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The Pedagogy of Uncertainty

A Path to Meaningful Homework

Mairi McDermott

It was my second year of teaching high school English and only my third parent-teacher conference. In came one of my students with his mother and older sister. Partly because of my nerves, but also because of my deep-seated interest in hearing what my students had to say about their performance, I asked the student to discuss with his mother and sister what we had been doing in class and how he thought his work was going.

He shyly took the lead, and I diligently took notes and occasionally filled in details of forgotten book titles. When his description slowed down, his sister interrupted, telling me with fierce confidence that she was studying to be a teacher. She wanted to know why she did not see her brother laboring over English homework each and every night.

I was stunned. I knew that I did not feel that homework for homework's sake was helpful, but now I had to explain myself. It was a moment of coming into my own pedagogy. I took a breath and started to explain my many reasons for not providing homework every night.

A range of thoughts came rushing out of my mouth. I started with my own experience in high school: staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning struggling to get all my homework done after I came home from a full day of school and sports practice—and admittedly not giving it all the attention that I would have liked.

And what if the work I assigned did not make sense to the students and I wasn't there to clarify the assignment? Wouldn't this add further frustration? Or if it were overly simple, would I be wasting my students' time? I did not want to fall into the trap of giving homework just for the sake of it.

Having articulated my reasons, I seemed to have reassured my student and his sister. After that encounter, I realized that although I had my reasons for not giving homework every night, I needed to be more explicit—to myself, to my students, to the administration, and to students' families—about it.

Assigning Meaningful Work

In subsequent units that I prepared for my classes, I decided to offer variety in the work I wanted the students to create, which was a combination of curriculum requirements and what students themselves had expressed interest in doing.

There was always a choice of assignments throughout the unit, and I promised students that I would give them several nights to work on each assignment. This gave them time and space to work out the material on their own, while also allowing them a chance to come to me during the school day with any struggles they might be having.

In the units I created, I hoped to organize a space for the students to write about what they knew, their lives, and their experiences. Through this, I was able to learn a lot about my students; their lives outside of school; and the people, places, and things that were important to them.

At the same time, I hoped to open a space where the students could think through their experiences in relation to the work we engaged in, in the classroom. In a way, the units allowed us to come to know who we are, what we desire, and the ways these desires play out in our day-to-day interactions.

Finding Meaning Through Uncertainty

When I allowed my students time and space to work through their various assignments, they came to take different paths to understanding in their work. These paths weren't necessarily prescribed in a curriculum, but they were nonetheless meaningful to students' lives as individual learners.

For example, in one unit of my 12th grade English language arts class, I had students develop sociological case studies to help them learn research skills and gain confidence in writing longer papers before going to college. The unit also resulted in students gaining a critical understanding of their various sociocultural environments.

Over one semester, students had to identify an array of social groups that they were aware of and interested in learning more about. The groups they chose ranged from young entrepreneurs to couples who decide to get married while one partner is incarcerated to occupational groups like firefighters.

The assignment's goals included

  • Learning about the ways people come to belong to groups.
  • Identifying personal assumptions about a particular group.
  • Determining how students' assumptions might affect how they and others interact with members of that group.

Students also observed their selected groups, which included interviewing a group's key members.

In contrast to the assignment being shaped by the use of standardized tests, which have a premade right answer, this assignment was about students researching and discovering their own answers. The students and I embarked on a journey of the not-yet-known together, and students came to know and understand their lived experiences differently. Staying and working in and through spaces of uncertainly made possible this greater depth of learning.

As we moved through the unit, we encountered many unexpected learning moments and open and honest communication. Their project helped me shift my understanding of my relationship with students and the classroom. I participated fully in the discussions, sometimes showing my own anxieties about speaking about some of my own assumptions, while other times I shared some of my changes in thinking as I learned more about different groups. Through sharing with one another our experiences about the case studies, we built trust in our classroom community.

My effort to articulate my views on homework early in my career pushed me through a space of unknowing, and I realized that my pedagogy was continually evolving. I have come to recognize that part of the learning process is about working through the uncertainty, and creating meaningful assignments means giving students room to find their own pathways to understanding.

Mairi McDermott, a former English language arts teacher in a New York City, N.Y., public high school, is now working on her doctorate at the University of Toronto/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, Canada, where she focuses on student voice and equity in the context of schooling and education.


ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 25. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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