Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

The Power of Choice

The lack of autonomy in schools today is saddening. The standardization of our assessments has led to a narrowing of our curriculum and instruction. This is happening in schools where even the leaders are giving permission to teachers to explore their passions and to innovate in their instructional approaches.

This is why we are seeing so many initiatives popping up in education today that allow for more choice. The following two instructional approaches – Makerspaces and Genius Hour – are possible pathways a teacher or school leader might take in order to instill a climate of choice in the school house. These are initiatives I have been a part of in our school from the ground up. The effects have been nothing short of inspiring.

Makerspaces

A makerspace is a DIY, passion-driven learning environment where the focus on creation versus consumption. They can be located in an empty classroom, the library media center, or wherever creativity and innovation can be encouraged. Technology should definitely be included within a makerspace, but it is not required at a level you might assume. I have learned through different trainings and resources that the focus and the culture of a school largely drives how the makerspace is utilized in a building.

 

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Our makerspace inhabits an empty classroom, due to declining enrollment in our blue-collar city. This initiative was spurred by the results from a BrightBytes survey all staff and students took previously. While we had quality access to modern resources, we weren’t always using them to promote critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. These are the four tenets for a 21st century learning environment.

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Students were involved from the get go in selecting what was needed for this space. While I had initially budgeted for a lot of technology through a local grant application, the students surprised me by electing for better furniture in which to explore their passions and wonderings. We purchased an inclinable table, ergonomic chairs, and mobile desks. 4th graders were even involved in putting this equipment together when it arrived.

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Before the room was even ready, teachers and students started utilizing our makerspace. Our focus as a school is on the reading-writing connection. This has been evident in the projects that have transpired. One teacher partnered with a local organization to work with students and their families to build bookshelves for the texts they take home from school and book fairs. The 4th graders who helped in the planning of the space are writing and developing a multimedia advertisement to collect t-shirts to make dog toys for our local humane society.

What I have discovered with this experience is it is sometimes not enough for leaders to say they will support something innovative. At times we have to help build what we want and envision.

Genius Hour

GHGuidebook-cvr-500Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi, authors of The Genius Hour Guidebook: Fostering Passion, Wonder, and Inquiry in the Classroom (MiddleWeb/Routledge, 2015), describe this concept as “a time when students can develop their own inquiry-based projects around their passions and take ownership of their work”.

In a 2nd grade classroom, a teacher is exploring the effect of choice on student engagement. She found a slice of time at the end of each day for genius hour to be facilitated (she integrated her content studies and writing instruction). She started this experience by teaching students how to ask questions that could not be answered by searching on Google. Once students discovered two or three questions to explore, the teacher explained the inquiry process that other professionals use in their work. Using these steps, the students got started.

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One small group wanted to find out what was the best degree of slope for designing a zip line for a fixed distance. They took string, toys, and other materials to create prototypes for their trials. The only technology needed was a computer to upload pictures of their progress and process into their digital portfolios via  FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com).

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The preliminary results from this teacher’s classroom research have been promising. One student, who receives special education services for behaviors, has decreased his need to take a break from the classroom by 71% from fall to spring. When the teacher asked him why he thought this was happening, he replied, “I really want that time to tinker.”

The Choices We Make

A static approach to improving the conditions in dynamic environments such as classrooms has not brought about the change that some people had hoped for. Squeezing out autonomy in the name of accountability has a track record for failure. Why not trust the professionals who work directly with our students to have some latitude in how the school experience should be designed, with learners in mind? The observations we have made in our school leads us to believe that a little bit of choice in our learning can go a long way.