Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mission Impossible Theory of Homework

Homework is a contentious issue. If you want to spark a debate among parents, teachers and students simply ask the question: How do you feel about homework?

Regardless of your opinion (or mine) on the matter, we need to at least ask the question.

My less radical feeling towards homework is that we should alter the default from homework assigned on a daily basis, regardless of need or context, to homework being assigned only when it makes sense to do so.

My more radical response is that homework is something to be inspired, not assigned. And that the only time homework makes any kind of sense is when the students have a say. I call this the Mission Impossible Theory of Homework. It goes like this:
You're homework, if you choose to accept it...
Critics might say that this is offering kids a blank cheque - but this is not the case. The point here is that like all optimal learning environments, the learner would have at least as much say in the homework as the teacher. Allowing the students to have all the say in homework would be as unfair and inappropriate as granting the teachers all the say.

Critics might also say that if the kids have a say in the homework, they might never do it. To this I have a couple responses. Firstly, such an assumption takes a disturbingly cynical and dark view of children -- one that perhaps tells us less about the nature of the child and more about the attitude of the adult. Secondly, if the learner would never do the homework with out some kind of coercion, then this might require a second look at what we are asking the kids to do. I've seen a lot of horrendous homework assignments that few members of the human race would want to do on their own free will.

Perhaps you whole-heartedly agree. Perhaps you vehemently oppose. Maybe we merely quibble over a turn of phrase. To what degree we see eye-to-eye on this issue is beside the point. Disagreement through dialogue is healthy - and perhaps the only way we ever get anything done. What concerns me is when a whole school-year goes by and these kinds of discussions are unheard of.


  1. I agree that student voice can be powerful in homework and have seen benefits of this. However, I think there may be times when student voice doesn't need to be a part of homework. The key to me is determining the purpose of any particular homework assignment. If there is no purpose, then the homework should not be assigned. Also, teachers need to provide timely feedback to the homework; if teachers aren't looking at the homework and/or if other students aren't looking at the homework, then what's the purpose (if the stated purpose is practice, how can we know that the practice was correct without looking at it). I like the question you ask, "How do you feel about homework?" While I know have conversations with fellow teachers about homework, I need to start having this same conversation with all stakeholders, including parents and students. I think we often act on assumptions about what parents think about homework rather than engaging in real discussion. Without the dialogue and the questioning and the open reflection, we will never allow ourselves to change old practices. Thank you for providing me with some food for thought.

  2. Ah yes the proverbial homework question. I think too often homework is assigned because it's expected (by school, District, parents...) to be assigned rather than to increase learning or increase retention, etc. I think if homework were strategically integrated in the learning plan for each student, it would be very valuable. It has to be meaningful, connected to what is going on in class, be doable (not just increase the frustration), etc. There are aspects of the Flipped Classroom that I like for homework - do at home what doesn't require a teachers support - this would decrease frustration for parents too.

    I don't necessarily agree it should be a students choice - perhaps there is choice as they get older/mature... but make it compelling, not painful, make it real, not contrived, make it support learning, not frustrate it. Make it a valid extension of the 5 hours at school that is purposeful.

    I wrote this post last year with some thoughts on homework...

    Good to see people like yourself challenging the status quo!

  3. I, like you, like the idea of homework as choice. Developmentally, it is easier to do this in grades four and up as kiddoes are more able to manage their time (with some guidance). But, I think that it is possible to do the same with younger grades. I try to incorporate choice in homework. My students end up believing that they don't have homework (part of my master plan), but every year 95% participate in some kind of homework seven days a their choice. My largest request is that they read. After that I encourage them to write, engage in educational games online (or provide ones for them to take home), and PLAY. I have to admit that I did a pretty good job of this when I taught grades four & five and struggle in grades 3 and younger, but am working on it.

    I find one of the biggest obstacles is parents. I hate blaming parents, but even with my well crafted (1:1) homework explanation some do not provide the support I would like. I think this has more to do with their own homework experiences and expectations of what homework should be. That, and I am the only one who has this radical stance (as you put it) on homework.

    I believe homework should be inspired. And if an 8-year old is inspired to write than they should. However, if they want to blog, create a website or video (also writing) they should do that as well. And if they choose to play a math game online instead of completing a worksheet than so be it. They are practicing and enriching their mathematical selves.

    As I sit here writing this response, I just realized a possible solution to my conundrum. Since I use social media to keep families updated on classroom happenings, maybe that is my way in. Perhaps I need to make the learning more transparent by using google docs during brainstorming sessions that the children and their families can access at home to continue the learning (my intended goal).

  4. Joe, I use year-long projects to meet all learning outcomes. Students work on the projects outside of class, when they see fit.

    There's never any formal homework. I just remind them that they always have project work, and if they need to meet any of our quarterly goals, it's up to them to decide when to complete the work outside of class.

    It's amazing how well they handle this. Like adults, they love the autonomy.

  5. Joe, I love the tagline for your blog. I can see myself quoting it regularly.
    Also very impressed with this way of setting homework and the other opinions expressed in the comments.
    As many of you suggest the purpose of it isn't even considered by many teachers. I think having that discussion with colleagues and with students is essential. Whether you end up with compulsory homework or homework by choice hopefully at least everyone will understand why they are setting/doing it.

  6. In 1998 I had 14 A'level Chemistry students. I told them they should spend about 5 hrs a week on their Chemistry 'homework' which they would choose themselves, as only each individual student knows after a lesson what he/she needs to spend the homework time on. By choosing their own homework, students are more likely to do it as they see the need for it and can maximise their learning time by focussing on topics they do not understand. The students saw the logic in this and responded accordingly. In 2000 their results were: 8 grade As, 3 grade Bs and 3 Grade Cs, nothing less than a C.
    I think those results speak for themselves.

    Since retiring from full-time teaching I am now a Freelance Educational Consultant and can speak freely about my views on 'teaching and learning'. Please check them out on my website at:'s%20Views%20on%20Teaching%20and%20Learning.pdf

    Smile, Live Longer and Make Someone's Day

  7. Homework – Education’s Biggest Scam
    Homework is possibly one of education’s most contentious subjects. Before we ask the purpose of homework we must first look at education.
    Q) Why do children/students attend school? A) To learn
    Learning is most effective when done in a relaxed and happy atmosphere: the school must provide a place where the students want to be. Then, and only then, will the students’ learning be maximised. This is our goal and we must start with a clean slate and put strategies in place which promote this. Anything which hinders this must be scrapped. This seems common sense.
    The above (providing a place where students want to be) is a prerequisite for effective learning.
    Now, let’s consider the purpose of homework. In early years of education there is no reason for homework. If young children in primary school cannot learn all they need to during school hours, there is something wrong with the education system.
    In secondary school the purpose of homework is for students to consolidate what they find difficult. After a lesson each student will have different needs as to what work needs consolidation. Only each individual student knows his/her ‘homework needs’ and so only each individual student knows what homework he/she needs to be doing. The logical conclusion to this is that each student chooses his/her homework: the idea of the teacher setting all students the same homework is senseless. If a student chooses his/her own homework he/she is more likely to do it and more importantly, learn from doing it.
    The homework pundits will argue that some/many will not do homework. We must ask if homework is appropriate for all students. (In secondary modern schools years ago homework was not set and the students learned appropriate skills to prepare them for life). At the moment, students who do not hand in homework have detention and are often made to complete the homework at school in the presence of a teacher. The student may complete the homework but there is no learning taking place under these conditions. What does happen is that the student’s relationship with one or more teachers deteriorates, resulting in less learning taking place in lessons. I believe that forcing a student to do homework results in less learning overall because of their ‘anti school/teacher’ attitude.
    Efficiency is output/input. From this definition, homework, as conventionally set in schools with the resulting sanctions and marking must be one of the most inefficient tasks of the education system.
    There is a wealth of literature exposing the fallacy that ‘homework as conventionally done improves performance’: it does not.
    The reason homework is done is because parents/guardians expect it. Schools are often judged by how much homework is set. (If parents believe homework improves performance then they too should be set homework each night by their employer).
    Parents, governors and governments need to be educated in what really improves students’ learning.
    On a final note, teachers nowadays have no time to focus on what really improves learning as they are too busy doing all the unnecessary tasks (such as all the hours spent on homework issues) imposed by constant changing government strategies.
    Jim Baker 06/10/2011

  8. "Maybe we merely quibble over a turn of phrase."

    Yes we do, but I think it is just an error. The central aspect of your post - a good one, by the way! - is your Mission Impossible Theory of Homework, which you phrase thus: "You're homework, if you choose to accept it . . ."

    I assume you meant "your," not "you're," which - although humorous - doesn't really make your case, or much sense, for that matter. A student, even if he/she chooses to do homework, can hardly BE homework!

    Good post, nonetheless. Also, Jim Baker, I agree wholeheartedly with your final sentence: one of the most damaging aspects of homework is the time it takes away from teachers' more important work of designing and implementing creative ideas for their students' learning.

  9. "I've seen a lot of horrendous homework assignments that few members of the human race would want to do on their own free will." - isn't that the truth!!!


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