Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Creating Better Homework

I've been on a tear lately against "crappy homework." I've written before about how I think homework assigned to "teach responsibility" is misguided; I still stand by this argument. More recently, I've been thinking about how bad most of the homework I assigned as a middle school teacher was, and how we can make homework better. I've also been encouraging teachers to think about homework from a parent's perspective, something I did not do enough of as a middle school teacher.

All of this has stirred up some good conversations with friends and fellow educators--I'm always grateful for feedback and pushback on my thinking!--but a common theme in response has been, "So what do you think we should do about this, Dave?"

Public Domain Image
via Wikimedia
That's fair. As Teddy Roosevelt once said,

"Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is whining."

And...I think he's right. So, lest I be accused of simply whining about the sorry state of affairs when it comes to homework, let's start thinking about how we might go about creating better homework.


In an article in the October 2015 issue of Christian Educators Journal (I'm sorry that this is not yet online, or I would link it here...) David Smith shared his thoughts on homework in a piece entitled, "Resisting Homework as Solitary Confinement." I love that title. It resonates so clearly with what I am feeling and thinking about the nature of "good" homework. Just one quote I'll share here now:
After a long day at school, the kinds of tasks and the quantity of tasks assigned for homework often seem to lead mostly to the evening hours being spent sequestered over books or laptop, working alone, and eventually too tired for much conversation. During busy parts of the school year, the quantity and nature of the tasks regularly casts us parents in the role of naggers ("What homework do you have tonight? Have you started your project yet?") and subverters ("It's midnight; you need to stop trying to make it better--it will be good enough. Just get it done quickly.") ...What if we thought about homework differently?
I am right with Smith on this. Let's begin to think about homework differently.

I think Smith is correct about the appropriate role for the parents--neither as naggers nor as subverters. Also, fellow educators, we have to be mindful about both the quality of the work we assign, as well as the quantity of work our students take home. Further, I think that we teachers must think about the way we assess homework.

The problem for me at the moment is finding time to craft a full articulation of what I see as a better plan, a better approach for homework. If you're interested in reading the things I am reading about and thinking about and reflecting upon as I percolate, here are a few suggestions:

  • Read some good stuff from @CVULearns! (PSA: If you are a teacher on Twitter and not following these fine folks...well, you should be.) Stan and Emily have created these homework resources especially for educators in standards-based environments, but I think their insights are appropriate and applicable to any sort of teaching situation, whether standards-based or not. You should definitely check out their infographic on "good" homework practices, or if you prefer it in straight-up text format, here's a document they created that gets at the same ideas.
  • Harris Cooper is a Professor of Psychology at Duke, and he is definitely one of the "names" in the scholarly research-base about homework. One of his widely-cited articles is available here, and if you like to wade into heavy-duty education-ese and qualitative meta-analysis, this one is for you. (My one sentence summary: homework has some benefits for some students in some circumstances, but there are many factors that influence the effectiveness of homework.)
  • I would be remiss to not mention @rickwormeli2, because his work has been so influential for my thinking about what is "fair" for kids. (Again, if you're a tweeting teacher, you should definitely be following Rick!) Here is one excellent piece from Rick to help spur some thinking about improving the quality of homework.
  • Alfie Kohn is a school reform advocate/school culture critic/squeaky wheel that some people love and some people hate. Overall, I'd say I agree with much of what I've read from Kohn over the years. Here's one piece from some time ago that he wrote about rethinking homework.

For those who want to cut to the chase, here are my four suggestions for improving homework:
  1. School and home must truly partner in the best interest of the kids
  2. We need to differentiate homework, recognizing that different kids need different things. This means we need to assign better homework that is in line with what kids actually need to practice.
  3. At the middle school and high school levels, we need to communicate with colleagues about the amount of homework being assigned. (No excuses. We must do this.)
  4. We need to stop grading homework for compliance. 
I plan to follow up this post with one or more that elucidates on these four points, as time allows. (Ideally, I'd like to write a post giving more information on each of these.) If I've piqued your interest, I hope you'll read on in future posts for my reasoning for and research behind making these claims. And, as always, I hope this is fodder for conversation, so please feel free to leave your comments--both feedback and pushback--in response.


  1. So... #3: "At the middle school and high school levels, we need to communicate with colleagues about the amount of homework being assigned. (No excuses. We must do this.)" Seriously. I work at a middle school. I am on a team. We meet EVERY DAY for 40 minutes. How is it that the amount of homework we're giving kids NEVER comes up? Oh, I'm wrong. It does. The two ELA teachers (me and one other) are practically scolded once in a while when we hear, "Really? Your only homework is to READ for 20 minutes? And how do you grade that?" (We DON'T.) We HAVE, however, started a calendar for students to see (and now WE see it) when tests & quizzes will be coming up. This has spurred some good conversation. I can bet they won't want to add homework to this list ("It's all on Edline"), but I will suggest it in January.

    And #4: "We need to stop grading homework for compliance." Seriously. Isn't it time teachers stop acting like dictators just because they can??!! This one makes the hair on my back stand up.

    Keep writing, Dave!

    1. Thanks for the response, Joy! I have a lot of strong feelings about the way we grade in general...but grading for compliance is the worst. We can do better!

      I hope to have some time (sometime soon) to write more on these; thanks for the encouragement!