Homework has been getting a lot of attention in the media. My Twitter feed is full of articles and blogs discussing the research on homework, particularly at the elementary level, and how counterproductive it can actually be. As a parent and teacher, I find this conversation is particularly interesting.
As a parent, I marvel at the amount of work my own children–2nd and 4th grade–bring home on a weekly basis. Selfishly, I feel homework at the elementary level is an intrusion into the limited time I get with my kids in the evenings and weekends. My children spend 6+ hours in a classroom with their teachers each day. I want the 4+ hours they have after school to be dedicated to exploring other interests–sports, instruments, playing in the backyard, building random art projects out of old boxes, and reading. In the long run, I think this break from academic tasks beyond the classroom will actually keep students more engaged at school.
Because I clearly saw the value of not assigning homework elementary level, I had to take a closer look at why I was assigning homework at the high school level. Wasn’t the argument for needing a brain break after a long day at school just as valid for teenagers? Don’t teenagers also need time to pursue other interests and spend time with their families?
If I’m honest, there are three clear reasons that initially motivated my decision to assign homework every night: 1) I never had enough time to cover everything in class, 2) I believed students needed to learn to manage their time outside of class and develop important study habits, and 3) I was assigned homework in high school. Despite having clear motivations for assigning homework, I always worried I gave students too much homework. Too many students entered my class blurry eyed and exhausted after late nights spent doing work. It was even worse for those students juggling sports, debate, student government, or afternoon jobs.
Then in 2013, Stanford University released research that “found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance in their lives, and alienation from society.” As I read this, I felt guilty. I knew I was contributing to my students’ stress and lack of balance. I knew I had to do something different, but I felt trapped. How was I going to get through everything without assigning homework?
That’s was one of many factors that led me to design N.E.W. School, a pilot program at my high school where I co-teach English, science, and technology with another teacher. We share 60 students in two adjoining rooms for 4.5 hours every other day. Instead of teaching the three classes in isolation, we teach them in concert focusing on a central topic for each unit that ties their readings, labs, and online work together.
As I planned the program, I realized that if we had students for 4.5 hours every other day, it didn’t make sense to then send them home with additional work like a traditional class. Instead, we plan our lessons with clear daily, weekly and unit tasks/goals. Students have time to work on specific tasks and projects in class and revisit them throughout the day, week, and unit if they need additional time to complete them.
The only work students do for N.E.W. outside of class is additional practice if they feel they need it or work on a project if they were unable to finish that work in class. For example, if we are working on a vocabulary list, I’ll create a Vocabulary.com review they can access throughout the unit to continue practicing the words both in and outside of class if they choose. If students are working on a project, they may need to invest additional time beyond class to complete their finished product before presenting their work to their peers, parents, and community.
As I reflect on the three reasons I used to assign homework, I realize none of them hold water now that I’ve developed N.E.W. School. I no longer feel like I’m in a race against the bell; I’ve got plenty of time to work with students. Students must still learn to manage their time and develop healthy study habits in the classroom because they have more time and autonomy in N.E.W. School. Finally, just because I had homework in high school doesn’t mean I should be assigning it. In fact, I feel like I’ve spent the better half of the last decade unlearning everything I was taught about teaching and learning.
For those teachers who read this and think, “Well, I don’t teach in a program like that. I can’t just get rid of homework.” I want to encourage you to start having conversations with your administration and fellow teachers now about how you can rethink your schedule and the way classes are taught at your school. I’m just a teacher who had an idea inspired the reading and research I have done on education and school design. I approached my principal and said I wanted to try something new. I’m not going to pretend that bringing this new program to fruition wasn’t challenging, it was. But it was also worth it.