I used to pride myself on my high expectations, including my firm commitment to accountability for regular homework completion among my students. But the trauma of Covid-19 has prompted me to both reflect and adapt. Now when I think about the purpose and practice of homework, two key concepts guide me: depth over breadth, and student well-being.
Homework has long been the subject of intense debate, and there’s no easy answer with respect to its value. Teachers assign homework for any number of reasons: It’s traditional to do so, it makes students practice their skills and solidify learning, it offers the opportunity for formative assessment, and it creates good study habits and discipline. Then there’s the issue of pace. Throughout my career, I’ve assigned homework largely because there just isn’t enough time to get everything done in class.
A Different Approach
Since classes have gone online, the school where I teach has made a conscious effort as a teaching community to reduce, refine, and distill our curriculum. We have applied guiding questions like: What is most important? What is most transferable? What is most relevant? Refocusing on what matters most has inevitably made us rethink homework.
We have approached both asking and answering these questions through a science of learning lens. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the authors maintain that deep learning is slow learning. Deep learning requires time for retrieval, practice, feedback, reflection, and revisiting content; ultimately it requires struggle, and there is no struggle without time.
As someone who has mastered the curriculum mapping style of “get it done to move on to get that next thing done,” using an approach of “slow down and reduce” has been quite a shift for me. However, the shift has been necessary: What matters most is what’s best for my students, as opposed to my own plans or mandates imposed by others.
Listening to Students
To implement this shift, my high school English department has reduced content and texts both in terms of the amount of units and the content within each unit. We’re more flexible with dates and deadlines. We spend our energy planning the current unit instead of the year’s units. In true partnership with my students, I’m constantly checking in with them via Google forms, Zoom chats, conferences, and Padlet activities. In these check-ins, I specifically ask students how they’re managing the workload for my class and their other classes. I ask them how much homework they’re doing. And I adjust what I do and expect based on what they tell me. For example, when I find out a week is heavy with work in other classes, I make sure to allot more time during class for my tasks. At times I have even delayed or altered one of my assignments.
To be completely transparent, the “old” me is sheepish in admitting that I’ve so dramatically changed my thinking with respect to homework. However, both my students and I have reaped numerous benefits. I’m now laser-focused when designing every minute of my lessons to maximize teaching and learning. Every decision I make is now scrutinized through the lens of absolute worth for my students’ growth: If it doesn’t make the cut, it’s cut. I also take into account what is most relevant to my students.
For example, our 10th-grade English team has redesigned a unit that explores current manifestations of systemic oppression. This unit is new in approach and longer in duration than it was pre-Covid, and it has resulted in some of the deepest and hardest learning, as well as the richest conversations, that I have seen among students in my career. Part of this improved quality comes from the frequent and intentional pauses that I instruct students to take in order to reflect on the content and on the arc of their own learning. The reduction in content that we need to get through in online learning has given me more time to assign reflective prompts, and to let students process their thoughts, whether that’s at the end of a lesson as an exit slip or as an assignment.
Joining Forces to Be Consistent
There’s no doubt this reduction in homework has been a team effort. Within the English department, we have all agreed to allot reading time during class; across each grade level, we’re monitoring the amount of homework our students have collectively; and across the whole high school, we have adopted a framework to help us think through assigning homework.
Within that framework, teachers at the school agree that the best option is for students to complete all work during class. The next best option is for students to finish uncompleted class work at home as a homework assignment of less than 30 minutes. The last option—the one we try to avoid as much as possible—is for students to be assigned and complete new work at home (still less than 30 minutes). I set a maximum time limit for students’ homework tasks (e.g., 30 minutes) and make that clear at the top of every assignment.
This schoolwide approach has increased my humility as a teacher. In the past, I tended to think my subject was more important than everyone else’s, which gave me license to assign more homework. But now I view my students’ experience more holistically: All of their classes and the associated work must be considered, and respected.
As always, I ground this new pedagogical approach not just in what’s best for students’ academic learning, but also what’s best for them socially and emotionally. 2020 has been traumatic for educators, parents, and students. There is no doubt the level of trauma varies greatly; however, one can’t argue with the fact that homework typically means more screen time when students are already spending most of the day on their devices. They need to rest their eyes. They need to not be sitting at their desks. They need physical activity. They need time to do nothing at all.
Eliminating or reducing homework is a social and emotional intervention, which brings me to the greatest benefit of reducing the homework load: Students are more invested in their relationship with me now that they have less homework. When students trust me to take their time seriously, when they trust me to listen to them and adjust accordingly, when they trust me to care for them... they trust more in general.
And what a beautiful world of learning can be built on trust.