Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Homework: From Chills to Thrills

So there's this debate that goes on in my head. It's about homework. And whether/how and what/when to give it. I think about how I've handled assigning homework over the years, and it's chilling for me to think just how lousy I used to be.

Because I used to be a homework freak. In my early years teaching, I was that guy who insisted students do problems #1, 3, 4-6 and then I'd check 'em the next day. I'd give homework before even reading the questions myself. And I felt fine with that. Because I really thought that so long as the students were 'working' they were 'learning'. So I piled it on.

And while I certainly learned a lot about the mechanics of grading homework, I'm not sure I did much more for my students than increase their stress and decrease their sleep.

So, I've sort of come around. I still give homework -- or more properly titled 'work that needs to get done on your own time' -- but these days I like to think that I've replaced the arbitrary with the essential and the busy-for-busy's-sake with something the students can actually 'use'.

These days, the homework I give isn't based on some arbitrary idea of how much work a kid should do 'at home' to reinforce something we did in class, but rather it's a matter of asking the students to do something necessary to prepare themselves for the next class. Homework becomes an act of preparation -- and hopefully sparks some anticipation not for seeing what you 'got right or wrong', not for seeing if you can jump through that next hoop, but anticipation for taking part in the next day's discussion, activities, and learning.

I want homework to be a cliffhanger. I want it to be the device at the end of the chapter of every thriller that won't let you put the book down until you've read the whole thing.

The key is that it has to make you want to continue.

It's like in life: if you have a meeting with a really interesting character, you prepare for the meeting -- you might review material and jot down notes, maybe talk to an associate beforehand to make sure you've got your bases covered, and hit the Web to make sure you understand both the material and the objective of the meeting. Your preparation is done in anticipation for the meeting and because you care about the meeting and genuinely want to talk about the matter at hand, you prepare out of a sense of thrill.

Yes, I said 'thrill'.

I want homework -- or work done beyond the limited time that I've got 'em in my classroom -- to come with a sense of thrill. I want it to accompany a sense that it's really helping one get in the right frame of mind to engage with what we're talking about in class.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the most complex thing on paper turns out a dud and sometimes the most simple thing turns out to have some real teeth. One way or the other, the trick in preparing kids to prepare is to more often than not get the teeth rather than the dud.

And it usually comes down to simple choices.

Consider a photography class. Is it a better use of my time and my students' time to have them go home and read a photography manual or is it a better use of time to ask them to take pictures? Sort of depends on a lot of factors, but I know which one is more 'thrilling'.

Consider English class. Is  it a better use of time to go home and answer questions out of a textbook or is it better to read a poem, jot down some notes about it, and discuss it with friends on Twitter or Skype? Again, in 'real-life' does anyone actually get a thrill out of answering canned questions? Yet there are bookclubs everywhere. And why is that? It's because people love to talk about what they are reading. They don't love to be graded on how they answer questions, they just love to talk. And in talking and discussing, they learn. And in this social media rich environment, it's downright backwards to refrain from tapping in to that.

What's a better use of time in history class: practicing the 'proper' way to write a DBQ or listening to the news and current events for 10 minutes each evening so that the next day when you come into class we can actually talk about what's happening in the world and why it's important to understand that what's happening now has a history behind it? Anyone can learn the format of a standardized answer. So who cares what anyone has to say in a standardized answer? It's a mystery to me that we allow random readers on an AP exam to tell us how well the children we engage with everyday understand a subject. That, my friends, is an affront to our professionalism. Furthermore, it makes for really boring and life-draining homework.

So I ask myself: why in the world would I do this to my kids?

And that question is the one that as a history teacher, I've most been mulling over endlessly.

A few days ago, we were talking about 'conflict' in one of my Freshman classes. I put a handful of place names up on the screen -- Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet -- and asked the students if they could tell me anything about recent or past conflict in these places. And the one that really got me was Afghanistan: out of 35 or so Freshmen in two different sections, only two or three kids had any idea what conflict was currently going on in Afghanistan.

And it makes me wonder what kind of homework they had in middle school. It makes me wonder how a 14 year old -- living during wartime -- doesn't realize they are living during wartime.

I don't know. Maybe the two are not related. But maybe they are. Maybe we get so fixated upon the kids knowing what's in the book that we neglect what's in the world.

One way or the other, I'm thinking about what homework means and I'm thinking about how not to give it just out of a sense of obligation, and about how not to refuse to give it out of a sense of dissatisfaction with it's results, but to fundamentally change the way the kids and I approach it.

In that history class, for example, we're going to spend the year learning and discussing history in class, but as for homework I want them listening to daily podcasts from around the world about events going on right now. I want them to understand the history in every living event. I want the world -- in real-time and live -- to replace their textbook.

Because we don't live in a textbook world.

And we wouldn't want to.

This year, I'm gonna try to use a bit of chance to create asymmetrical understanding. That is, I'm not going to plan the questions -- and I'm certainly not going to plan any solutions -- before we sit down and listen to what's actually going on. I'm going to let current history lead my history class; and I, of course, as a person living in that history have no idea where this all leads, but like a researcher employing grounded theory, I really don't mind looking at something and examining it before deciding according to my own varied theories what the thing is. I'm going to use my own confusion and sense of wanting to understand -- I'm gonna use this stuff to my advantage.

Because I myself don't learn anything when I just spit out what I think it is that I am supposed to know.

Having read the arguments both for and against homework I can't help but try to think of it not from the teacher's point of view, but from the student's. If I were 15 years-old taking a class, I know that I'd have a better time understanding what was going on if I were prepared. I also know that completing boring (even worse -- patronizing) textbook work every night would drive me insane. So, if the teacher asked me -- given my busy 15 year-old student schedule of school plays, sports, band, family commitments, etc --  I'd pretty much say that I'd want to be prepared for class and that if that meant doing some prep at home, that would be fine. But don't give me homework out of a sense of obligation. And don't give it to me just as a way to get a 'grade'. Give me homework because it's going to help us get stuff done. And let's get stuff done that's going to thrill me.


  1. Amen! Great guidelines. I've been only asking students to read from books they love each night for our middle school classes for the past eight years. Reading test scores are up and rising for my students...go figure! I urge teachers to drop the useless comprehension questions and worksheets and only ask for meaningful work from kids. Thanks for this blog post. I'm a new fan!

  2. Great comments! I am also a high school teacher re-thinking (always!) my strategies. I'm interested in student motivation - which you address. How do we get them to be interested and driven and WANT to find out about the topic? Thanks for you comments.

  3. Thanks for this great idea and I totally agree that the world is out there and not in the classroom. Of course! Everyone knew when they were kids themselves. And of course everything involving whatever textbook was boring me in puberty.

    Luckily, in the era we live in there are so many more possibilities to involve children into learning. But then, one has to state that no one will learn anything from any form of education, unless there is some form of engagement.

    For many teachers, homework is something what has to be done. I avoid sending my pupils home with work to do by giving them time in class for working at it all. The advantage of it all is that I can coach and check them when they are doing it and most work will be finished before the bell.

    I'm teaching Dutch language at a middle school in The Netherlands and most content of my subject still is delivered to my pupils in boring books. Then, when I'm using a chatbox to challenge my pupils to cooperate in making a perfect answering model, most of the time something beautiful comes out as a product, but also on the process. Sometimes worksheets are inevitable, so then you have to focus on the reflection part of class.

    I also teach History of Literature at a college and there I developed a selfmade electronic learning environment where my students can find every source recommended by me, as well as discuss topics and even the things I have said.

    But then again, you're right Shelly, engagement is the big word. C'est le ton qui fait la musique.

    Keep up the good work!

    Greetings from Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

  4. Right on the mark! One of my favourite comments bout homework comes from Alan November who says that we, as teachers, have it all backwards. We should be sending the kids home with the presentation of the topic. This might be in video form or podcast or readings. The "homework" then gets done in class where kids can collaborate and teachers can work with students as they are creating.

    Great blog! Keep it up!


  5. I suffer from cognitive dissonance. I hated "practice" homework as a student. In Grade 8, I rarely copied down math notes, and never did math homework at home, only what I completed in class. My mark would have been in the 90's except for my teacher who insisted on "binder checks" for every day of notes, and every homework assignment. I failed those.

    As a teacher, I get sucked into the appeal of "work is learning."

  6. Homework can be an excellent teaching tool, but should not be work for the sake of work.

  7. I have wrestled with homework for years. Thanks for this inspiration!

  8. The 15-year old point-of-view that you describe is dead on. I think my son would agree. During my time in the classroom (7th grade), I struggled with the value of homework eventually settling on giving it as extra credit. As a teacher, you have no control over what takes place in the home, so it hardly seems fair to assign points to it in what amounts to an assessment as many teachers do. I encouraged my students to complete their homework with a parent or sibling, hoping that it would foster some conversation around what they were learning.

    ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine has a great article in the September '10 issue (pp. 74-78) on the value of homework from a student point-of-view.

  9. Let's assign "Something to think about...". Let all of us avoid pages 20-35, questions 1-10 for the purpose of an assignment. Let's assign a conversation, an observation. Today, I asked my AP students what they wanted from their teachers, what they thought should change in education. Their requests were so simple, their ideas so realistic: teachers who are passionate, teachers that love what they do, teachers that allow them to think and create, society that recognizes that standardized tests do not reveal all they can accomplish. I am looking forward to continued conversations.

  10. I wrote a blog post about this on the Education Rethink blog. The main idea being that I give homework . . . or rather, the students create homework. They develop independent projects at home and then we have a set aside class time for the indie projects. The goal is to extend the learning they are doing outside of class into the classroom.

    So, I have five students doing a Banned Book Club, a few students developing podcasts, another finding real-life applications to math, one student doing a photographic survey of the city, another writing a comic book and a few who are actually opting for fairly traditional math remediation problems.

  11. This is incredible stuff! I agree wholeheartedly! So many of my students spend hours working on "busy work" from other classes when they could be engaging in activities that actually promote the learning process! Bravo.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.