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Professional Learning

A New Year’s Goal: Stop Giving So Much Homework

Creating more meaningful homework assignments

January 4, 2012

Setting goals, resolutions, or intentions might be on our minds this week. We've probably experienced that "resolutions" don't work -- we don't keep them for more than a week and they just end up making us feel bad about ourselves. So what does work?

As a coach, I support teachers and administrators to make behavioral changes in their professional (and sometimes personal) lives. Here are a few tried-and-true tips that work. Follow these parameters for your intentions for the new year and you're sure to have some success:

  1. Determine a clear, defined goal that really matters to you (and that will impact student success)
  2. Take small steps towards this goal
  3. Focus on new actions rather than on trying to avoid old behaviors

Goal: Three Hours in the Evening for Myself

A year ago, a teacher I coached, let's call her Samantha, had had it with spending every evening grading papers and lesson planning. She wanted support in changing this experience and we used a process similar to what is described in this article to set a goal for her for the new year.

First, we reflected on what had been working and not working. Samantha shared that the time she spent lesson planning was really paying off -- her lessons had never been more organized, she felt confident when delivering them, and her students were learning. She attributed this to the planning that took about an hour every evening.

What wasn't working was the amount of paper-grading she was doing. She collected daily exit tickets, which took about an hour to review and enter into her tracking system; and she spent about an hour and half to two hours every evening grading homework.

"What evidence do you have," I asked, "that reviewing the exit tickets is helping your students master this content?"

"That's easy," Samantha responded. "I use that data to plan the lesson for the next day. The time spent on exit tickets is essential. Without it I'd have no idea how my students were doing or what to do next."

Our conversation around homework wasn't as smooth or clear. Samantha felt attached to assigning the piles of work that had always been her routine, but she recognized that she couldn't point to the impact it was having on student learning. On the other hand, the impact that grading it was having on her evenings was clear. We decided to tackle the homework dilemma.

Samantha's goal became the following:

I will have three hours in the evening for myself. After I finish teaching, I will spend an hour reviewing my formative assessment data, an hour on lesson planning, and then I will be done with work for the day.

Reducing Meaningless Homework

We then did some reading and research on homework. As a coach, I've noticed that many teachers give homework as a routine, because it's expected, because it's used as part of a grade, or because they hope that students will master the skills through homework assignments. I also hear many complaints that students don't do homework, or when they turn it in, that teachers have too much to grade (and frequently don't grade it).

Homework is a hot issue right now. Many middle and high school students (predominantly in middle class and affluent schools) are assigned four to eight hours of homework a night. Students' exhaustion and stress levels are health concerns and parents are pressuring administrators to change their school's policies. Some elementary schools have banned homework until sixth grade.

So What Is Useful Homework?

Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, asks teachers to consider homework assignments through these three questions:

  1. Does the assignment give your students autonomy? (Do they get to decide how and when to do the work?)
  2. Does it promote mastery of a skill by offering an engaging task?
  3. Will students understand and believe in the overall purpose of the assignment?

When Samantha reflected on these questions, she recognized that much of her homework did nothing to further students' mastery. "No more meaningless homework!" she decided.

Initially, it took Samantha time to construct homework assignments that were meaningful and more time to explain them to students. But quickly she noticed a number of changes in her classroom: students were engaged in their "Extension Work," ("EW") and the assignments deepened the understanding they developed in class. Students seemed to look forward to EW -- 95 percent of students were turning it in on time, and parents were thanking her for reducing the amount of worksheet-homework she'd previously given. Best of all, Samantha met her goal: She had three hours (and often more) to herself in the evening. She was elated with this discovery.

"It was so easy," she said some months later. "I'm often done with work completely by 5:00pm. I thought it would be so much harder to make a huge change in my life, but it wasn't!"

That's really a myth, that making significant change is hard, I told her. I also explained to her that it can be much easier than we think if we focus on the right goal, take small steps, stop doing some things, and focus on what we want to do more of.

I'll be meeting with Samantha this week to help her determine her goals for this year. I'm excited to hear what she wants to take on.

Edutopia readers: What do you want to do more of this year? What will you stop doing? What small steps might lead towards a big goal?

For more reading on the homework debate:

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