Homework: Give It Purpose or Give It Death!

I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.

Lily Tomlin

(This post was co-written with my colleague Jeff Zoul, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning in Deerfield Public Schools)

Jeff’s daughter, Jordyn, is 21 and a senior in college. My daughter, Valerie, is a 9-year-old third grader. In commiserating with Jeff about Valerie’s recent homework experiences, we realized that not much has changed in the quality of homework assignments during the 12 years that have passed since Jordyn finished, and Valerie began, third grade. I became so frustrated with the inane assignments that my daughter was expected to complete that I posted this video capturing my daughter completing a word search (38 minutes that neither of us will ever get back) on a recent evening:

Video: Last Night’s Homework (1 minute)


We suspect that my daughter and I could have put our limited evening time together to better use than laboring over a word search. Our PLN pal (also a parent), Adam Bellow (@adambellow), has shared his own frustrations on the topic of homework on more than one occasion, including this wonderful short video he created two years ago about the dreaded “Homework Packet.”


Video: The Homework Packet (1 minute) via @adambellow

Honestly, we are a bit surprised that homework packets, word searches, and other random assignments still go home with such regularity. We have many strong feelings about this issue, enough to fill a book as opposed to a mere blog post. For now, however, let us first take a page from our revolutionary pal Patrick Henry by suggesting, if nothing else, we must either give it purpose…or give it death. To elaborate just a bit, let us share just five quick additional points:

  1. First, we are not advocates for never assigning homework. Adopting such a rigid stance presents almost as many problems as having a policy FOR assigning a certain amount of homework each night. Like most issues we face in education, homework is not a black/white, always/never issue and it behooves us to align with neither side of extremist stances. What we do stand for, however, is ensuring that any homework assigned is…
  2. Assigned with intention. Every single homework assignment we expect kids to complete should be assigned with a clear purpose in mind–for every student expected to complete it, which leads us to…
  3. Not all homework should be assigned to all students. Even our educator friends who advocate for no homework policies agree that, if there is a legitimate purpose to homework, that purpose is to practice skills first learned at school. We find it highly dubious that every child in any given classroom of 20 or more students needs the exact same amount of practice on the exact same content. When we do assign homework for practice, it should be…
  4. Differentiated to meet the needs of each individual student. To use a medical analogy, when we diagnose (through daily formal and informal formative assessments) that a student is showing symptoms indicating a need for some type of support, we might well start by prescribing additional practice during class or at home. However, we should no more prescribe the same type/amount of homework practice for every student than we would prescribe the same medical remedy for wildly varying ailments, as evidenced shown in this video:

Video: Prescribing Homework (2 minutes)

In a recent post, another friend, Eric Sheninger, touched on key differences between personalizing versus differentiating learning. We think this subtle, yet significant, distinction applies to learning at home as well. When not assigning homework for targeted, intentional practice, we may want to assign it to inspire individual exploration/extension of learning. This type of homework assignment should be personalized based upon the individual student. However, whereas in differentiation of homework assignments, we differentiate based on the academic needs of the student, in personalization we again differentiate, but based on the academic interests, passions, and desires of the student.

CC image by JFXie

CC image by JFXie

Discussing homework often provokes strong reactions among teachers, students, and parents, with views ranging from those insisting on certain amounts of homework nightly to those insisting we abolish homework altogether. Although there is no clear consensus on this topic, we believe it is important to start with a somewhat obvious question, “What is our purpose in assigning homework?” and then–assuming we can identify a legitimate reason–intentionally differentiating our tasks by asking kids to complete additional (but limited) amounts of practice to reinforce learning based on their needs and to personalize assignments by challenging students to extend their learning after school hours by exploring topics based on their interests and passions.

The debate regarding homework is likely to continue and we do not profess to have a one-size-fits-all answer, anymore than we would assign one-size-fits-all homework, but here are two final challenges:

CC image by JohnnyMrNinja

Like many of you, we are not only educators, but also parents, and we have experienced the homework challenge from both ends of the spectrum. Full disclosure: Once we became parents, our perspectives changed a bit as we saw first-hand how homework impacted our families, oftentimes negatively. So as a challenge to teachers everywhere, we encourage a practice we first learned from Nick Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher), who took it upon himself as a teacher to actually complete himself all homework assignments he assigned to his students. We wonder, as he did, “…how much homework teachers would give if they were expected to complete it.” To be fair, however, it is often our parents, not our teachers, who expect and even demand that we assign homework. To parents, we suggest asking your children, “If you could do any kind of work for a homework assignment, what would that be?” Our guess? Your child(ren) will likely NOT ask to do something meaningless like a word search or writing their spelling words five times each. On the other hand, they may answer–as my daughter did when asked that very same question, “I’d like to create my own country and design its flag. Then I would build my country in Minecraft for other kids to see.”

Although some of our friends still lament the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we actually believe that when it comes to homework, the Common Core–interpreted at face value and implemented with fidelity–compels us to act in a way that will actually result in a decrease of mindless homework assignments. The overarching goal of the CCSS–to ensure that all kids leave their PK-12 experience college and career ready–is a noble goal; we are hard pressed to argue against kids leaving us fully prepared for the next stage of their lives. Alas, assigning mindless homework to all kids, without taking into account their current knowledge and skillset and not allowing choice and interest to play a role in whether or what kind of homework to assign strike us as ways to actually do the opposite.

So, we ask: Is the work we are assigning our kids to complete at home tonight designed to prepare them for their tomorrow? If not, let’s reconsider. Deciding if and when to assign homework can be problematic to say the least; it might behoove us to put on our medical hats when considering what to assign. Monitoring our students’ learning “symptoms,” “diagnosing” their current status, and based on such diagnoses, “prescribing” a course of action (including, perhaps, no homework at all if the “patient” is healthy) is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!

2 thoughts on “Homework: Give It Purpose or Give It Death!

  1. I completely agree!! I have been hoping for a district policy on homework since my kids started years ago! Maybe, the teachers, admin and parents can come together and create a statement on homework assignments that reflects the current research. It would be so nice to have kids playing again with their friends afterschool instead of rushing home, stressed, to complete homework assignments. You are only young once!!!

  2. Thank you for your comment, JPR. We are working with teachers to evaluate the purpose of the homework assignments that students are being asked to do outside of school hours. While we do not intend to make a district mandate on the amount of homework assigned, I can assure you that we are taking a hard look at what we are asking our students to do and how that activity supports the learning taking place inside our classrooms! Hopefully, this will lead to less busy work and more time for meaningful learning.

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