A New Program and a New Approach to Homework

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.

Untitled drawing (1)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.

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20 Responses to A New Program and a New Approach to Homework

  1. Amy Zimmer says:

    We are lucky you asked!

  2. Pingback: A New Program and a New Approach to Homework | ...

  3. Wendy says:

    Very interesting and timely article. Thank you! I am in my second year of teaching 7/8 Reading and Writing and I often grapple with the HW issue. My question is this: what do you do about reading a novel? There doesn’t seem to be enough time in class to only read AND get through the novel in a timely manner (periods are only 42 min) and have time for close reading. Does having the students read at home count as HW (silly question I know) and if so how do you manage progressing through a book without reading at home?

    • Hi Wendy,

      As I alluded to in my blog post, I shifted to a new teaching assignment this year where I co-teach English, science, and technology. It means I have 4.5 hours with kids every other day. I wasn’t able to get through novels (in class) with students in a traditional teaching assignment where I had only 90 minutes every other day with students. However, I do anticipate that we will get most, if not all, the reading done during our day. We have independent reading time and students know they can read in our cozy corner if they finish their daily tasks.

      I think most of us assign homework because we just don’t have time to get through everything in class. Part of this is the way we choose to spend class time, but it is also a product of how much curriculum most of us have to cover in our classroom in limited time. I would love to see schools re-evaluate how they organize their classes and schedules. I don’t believe 45-60 minute classes are the best approach for a schedule.


  4. Wendy says:

    Hi Catlon thank you for your reply and insight. I do agree that it is very difficult to get much done in 42 minutes. I seem to rely mostly on mini lessons and independent/pair/group work. I also agree that 4 units is too many. I would rather do 2 units well than zoom through 4. Thanks again for your feedback. A lot to consider this year!

  5. P Sen says:

    I think the way out here would be to cut down on syllabus coverage. I really believe in ‘Less is More’. That way we can deep dive into concepts, and that way both students and teachers get time to reflect on their learning and teaching. My students reach home at 5 pm. Most of the parents are still at work at that time. Our school has an intensive Sports and Arts programme embedded in the curiculum. However, its not about keeping our children busy with sonething. Its about actually ‘taking a break ‘ from the scholastic and co scholadtic activities. I remember my childhood days when I spent a lot if time chatting with friends from the neighbourhood or with Grandparents and of course with parents. I also got time to do ‘my own thing ‘ . After that if I had to put in an hour of homework, it didn’t seem wrong. Maybe we also need to cut down our school timings. All stress starts because of this new ‘Day Boarding ‘ schedule that has been designed to suit working mothers. As a child, my most precious moments were my afternoons that I spent in my room playing imaginary games or reading with my mother. My daughter, too,has fortunately experienced the same. Well that was a different world!

  6. Chantel says:

    Hi Catlin!

    Do you have any first day ideas to share this year? I used your Socrative quiz last year and the kids loved it. Do you plan to use something like that again this year? Even after a decade of teaching, I still fret about the first day!


  7. Chantel says:

    Thanks! I actually get that publication and read it last night!

    • Oh good! I hope it provides some additional ideas. I also designed a Socrative Quiz called “Name that movie line” (SOC-12339252) that your students might enjoy.

      Take care.

  8. Helen Holland says:

    Hi Catlin,
    I thoroughly agree with everything you’ve said about homework. Additionally, research by John Hattie claims that much of the homework often set (e.g. projects) actually worsens the gap between socially disadvantaged students and their peers from more aspirational backgrounds; many students from disadvantaged backgrounds just don’t have the support or resources at home that are required to do the homework tasks that are set and therefore they flounder even more. Their more advantaged peers do the homework and benefit from it. Result: increasing inequity. I work at a school with a high proportion of disadvantaged students and can attest to the truth of this.
    My issue with not setting it is the same as everyone else’s – how do you get through everything? I’ve gone to a flipped model for my graduating English class and this helps. Reading novels at home comes into this and for students who struggle with the reading, we try and support through audio books, online programs, etc. wherever possible. For junior high school, however, I’d rather not have it at all and I speak, like you, as a parent. Kids have enough to do and have spent six hours at school already through the day. Steve Biddulph (www.stevebiddulph.com/) has some excellent ideas for making homework much more holistic and I love this approach: his thoughts are that it’s a lot more than academic stuff kids should be focusing on. It should be things like helping out around the home, music practice, fitness, volunteering… A bit like a Duke of Edinburgh approach, which I love the thought of.
    Your N.E.W. system sounds inspiring and fabulous and I’ll read up more about it on your blog before picking your brains some more!
    Thanks for the stimulating food for thought as usual.

    • Hi Helen,

      Yes, “getting through it all” and lack of time is an ongoing issue for me. I’ve made the choice to try to cover less (read fewer texts) but go deeper. Despite my best efforts I still feel like I don’t have enough time. Maybe that’s just a reality of this job. As soon as I feel like I’m doing one thing well, I feel like something else isn’t getting the time and attention it deserves.

      Thank you for passing on Steve’s site! I’m going to check it out. I’ll try to keep posting about N.E.W. School. In fact, KQED is doing a podcast on my program, so I’ll share the link with you as soon as it’s published.


      • Cathy Keller says:

        I’m really struggling with this because of the outside pressure of AP and IB exams. I love what you’re doing at your NEW School (except where’s the History teacher??). I need to keep thinking about this.

        • We added a history teacher last year 🙂

          There is always outside pressure. I try to stay focused on what I believe is best for kids. Sometimes that is easier said than done.


  9. Sylvia Shanker says:

    This is one of the reasons I love the Montessori school my child is at. My son and I have CHOSEN to revise his spelling words in preparation for a weekly test, 5-10 minutes of mental maths, some word searches, dictionary work in Afrikaans (first additional language in South Africa) and reading…takes us about 30-45 minutes Mondays to Thursdays and he is in grade 4.

  10. Kristine Gutherie says:

    As an educator of over 30 years, I am constantly learning to hone my craft. Homework has been one area I have read much. What I found is still needed in an upper elementary setting is for students to read weekly. Unfortunately, students are not choosing to read for fun anymore. I assigned reading nightly to be prepared for book discussions and other activities to teach and practice the standards. Not only did this help my students grow in all academic areas, they also learned that reading can be enjoyable. Due to time constraints, time to read like that AND meet the requirements just isn’t in the day as much as I would have hoped. Homework like everything else needs to be purposeful and balanced.

    • I totally agree, Kristine! I was THRILLED when my children’s elementary school shifted away from huge homework packets and instead asked the kids to read for 30 minutes each night. I loved that shift.


  11. Nicola says:

    Hi! I’m very interested in the design of your new school. Could you share some resources? I’m opening a new HS soon and would love to hear how you organize your schedules.

    • Hi Nicola,

      I piloted a program, but I did not design the entire school. I was lucky that our school is built on an A-B rotating block schedule composed of 8 x 90-minute class periods total. Our day begins at 8 AM and ends at 3:35 PM. Teachers are grouped into what are called “cores” in which an English, history, and science teacher are paired up and share the same population of students. This gives us a ton of flexibility in terms of how we integrate curriculum, mix students, and co-teach.


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