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Challenge: Back to School 2021

Should We Just Say "No" To Homework?

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Last week I released a new DO WIT podcast episode. In the episode I shared my “hot take” on homework. Since then a youtube short of this opinion has gone viral and invited many comments and opinions. It ended up in the inbox of Eric Walters, Director of STEM at Marymount School, who reached out after watching the video.

After reading his email I asked if we could have a chat about what he has done to decrease the stress of his students by changing his homework policy.


Here’s an excerpt - I hope you find it helpful!

Before making your adjustment, what was your previous approach to homework?

My approach to homework was pretty standard. Textbook readings or reviewing content and practice problems were the norm. Students were also expected to complete application assignments, usually connecting what they have learned with the “real world,” along with writing lab reports and studying for unit tests. In hindsight, I was asking them to do a lot of work outside of class.

What is your new approach to homework?

Quite by accident, I happened upon the homework policy of The Ashfield Comprehensive School, located in Kirkby in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, UK, which states, “Students in Year 10-11 should have between 45 minutes to an hour per subject, per week.” In mid October, I announced the change in homework policy to my students and I have pretty much tried to stick to that guideline. If students find they are doing more than one hour per week, they let me know.

I have also eliminated the big “end of unit” assessments which were significantly stress inducing for students and which were not the best measure of student mastery. We alternate between an ungraded formative assessment one week and a graded fifteen minute assessment the next. Students receive a weekly measure on their progress and I am able to more quickly modify instruction to meet their needs as learners.

Work completed outside of class includes textbook readings or reviewing content, optional practice problems, or completing a formative assessment. More of the work, like problem solving and lab data analysis, has been moved “into the classroom.”

Why did you decide to adjust your homework policy?

For the past year, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the arc of learning we ask students to complete during the day. A student’s daily school schedule requires them to do a significant amount of code-switching during the day. Students are constantly realigning their learning persona to match each teacher’s teaching persona. We then ask students to go home and complete that same schedule all over again. So, in effect, we are asking students to do two full-time jobs, learning new content during the day and then applying what they have learned at night. I know I struggle with the amount of code-switching I need to do during the day. I can only imagine how challenging that would be for a teenager.

What has the impact been?

We have built a stronger community! Because the students work collaboratively in class to solve problems or to analyze and discuss their lab data, I find that their mastery of the content and of data analysis skills is slowly improving. I also find I am spending less time responding to questions outside of class.

One student noted, “When I would be working outside of class on problems or on my labs, and I would get stuck, that was it. I might reach out to our group chat or I might email you [Mr. Walters], but the learning essentially stopped.”

As a teacher, I have to be more thoughtful and more intentional about what I assign for “outside of class activities” and what tasks I want students to complete in class. There are times, though, when due to changes in the school schedule, for example, that I may need to violate the 45 minutes to 1 hour policy. It has only happened once or twice, but I will always explain why I need to violate the 45 to 1 hour policy. As a result, students are more accepting of the “violation” because they know I have tried my best to stay true to the policy.

How are the students feeling about the change?

I conducted a non-scientific survey in February. The responses are overwhelmingly positive.

“This approach has impacted my learning positively by teaching me how to practice concepts more independently and efficiently, developing my curiosity for the subject, and lowering my stress levels.”

“This approach has impacted my learning by shifting my focus from just "getting through" the work, to caring about the learning process more and understanding the concepts because I now have more time.”

“I like the consistent checks rather than larger ones because it makes building on learning a lot easier.”

“I think this has decreased my stress level because I'm not stressing out about completing large amounts of homework, but I'm instead focused on understanding the material.”

Any feedback from parents? School staff?

We started this approach just before parent/student/teacher conferences in November, so I spent time explaining the new learning guidelines to parents then. At our recent conferences in March, the feedback from parents was also overwhelmingly positive.

What would you say to a teacher who is on the fence about changing their homework approach?

We talk a lot about student health and wellness and student workload. Have a conversation about what is feasible and what is realistic in terms of homework guidelines. While my approach has worked for my classes, it may not work for everyone. And that’s ok. But have that conversation. You will be glad you did - and so will your students.

Are you a teacher who has adjusted how they assign homework? Are you a student with an opinion about homework? I want to hear from you!

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