This is a revised version of a post originally to my own blog.

When I’m doing math homework, I just really go fast and crazy, and in the end I still don’t understand it, really. It’s just a lot of pressure. And it shows: I’m always tired in class, because I spent all my night doing my homework! Teachers don’t see “Vivian totally understands that.” They see “Vivian did her homework.” – vivian (Fires in the Mind)

Vivian’s words should be a source of reflection for everyone involved in education. What is the purpose of homework? Clearly, in Vivian’s experience homework is about getting some busy work done. It is not about consolidating learning or mastering skills and understandings. Is her experience different from those of students in our classrooms? Worth pondering.

I’ve just downloaded the kindle version of Kathleen Cushman’s “Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell us About Motivation and Mastery” after thoroughly enjoying the sample chapter addressing the issues surrounding homework shared by Lyn Hilt during a previous #elemchat on twitter. That chapter alone now falls into the category of “must reads for educators”, in my opinion. It asks us to reexamine our current practices when assigning homework to our students. The homework discussion also resonates with recent discussions we have been having about how to incorporate the practices associated with mastering a sport or a musical instrument (effective and timely feedback, small instructional chunks, practice, practice, practice, etc…) into our teaching and learning.

Through listening deeply to students’ voices on the topic of homework as deliberate practice, Cushman proposes the following “four R’s of deliberate homework”:

- Readying themselves for new learning
- Repetition and application of knowledge and skills
- Reviewing material learned earlier, and
- Revising their work.

All of these categories require mindful work on behalf of students, which leads me to wonder how we best prepare students to work meaningfully at home? When we begin a new instructional year, are we explicitly teaching the skills and attitudes students will draw upon to make the most of the time they spend working independently at home? This goes back to the skills of acquiring, evaluating and synthesizing information. A basketball player who goes to the neighbourhood court to practice lay-ups doesn’t do so without practicing with the immediate feedback and encouragement of a coach and/or peers first.

And it is important to ask why the same kid who spends hours on the court might rush through homework assignments or neglect them altogether. A few questions to consider:

- Is the homework assigned personally relevant to the needs of the learner?
- Is everyone in the class getting the same homework regardless of their individual strengths and needs?
- Is homework being assigned because of a policy / parental pressure / because it has always been assigned?
- Is homework only consolidation or learning or preparation for upcoming lessons, or could it be service-oriented and ongoing?

If the last people being considered when homework is assigned are the students, something is amiss and someone needs to initiate the conversation. Taking a cue from Cushman, I would be very interested to know what students want to see when it comes to homework. Consider the following pieces of advice from students with whom Cushman worked:

- Make sure we know what purpose the homework serves. Write it at the top of the assignment, so we remember it!
- Use our homework! Look at it, answer our questions, and show us why it matters.
- Don’t take off points for wrong answers on homework. It’s practice!
- Cooperate with other teachers so our total homework load is reasonable.
- Give us time to start our homework in class, so you can help if we have trouble.
- When appropriate, assign different tasks to match what each of us needs.
- Match homework to the time we have available. Let us know how long you expect us to spend on it, and don’t penalize us if we can’t finish.
- Don’t give us homework every day. Having several days to do it helps us learn to manage our time.
- Create places in school for sustained academic support: tutoring time, study halls, hours when you are always available for help. (Fires in the Mind)

Finally, if you are looking for some alternatives to traditional homework, Cushman’s students provided the following:

(Fires in the Mind)

(Thanks to Lyn Hilt for sharing the book, Fires in the Mind, on twitter.)

Thank you, Shannon, for this thoughtful post that takes so seriously what kids—and learning scientists!—know about homework. It’s a thorny subject, and this summer I’ve been developing a half-day workshop for educators who are ready to dig in and figure it out together, using their own homework as material. Meanwhile I will post good examples readers send in on our “Fires in the Mind dot org” blog for discussion!

Great post. Some things I have found helpful when assigning homework:

1. Solid school policy. Administrators have explicitly stated that students should have 10 minutes of work per grade level. 3rd graders get 30 minutes, 4th graders get 40 minutes, etc. This includes at-home, independent reading. Students can do more if they wish, but those time limits are the most we can require.

2. A clear understanding of the purpose of the homework (as you stated). On parent night (http://wp.me/p1Dq2f-bk), I was clear that the purpose was for students to review classroom lessons and establish routine. It’s good for students to get in the habit of sitting at a table for x-minutes of focused work time. Then it’s good for them to play.

3. Anticipate that a certain percentage of parents will want to know what their children are doing. This week, I have insisted my student learn the partial sums and partial differences model of calculation. I posted YouTube videos on my homework site (https://sites.google.com/site/janetabercrombieportfolio/classroom-website) to help them understand the procedure and help their kids as necessary.

4. Differentiate homework, giving students some choice. I specify that I want students to work on math for 20 minutes. They can choose to do a review (Meet expectations) or take on a challenge (exceed expectations). For literacy, I expect that students will write at home for 60 minutes per week and read for 60 minutes per week. They can choose which days they do which work, but they must log what they have done and show me their progress throughout the week. Students can choose to double-up on days they have fewer after-school activities.

Janet | expateducator.com

Unconventional ideas right there, but I would love to try several of them!

Also, I wholeheartedly agree with teachers making it a point to use the students’ homework answers. Overlooking this belittles the value of homework. If you can’t spend 5 minutes going over their answers, then don’t expect your students to look forward to spending 10 minutes of their time on your worksheets.

As a side note, I also wrote about the PERFECT homework here: http://luria-learning.blogspot.com/2011/06/perfect-homework.html

Just do one thing at a time. In the end you will finish it and everything will be fine. Don’t stress too much.

This being from the point of view of a student:

The “Alternatives to Traditional Homework” looks great and all. However, in some cases it can seem like “you” (the teacher, in this case), are just trying to fill in time. When teachers try to make things interesting, it often doesn’t work. However, this is often because I already understand the concept – often before the teachers teach us anything. This happens for most of my friends. Review sheets and such don’t really take any effort when you have a good understanding of the concept – the alternatives given nearly always do, and in many cases simply create more stress.

Also, quite a few seem to involve giving the student’s work to the class. Never underestimate the power of peer pressure! When teachers have tried to give my class some of the examples given, I and my friends have gone out of our way to give in an “average” product, since it doesn’t count for anything and, although we do seem to be the “nerdy” group of the grade, we don’t want to emphasise that too much.

Reading this comment, it seems fairly… incoherent. However, I don’t really know how to make it more readable, so I suppose I have to leave it as it is.

I think it is important to be available after school to give support and to be flexible but consistent. I always spend time going over hw assigned…why else would I assign it. In math I think hw is essential. Whenever possible, I assign by the week to allow for sports and other commitments, and the hw is always 2 sided. The first side on the current concept, and the second, “remembering”, so students always have practice on earlier concepts learned. In addition, I always give 2 grades for hw. 1 grade is always on effort. Any student completing the assignment on the day it was due receives a grade of 100 percent for effort. If students come in and tell me they had trouble they can stay after school that day and receive full credit. All students can learn math. Practice is essential. Outside of class time is needed. If it can not happen at home, it can happen in my room after school.