What Is Homework, Anyway?
There are so many conversations happening every day that focus on homework. The benefits, the purpose, the best way to give homework and if it should be given at all. I used to assign homework almost every night in almost every class. For years, a big part of my practice involved assigning, grading and going over homework assignments. But then I started to think about how much time was being used in class going over the work, how many times it was not completed or only partially completed, and sometimes copied as well. So I shifted my focus to evaluate the types and the frequency of assignments I was giving. Over the past few years, I changed my thinking and moved away from a “one size fits all” assignment and moved toward a more personalized, authentic form of practice, that students can choose and that is kept open for them.
Talking with other educators at conferences and through Twitter chats, gathering feedback from my students, and because I am a foreign language teacher, I also had to find ways to eliminate student use of translators for their assignments. A combination of these experiences and even a little frustration from homework not being completed, led me to try some new methods in this area.
I first considered the types of assessments I use in my classroom. Looking at the needs and interests of my students, the overall frequency of homework completion, the type of homework, and even more closely, a look at the individuals within each group of students that I taught. I thought that I had to assign homework and it had to be the same. But after reflecting and trying new ideas, I now ask myself one question: Why? Why do I need to assign something, what is the purpose and what are the benefits for student learning? Will the task help the students to build their skills, in a meaningful and authentic way? Or is it just busy work.
Why I Decided To Do Something Different
I recognized a pattern when teaching a concept and I get that feeling like I just taught the exact same thing, in the same way, the day before. My “déjà vu” experience leads me to then consider the progress I am making with the curriculum in the current school year, and how I have paced my instruction based on covering the curriculum throughout the year. I emphasize the word “curriculum” because it was driving my instruction for a long time. But what I have come to realize is that I need to focus on the students, their needs and providing the best learning opportunities for them. The goal should not be to be at the same point at the same time each year, because students are not the same, and the daily class progress is not the same either.
I have had people tell me that being a teacher is easy after the first few years because the same plans are used, the lessons are taught at the same pace with the same assignments and tests each year. If that was true, then teaching would seem to be a rather easy and predictable profession. However, we all know that is not an accurate description of life as a teacher.
One of the times that I had this conversation with someone inspired me to closely examine my own teaching practice. What kind of materials was I using in class? How was I providing instruction for each of my students and did I use the same resources each year with each class? I wondered if I truly had been doing the same thing in my classroom every year for 20 years? Had I simply pulled out the folder and make copies of what I had used during each of the 19 years prior to that one?
Honestly and unfortunately, sometimes yes. I had. I used the same worksheet, or a similar part of a test in my classes over the years. Not because I was too lazy to create something new. Sometimes it was to provide a quick activity or assessment, and others it because I thought the materials were valuable for student learning.
Think About Homework In Your Classroom
Are you wondering about your own practice? If so, ask yourself the same questions and then reflect on your responses. If you have been doing the same thing, then it is time to make a few changes. What would work best for and help your students? We need to do more than just look at each individual class, we need to really look closely at the needs of each individual student. And this means that we must get to know our students and that comes from building relationships. We must understand where they’re coming from and what their individual needs are.
Do a homework experiment
I took a chance and did an experiment. We know that students often have a lot of homework. It is the way teachers have helped students to practice and figure out what they know and what they don’t know. It is only one of the many ways that teachers can assess students, provide instruction and valuable feedback. But do they all need homework every day? I used to think that I had to give students the exact same homework every day. My methods were a result of the experience I had as a student.
My experiment was to give students an opportunity to create a lesson, using their material, and become the teacher for a class period. One example was having the students decide on a verb tense to review and to simply come to class the next day with a way to teach the verbs. I said it could be something tangible like a written activity, or an activity that they found on a website, a video, a game, or another resource. I believed that with choices, the students would learn more and develop collaborative learning skills in the process.
What did they think?
While the students taught their lesson or led the activity, I interacted with each group to see what they had prepared. Some were using worksheets they had found online and added more vocabulary to it, there were some worksheets that students had created, handwritten pages of notes, sets of flashcards, a few had found websites with games or videos. The next time, a few students chose to create a game of Kahoot or Quizizz game, which was really helpful when it came to the vocabulary words and verb forms. They felt that the learning experience was personalized and they enjoyed the change.
Of course, I was nervous about doing this. It felt uncomfortable to not specify a particular format. It was a risk, but it was well worth it. Based on their feedback, the input I received was that they enjoyed being the teachers, the learning was more personal, they felt valued, and it was a more meaningful learning experience.
I have not given nightly homework in over a year. Instead we practice in class, work in stations, and students write a blog post once per week. They choose the topic and I simply read and give feedback and try to incorporate some of their work into our class activities. When they have time outside of class, I suggest some different learning tools or activities. I would rather that they spend time doing something that meets their needs and time, rather than everyone doing the exact same thing.
Take a chance
Don’t worry about now having the whole plan thought out. Sometimes we just need to take a risk and go with it. Giving up some control in the classroom is not always easy, but it is necessary. We need to step out of the way more and be okay with students taking the lead. It creates more opportunities for us to be the facilitators of learning, and we can provide more individualized instruction to our students. Step one is building relationships which are the foundation of education. When we have a solid foundation for learning in place, amazing things can happen.
What are your thoughts on homework? Please share!