We need to redefine homework in order to make it more effective for middle and high school students. By substituting homework as punishment, practice*, revision or preparation with homework that focuses on integration, creativity, thinking, collaboration and extension, homework can become a more meaningful, ongoing, and effective learning experience for senior school students.
PRACTICE DOES NOT MAKE PERFECT
I am with Alfie Kohn and the other homework denialists. I did, after all write a post titled ‘Homework is a Slimy, Smelly, Nasty Troll That Eats the Souls of Children’.
But since then, I have refined my thinking slightly. And I only agree with the anti-homeworkists IF you define homework as unguided, repetitive ‘practice’. And IF we are only talking about younger children.
In senior schools, most homework amounts to ‘practice’. But we now know that practice does NOT make perfect. (To use Kohn’s example, imagine a tennis player practicing without a coach. Almost no development will take place – without proper expert guidance, goal setting, correction, challenging, and fine-tuning.) Practice needs to be deliberate, well designed, and guided to be effective. And most homework is not.
But here’s the thing:
Not all homework is created equal. There are actually several species of homework. Some have absolutely no effect on meaningful learning, but some actually do.
If our focus is on life-long learning, and we do want to ensure that real, progressive learning takes place beyond the confines of the middle and high school classrooms, then there are some types of homework we should weed out, and some we should nurture.
(A note on nomenclature: It’s an interesting thing when a new compound word emerges. Words like cellphone and website which were originally two words slowly become one as they become more sanctioned and established. Homework is no different. In many countries, work done at home was frowned upon, but as the world has become more competitive, homework as a noun rather than a descriptive adjective became an accepted and established term. In what follows, I have taken the liberty of creating a series of compound words as alternatives to talking about homework in the hopes that they will become equally as established in as short a time as possible.)
To start with, here are the weeds:
SPECIES OF NASTY HOMEWORK
Unfortunately this does happen in schools. Obviously, no learning will ever happen with this kind of homework. I am by no means a behavioral expert, but I do believe it must be a bad idea to punish kids with school work.
It happens. In fact, it’s often unavoidable. More often than not, what results is something wilted, rushed and done for the sake of doing it. Inevitable, yes. Good for learning, no.
This fits into the ‘If I give them more to do, I will seem like a good teacher’ category of pedagogics. It needs to be rooted out and burnt.
Practicework / Revisionwork (Or Practisework if you must)
Although it seems like a beautiful idea on the surface, this type of homework is mostly poisonous. Sure, kids need to revise and practice to learn, but they need to do so in the right ways. Practice and revision can be made far more effective by grafting them to one of the flowering species listed below.
Again, in general, this is a great idea, but in practice, it seldom promotes any kind of real learning.
SPECIES OF FLOWERING HOMEWORK
Getting kids to work together on tasks promotes deeper learning. Combine this approach with one or two others below to form a beautiful bouquet. Collaborationwork could be done digitally, or as part of a supervised after school programme. Or, indeed, in class. (Homework in class he says! ’Yes’, he replies.)
This species of homework asks students to take what was in learnt in class further and deeper. It could be in the form of a rich discussion with family, as well as extra research or thinking (see below).
Why not ask kids to think about some interesting, rich questions or problems? They could record these thoughts in a learning diary. But it would also be great to get them to generate a list of their own deeper questions about the work convered in class. Thinkingwork works superbly well in tandem with collaboration work.
Creativework asks children to generate their own ideas, solutions and innovative products. Pair with collaborationwork.
Ask students to bring several of the things they’ve learnt over the last few weeks together by trying to find links, connections and commonalities between them. Works well when combined with creativework.
Imagine teachers and students speaking a new language of homework. Where the teacher assigns integrationwork and students ask if they can make it collaborationwork or creativework. I do think there will be a great deal more excitement around ongoing learning, and I also believe that it will be far easier to engender the habit of lifelong learning in our young people.
* Because so many of my wonderful readers are American, and because I honestly believe they have it right where spelling is concerned, I will use ‘practice’ with a ‘c’ as the verb. (American pragmatism for the win!)