Abolishing Homework: Practical Thoughts


I hate my son's homework. I hate the shallow worksheets and the confusing directions. I hate the fact that it disrupts the time that he should be spending outside playing. I hate the way he has to remember to pack it and unpack it and track it.  As a teacher, I don't assign homework. I made that decision four years ago and I haven't regretted it. For those of you interested in doing away with homework, here are a few things to consider:

Research It
Check out Alfie Kohn's work on this subject.  He makes a solid argument and cites specific studies. Look into the research that supports homework and see if you can find a causal relationship. It seemed to me that there was a correlation, but that the greater issue was context.

Write a Rationale 
Write out a rationale regarding why you don't assign homework. One of the biggest selling points for me was the explanation that I would not waste any class time. I had seen the way teachers would waste time and say, "I'll just assign that as homework."  The other big selling point was the notion of instant feedback and the potential lack of feedback at home.

Communicate with Stakeholders 
Students need to know that you aren't simply a pushover because of your views on homework. Parents need to know that their children aren't lying when they say they have no homework. Administrators need to understand that you are not simply pushing for lower expectations.

Create Options 
Some parents are still concerned that their students won't get additional help when they are struggling. Offering individualized or small group tutoring can solve this problem. Other parents simply wanted their students to do additional work to develop a work ethic. For these parents, I created a list of extension activities students could do at home if they were interested.

Be Flexible
There are times when I ask students to do homework. At the beginning of the year, they have to find an item for show and tell. When working on documentaries, they interview people. We've done community needs assessments and photo journals. However, these moments are rare and almost always voluntary.

Work the System 
If your school really pushes homework and you disagree with it, then call your independent practice "homework" or assign it weekly and keep it super-short. Give students class time to do "homework." Make the homework a meaningful connection to the outside world.
Visual Credit: Writing by Hadi Davodpour from The Noun Project
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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22 comments:

  1. John, thanks for this insightful post. I have railed against homework both on my blog and in my forthcoming book, ROLE Reversal. I quote Kohn and other experts often. I would say that 80 percent of the teachers at my school give nightly homework, with little regard to its deleterious effects. I appreciate your recommendations for those feeling that it's necessary. It's nice to see that someone reflected, researched and came to the conclusion that homework doesn't help with achievement. Here's hoping that others will join the trend.

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  2. Thanks, John. This is helpful. I'm not a fan of homework as a parent nor as a teacher, and I rarely assign much homework without giving some classtime for students to do it. That said, though, I think I've done a crummy job communicating my rationale and creating good options. I'm definitely bookmarking this post so I can revisit it when life is slightly less frantic. I need to make a better plan for next fall.

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  3. To play DA here ... I think one of the oddest quandaries in the whole "down with homework" rhetoric is that many of the same people who say that talk about how school shouldn't be a vacuum. Yet ... very often, when you get the message that there isn't any homework, a side effect that often results is that you wind up creating the vacuum you're told not to create.

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  4. Tom, I think that's where the flexibility part comes in. I want kids to make connections (hence the voluntary work) and yet I also want home to be a place free from school. There's a tension there between two values.

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  5. I think teachers who want to do away with homework must also be prepared to fully engage kids in learning and guided practice for the entire class period. Sloppy homework follows sloppy teaching. The problem isn't just the homework--it's the sloppy teaching.

    If I teach well and engage the kids thoroughly for the 44 minutes they're with me, that is plenty for one day. If I half-ass teach and then throw a half-ass homework assignment at them, I've failed doubly.

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  6. This is my experimental comment. Let's see how many times it posts!

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  7. Classwork: that's an element of the discussion.

    Students learn by doing. They benefit by doing work in class. Classwork is activity not passivity. Shifting the activity to "homework" is a sloppy method. Classroom "works" are something more than listening to a lecture. Perhaps the works are asking and answering questions. Perhaps the works are writing a story, an essay, a computer program. Perhaps the works are boiling water in a beaker while recording temperatures minute by minute and putting those data points on a graph. Whatever the works are, they are school works, classwork.

    Classwork invites interaction with peers, feedback from the teacher/learning guide. Homework is an excuse for not providing classroom time for the "work" students need to do to make the learning their own. Homework is an excuse for "covering" more in class.

    Even the recent "flipped classroom" model is sloppy. Once more, it is the excuse for "covering" by pushing the lecture to a child's computer. Covering isn't learning. Learning is doing, engaging, remixing, creating. Learning is active. If it isn't important to do in class, it isn't important to expect it (require it) to be done at home.

    By contrast, there is nothing negative about offering connections to materials which enrich a child's chance to learn. With the Internet, a teacher/guide can provide links on the classroom blog to alternative explanations (even if those are recorded lectures). Making them available does not require them. Students struggling with a concept or seeking a broader view will (perhaps) see their benefit. Some students may even produce exemplary materials themselves and be willing to show them off to their teacher/guide and peers. Perhaps a blog post essay on making a rocket with a video clip of the launch.

    I wonder, would student presentations of their projects qualify as "covering" or "lectures"?

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  8. In many cases, informal writing during class is a better way of providing opportunities to engage with material than homework. Informal writing looks easy, but writing good prompts that produce learning and/or produce valid formative assessments is not easy.

    I talk about how informal writing can be used and the preparation required to use it in my new ebook Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching: An English Teacher's Guide to Using Informal Writing with Teens and Adults.

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  9. I am all for extending opportunities outside the classroom. However, I want those to be opportunities. The minute they become a mandatory part of learning is the minute it becomes more like traditional homework. I typically create enrichment projects students can do. There's always a small band of students who take me up on the challenge - whether it's painting a mural together, reading a book and doing a book study, building something at home, etc.

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  10. Thank you for this. I don't assign homework. Nor should I as I teach a Grade 2/3 classroom and I firmly believe even the homework cheerleaders can understand the rationale that homework at this age is nonsensical. However, I talk lots about my allergy to homework now so that it gets into parent mindset and child mindset and hopefully has influence as the children move on to new grades. I agree with what you are saying re being public about it. I sent letters home and now have it posted on our class blog in the About Division 5 section with articles to read further if anyone should be so inclined.http://jo-online.vsb.bc.ca/div5/?page_id=66 I do stress reading at home and encourage families to participate in reading in a variety of ways (and suggest ways for that too) Thank you for making the whole how to embrace no homework policy so explicit!

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  11. Bravo...bravo...I can not even tell you my level of frustration with the HW I do with my kindergarten...yes, kindergarten. I do not give HW in my class and have no intention of starting it. I have yet to hear a good reason for assigning it nor it's connection to learning.

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  12. I think homework (if done correctly) can enable a child to grow in learning outside of the school day (middle school and up). Also, what would we do with our scheduled seminar in our block schedule if we didnt assign homework? (tongue firmly planted in cheek)

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  13. I see your point, Pete, but I actually think high school is when homework is the worst - even in small doses. Most students work if they want to have any sort of a social life. Many times, they do extracurricular activities. Both work and the extracurricular activities provide great opportunities for learning.

    As a high school student, I didn't mind reading in my spare time. I just wanted to choose the books (preferably F. Scott Fitzgerald or Aldous Huxley). I wanted to write, but I hated the five paragraph essay. I wish I had been given the autonomy and creative control over my learning outside of school.

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  14. I think it also depends on the subject you're teaching, too. I rarely assign homework in my general-level English classes, but my advanced-level class does a lot of work at home such as reading the books we're discussing, prepping for discussions, and writing papers. There's a lot of factors as to why I do it, from availability of resources to the willingness of the students to do it. And it's also a very flawed model ;)

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  15. "I had been given the autonomy and creative control over my learning outside of school."

    I can't remember where but I know I posted something about this and how it was actually kind of funny that when I did give autonomy over an essay topic, my students froze and we had to wind up doing a brainstorming activity b/c they weren't used to having the freedom.

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  16. I appreciated how you defended your position. I need to use your explanation in parent meetings. I am in a life skills class and some of our parents demand homework for their severely challenged students. I often recommend games, apps and activities that will support the work we do in class in our daily correspondence with parents. Our students are in middle school and we are working on the alphabet and simple phonics. They work so hard in class but progress is slow. The parents don't seem to realize that what we have sent home is homework - they want worksheets. After two weeks of sending home simple worksheets, the parents are appeased but the students are not really the ones doing the worksheets.

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  17. I don't see homework as the enemy - I see 'bad homework' as the enemy. No one wants to see their child labor over endless worksheets and meaningless busy work. I want homework to extend the thinking of the lesson, or to prepare the students for learning the next day. Teachers need to be given time and tools to create smart, engaging assignments where homework is there because the kids want to keep learning and be ready for tomorrow.
    http://mamawolfe-living.blogspot.com

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  18. I really appreciate the thought you put into your decision - your bullet points reveal that you have carefully considered your decision and care about your students. I wrote about my homework policy on February 3rd in the New York Times and will be continuing the discussion with a part II next week. Come on by and be a part of the discussion over there....there's a lively debate going on in the comments.

    http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/i-hate-homework-i-assign-it-anyway/

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  19. Here!Here!That was a great post. I have the opportunity to teach adults and the same holds true there. Thank you for posting that. I will now have a good night.

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  20. Just wandered across this. I agree with you 100%.

    I think the defining moment for me was in sixth grade. The old school teacher assigned "homework" and then gave us class time to do it in at points during the day. Only the overflow became actual homework. Sounds alright, right? A reasonable compromise.

    Except that I inevitably finished my homework well before time was up and so the teacher, in his 'wisdom', decided to send female students who needed help with math to me. He handled the male students. I essentially became a teacher because a few of those girls would have failed the math unit without my help.

    And that's when I decided homework, even done during class time, is an excuse to foist responsibility for learning off of the teacher who should be handling it and onto the students. Students and, in some cases, and only some cases, their parents -- I was not a student with a cooperative parent in helping me with my homework. This is almost as bad as my aunt who basically does the homework for her boys.

    You've outlined an excellent and reasoned response to homework supporters. Very nice.

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  21. John,

    Another great post! I have to seek you feedback on my current homework dilemma...

    I work in a small school system (approximately 1500 students total) with four schools serving our K-12 students. System leadership is working with school staffs in hopes of establishing grading and assessment policies that are consistent from grades K-5 and grades 6-12.

    In our work together this year, some of our high school staff have complained that the middle school is not assigning enough homework and many students are not adequately prepared to handle the homework expectations of the high school. Honestly, this is but one of the high school "concerns" about the grading and assessment approaches of the middle school.

    I worked in high schools as both a teacher and administrator for over 25 years and have spent the past 5 years as a middle school principal. I have a deep understanding of the differences that can exist in high school and middle school cultures and really question whether we can achieve a common policy on homework policy on the 6-12 level.

    Do you believe it is desirable that all teachers in a school (or system) have a common homework policy? If so, how would you work to bring teachers together who are on opposite ends of the spectrum on the homework issue?

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  22. Dear Chuck,
    I have a few thoughts on it. First, high school teachers need to know that it is not the job of lower grades to "prepare" students for their particular system. That's the job of the high school teachers. They're still teaching kids and not college students. So, really, if there is an issue of too much homework (from the students' perspective) then maybe high school teachers need to re-examine their own practices. My second thought is that high school is perhaps the worst time possible to give homework. Students work jobs, play sports, etc. If a student can't complete it in class, I'm not sure it's worth doing. I know we're strapped for time, but sometimes spending less time lecturing and letting students wrestle with the information is the ultimate answer. True, it won't prepare them for college. However, in college, students attend class for only a few hours a day. So, if that' the rationale, I'm not sure it works, either. So, I'm skeptical.

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.