Homework: Much Ado About Nothing?

Dear Faculty and Staff:

Homework-free ASD? Who would say such a thing? In all seriousness, the reaction from students, faculty, and parents has been interesting to watch. I have always believed that homework gets too much credit for academic success, and at the same time, too much blame for what is wrong with schooling. The debate on homework goes back more than a century, and the quantity of homework has waxed and waned.

The voices of anti-homework advocates (I count myself as one) have grown louder in recent years as we learn more about the brain, how students learn, and the skills and dispositions they will need to thrive in today’s marketplace. In my opinion, viewing the homework debate as binary—homework or no-homework—is a mistake. There is surely learning best suited for the school setting, and learning best suited for the home environment.

“But homework worked for us!” goes a common retort from parents or teachers when the convention of homework is challenged. Did it really? If you think back on activities or assignments that were memorable, would they include completing worksheets, practicing long problem sets, reading textbooks, and responding to questions?  Perhaps endeavors such as reading novels, writing stories, creating art, or practicing music were more memorable. I would argue that the former has no place in today’s educational context, and the latter shouldn’t be labeled as “homework”.

Let us not forget that schooling as we know it was set up in 1892 by the “Committee of Ten” to sort students into university- or vocational-bound silos, and high schools in particular remain remarkably unchanged since that time. Because the current  generation of students is the most compliant on record, the excessive time spent on low-quality homework is leading this generation to also become the most maladjusted group of our age. (To learn more about what the homework research says, and specific suggestions for teachers, see this white paper by Stanford University’s “Challenge Success” consortium.)

I often turn to New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman to synthesize my thoughts on our world today. His latest book, Thank You For Being Late, does a fantastic job at explaining to a lay person like me the monumental acceleration that’s taken place since 2007 due to advancements in technology. In the past, there were high-wage, high-skilled jobs; there were middle-wage, middle-skilled jobs; and there were high-wage, middle-skilled jobs. It’s the last one (high-wage, middle-skilled) that has disappeared in the marketplace. “Average is officially over”, writes Friedman. This helps explain the current pressure on the North American middle class.

Adaptability through self-motivated, on-demand learning (aka “re-skilling”) is widely deemed by futurists as the top attribute this current generation needs, even more so than social and emotional competencies (though those are very important), and much more so than most of the content knowledge we convey in traditional schooling (what Harvard’s Project Zero guru David Perkins calls “niche-learning”).

More from the book (p. 205):

Thriving in today’s workplace is all about what LinkedIn’s co-founder Reid Hoffman calls investing in “the start-up of you.” No politician in America will tell you this, but every boss will: You can’t just show up. You need a plan to succeed….

Today, argues Zach Sims, the founder of Codecademy, “you have to know more, you have to update what you know more often, and you have to do more creative things with it” than just routine tasks. “That recursive loop really defines work and learning today. And that is why self-motivation is now so much more important”….

“In today’s knowledge-human economy it will be human capital–talent, skills, tacit know-how, empathy, and creativity,” (Byron Auguste) added. “These are massive, undervalued human assets to unlock”–and our educational institutions and labor markets need to adapt to that. (p. 207)

We are hearing more and more from ASD’s graduates that these sentiments are true—that their lived experience in the workforce has required constant re-skilling in order to remain competitive.

So where does homework fit into this equation? To me, it makes the case for eradicating bad homework much more urgent. “Bad” is perhaps too strong a word, and it is not meant to be a criticism of you, our amazing teachers. On the contrary, I have been impressed by the good work the three divisions have done on this issue. We’ve made excellent progress, but there is a final push necessary to get us to where we need to be.

Let’s rebrand homework as home learning. We, the educators, drive the learning at school (as we should). Should we not, then, given what we know about today’s context, allow students to drive their learning at home? It’s a prime opportunity to promote “voice and choice”, an ASD initiative fundamental to our improvement agenda.

In the recent crowdsourcing endeavor with middle and high school students through allourideas.org, over 28,000 votes were collected in just a few days. Students voted on a variety of home learning choices (as either favorable or unfavorable), and they could submit their own ideas. Here is a list of responses that received more favorable than unfavorable ratings, in order of strength:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Spending time with my friends and my family
  • Following a passion which is outside the scope of the school curriculum
  • Being physically active, such as playing sports
  • Getting work experience in an area I am interested in
  • Enjoying a hobby of my own
  • A balance of school and freedom
  • Having time to explore my own interests and learn about the world
  • Learning and practicing skills
  • Practicing problems that I choose myself based on what I’m struggling with
  • Practicing important skills for class and personal enjoyment
  • Having free time to do whatever I want
  • Getting involved in school activities and different community service groups
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Visiting museums, art galleries, fashion shows, theatre performances, etc.
  • Doing service learning in the community
  • Building something with my hands
  • Having optional work to do if I want extra support in a class
  • Teaching back what I learned that day to another student or person to solidify my knowledge
  • Learning something new, when I become interested in it, until I move onto the next thing I am interested in
  • Doing art: drawing, painting, sculpture, etc.
  • College transition program (how to live alone, etc.)
  • Play (unstructured)
  • Having a discussion with someone at home about what I learned in class
  • Enjoy the city I live in
  • Revising something that I got feedback on in class that day
  • Doing some independent research
  • Practicing without having to be told what to do

Out of the mouths of babes! There is nothing in there that I would brand as “bad homework”. Instead, this is the home learning that aligns with future-readiness.  

It is the first and last items that particularly caught my attention. Sleep speaks to the fact that our current generation of students (and teachers) are exhausted on a regular basis. (As I write this on a Saturday afternoon, my daughter is fast-asleep.)

“Practicing without having to be told what to do” can be reworded as “Directing my learning without having to be told what to do.”  Here’s the crux of the argument: let’s give our students the space, guidance, and encouragement to direct their learning—to not only prepare for the next lesson, but to prepare them for life. Let’s take the homework-bull by the horns and release our control over it so we can focus our time and energy on more impactful facets of the learning experience, i.e. the curriculum, instruction, and assessments. We need only to look to our colleagues in the elementary school, who have already rebranded homework as home learning, and have achieved homework-free environments. Let’s finish the K-12 vertical alignment.

What’s next? Shift will not happen overnight, though you can take the sentiment in this blog as permission to continue revising your approach to homework—to not feel pressure from our parents to give homework that you know is not good home learning. In October, I will convene a task force to envision what Home Learning (a homework-free ASD) could look like, and suggest some sensible strategies and actions to put into place. Speak to your Principal if you are interested in this opportunity, to seek clarification on how far you can go with your homework disruptions, or simply to share your experience with this issue.

In stewardship,

Dr. Paul Richards
ASD Superintendent

Posted in ASD

One thought on “Homework: Much Ado About Nothing?

  1. Very well said. I applaud your courage to make positive changes in education. Your gentle strength is comforting and your leadership based in core civic virtues is inspiring. Thank you.

    Like

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