and communicate a fledgling ability or strengthen the application of a skill.  

4./ Families are busy. Students are busy.  I’m busy. Our class is busy.
Homework completion requires flexibility and consequence should be reserved and then, if necessary, measured. Regular homework completion is expected but there are far more important factors at play. Ownership for the homework is paramount.  This means that the student must take responsibility for it and organize his or her time accordingly. Infrequent lapses and oversights are to be expected and do not warrant a conversation or even the furrowed brow of marginal disapproval. The points for the day are not awarded and we simply move on.

If homework completion is not being completed regularly, it indicates a larger problem and a reason for a discussion first with the student (again an opportunity for ownership) and then with a parent and the student.

5./ Homework should (eventually) come with options
To start the year, homework is fairly simple and sometimes involves worksheets.  It is my goal to establish the routine so that the reward system and its connection to Learning Skills can be understood.  Eventually, the student is provided more options and is able to demonstrate additional independence and ownership over the subject matter and the time that is required to complete it. Students who complain that the homework is too easy and too mundane are encouraged to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the concepts we explore.  Week long, self-directed pursuit of their passion can be explored through my “Books in a Backpack” option or by providing evidence of their own personal quest for knowledge or mastery of a subject or discipline - the Genius Hour expanded.

Alternately, students who are struggling can be helped to choose an area of weakness and focus on it.  An intensive reading program matching their ability (through Raz Kids perhaps) might serve them far better than struggling through reading assignments culled from Tween Tribune or Newsela.  An independent program can be easily tailored on Prodigy Math to support basic skills in order to build each student’s capacity.

Certainly, this approach requires more involvement from the teacher - but, it is has been my experience that a few bumpy weeks in October will pay dividends throughout the rest of the year.

A sincere "Thank You"to those Homework Detractors

I haven’t changed my mind - but I have moved forward.  I have started toying with an idea that will give my students even more flexibility. Jason Wigmore's suggestions to encourage more self-directed learning, using Epic! Books , Minecraft , Wonderopolis or The Hundred Word Challenge did not go unnoticed. I will likely keep my established Mathematics Mondays and Xtramath expectations in place, as well as Tween Tribune Tuesdays - which launch our Shared Reading discussions the next day.  

However, I will find a way to introduce Talented Thursdays (where students will focus on enhancing existing skills of their choosing).  This could easily include multiple intelligence options.  Perhaps a capable, ten-year old soccer player decides to go for a 25 minute run and reports her time and distance to me on Edmodo...or a future chef makes dinner for the family and he sends a photo to me as evidence. Weakness Wednesdays might be a wonderful counterpoint to this - with focus aimed at improving an area in which they struggle.

Thank you, Alice, Jason, John & Mark for encouraging me to think forward - and not settle for my current understanding of "The Perfect Homework" System. It continues to be a work in progress.

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