Homework Should Be Meaningful

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I’ll admit it: I love summer, but I love the start of the new school year even more. I think my kids do too, although they’re hesitant to admit it.

We are a family that thrives on routine, we love fall and winter sports, and since I’m an education geek and my husband is a huge history buff, we truly enjoy talking with our kids about the things they’re learning at school.

There is only one thing that dampens our back to school spirit: homework.

Plenty has been written about the horrors of homework, and I have little to add. I have watched certain kids fall in love with learning as a result of the homework they do though, and I’ve learned much about how to make that learning manageable from some pretty terrific teachers too. Here’s the best of what I’ve discovered:

5 Ways to Make Homework Meaningful and Manageable

1. Put kids in control of their learning. Attend to what must be learned during class time so that your students can choose the learning experiences they pursue at home. Many teachers expect their students to read every night. What they read is their choice, though. What if learners were expected to engage in research, write, or problem solve independently but had the opportunity to choose how they met this expectation and for what purposes?

2. Promote the use of digital tools and resources that empower students to learn independently. Teach students how to curate and share resources using social bookmarking sites. Introduce them to resources like Schmoop and Khan Academy. Better yet, invite them to make and share their own tutorials. Make sure they know how to access the databases that your school and community libraries make available to them as well as online communities that enable them to connect to others who share their interests.

3. Keep it real. When kids know that the stuff they are learning and producing will be shared and likely appreciated by others, they work hard to impress. Authenticity motivates in ways that worksheets do not. Save the guided practice for class so that students can use what they learn to create meaningful things for people who will use them.

4. Timing matters. My youngest daughter loves to play sports, and I can say with absolute confidence that the learning she does on the field and ice is just as important as the learning that happens in the classroom and at home. My oldest daughter is just as passionate about photography, design, and theater. Pursuing those “peripheral” activities helped her discover an exciting career path that she is incredibly passionate about.

We can’t assume that our course and the homework we assign takes precedent over other interests and hobbies. We can make sure that our students have every opportunity to achieve balance by providing them plenty of time to meet our expectations, though. This year, my daughter has a teacher who gives them a week to complete assigned work. This allows her to attend practices and still get to bed at a decent hour several nights a week. It allows her to give her full attention to her assignments on all of the other nights, too.

5. Inspire kids to focus on quality over quantity. How many times does a student need to solve a particular kind of problem in a particular kind of way in order to demonstrate proficiency? If we want a writer to engage in deep revision work, how many elements of craft should be attended to at once? If we want the new words that they learn to live in their day-to-day language and not simply in the blanks on a test paper, how many new words should we expect students to work with each day or week and how? Questions like these are powerful because they push us to consider the amount and type of homework we assign. This goes a long way toward curbing the homework madness.

Interested in considering other perspectives? This is what Mark has to say about homework. Good food for thought….

Tags:homework, parenting

About The Author

angelastockman

A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

Actually, thinking about it, maybe the title should read Homework: How to make it meaningful and manageable for students and teachers because homework needs to mean something to both students and teachers, and it needs to be managed by both parties too.

Homework is another of the many conundrums that exist in education. Although most ‘stakeholders’ agree (except for maybe the students themselves!), broadly speaking, that homework should be set; there is far less of a consensus about how schools should go about it.

I’ve been a teacher who has stood in front of class and said, ‘I’m only going to set homework when it’s really important. There’s a very good reason for this. If I set it, I’ll have to mark it!’ Now, whilst this was slightly tongue-in-cheek, it was also deadly serious too!

I’ve been a senior leader, wrestling and grappling with decisions about ‘Whole School Homework Policy’ too. Attempting to accommodate the various needs of a thousand kids, a hundred staff and over ten different subject areas is tricky enough. Condensing it all down into a document of just couple sides of A4 that actually has any real value is no mean feat.

But we are not here today to debate the wider issue of homework – the whys, the wherefores or the should we/shouldn’t we argument

This blog assumes, for better or worse, that your school has a homework policy and that there is an expectation that you set it regularly. It is about how you can make homework meaningful, manageable and make it count.

Making homework meaningful – Stick to some basic principles

In reality, when it comes to homework you may not be able to stick to your own principles. Like many things in schools, teachers are largely at the mercy of the decision-making of senior leaders. If you are a Maths teacher, and it has been decreed on the ‘School Homework Timetable’ that Year 8 must have homework every Tuesday and Wednesday; Year 9 on Monday of Week 1 and Thursday Week 2, and Year 11 every day, etcetera, then (whilst I pity you) it is what it is and you have to work with it. If your school has a less-rigid approach … Hallelujah!

Whatever, the homework situation is in your school, if you follow these same broad principles, you will set homework that is meaningful. They are that:

  1. Homework should give students an opportunity to review, practice and develop skills they already know.
  2. Homework should give students an opportunity to do something they enjoy.
  3. Homework should enable students to relate school with the real world.

Of course, you won’t be able to do all of these with every single piece of homework, but as key objectives to address as appropriate over time, you won’t go far wrong.

Independence and choice

Any ideas you can think of to put students in control of their own learning and develop independent skills is a real bonus. This can be as simple as allowing students to select from a homework menu that offers a choice of tasks. It could also be the freedom for students to approach a particular task or skill in a way that they choose.

Promoting and encouraging the use of digital tools, social media, blogging, video – there are a wealth of opportunities to be explored – will make tasks more engaging too.

Authenticity and real audiences

As an English specialist I’ve often wondered: How many times has a ‘letter to my headteacher’ been set as a task for students over the years?

And how many headteachers have actually seen these letters?

If homework can have a real context and the actual ‘work’ that is produced can be made for a real audience, all the better. It can be really powerful.

Keeping homework manageable

This is even more of a challenge. The devil is in the detail – of your homework planning.

If homework is to be meaningful, it needs to be valued. If students are to see the value of it, teachers need to be mark it in the same way classwork is marked. They need to see that you value it too.

There is plenty of scope for setting many worthwhile homework tasks that don’t require students to write down a response in their exercise book and for it to be marked in the conventional way. Okay, heads of department, SLT and Ofsted inspectors might all ‘smell a rat’, if all the homework you set is ‘reading’, ‘research’ and ‘revision’ – but don’t kill yourself with it either – you will need to mark it!

The key to making homework meaningful and keeping it manageable is to plan homework in a totally integrated way with a scheme of learning. It should not be an add-on or an afterthought.

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