What Is Homework's Purpose in a Pandemic? - ASCD
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October 1, 2020

What Is Homework's Purpose in a Pandemic?

This year's changes give educators the opportunity to reenvision what activities are truly necessary and what we can let go.

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Classroom Management

Each year, as my students shuffle in the door on the first day, I ask them to tell me about the first word that comes to mind when they think of school. Invariably, the word I hear most is homework.

I used to laugh a little, but it also makes me sad. School should be an exciting place where our students can connect with one another and explore the world they live in and the world beyond their community. Still, the overwhelming idea my students were taking away from their experience was homework.

A national debate has been going on for years about homework's purpose. Some feel the concept is a tried-and-true way to ensure that students practice skills; others argue that its current implementation encourages meaningless busywork.

This debate has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we have had to rethink the way we teach students in person and online. Many of us have reformatted lessons so that students can do them on their own at home or asynchronously without our live guidance. In the process, the lines between classwork and homework blurred. Suddenly, there was no homework, just work done for our classes.

Though the myriad changes have been frustrating, they give us the opportunity to reenvision what we ask our students to do when not on our watch. This is particularly important because the pandemic has brought to light just how inequitable our schooling system is. The expectations placed around homework can be weaponized to detrimental effect and exacerbate existing inequity issues for some students. ProPublica Illinois reported in July that "Grace," a 15-year-old student, was jailed for nearly three months for failing to complete online work.

As I factor in issues of equity in my classroom and the limited online time I have with my students, I rethink what activities are truly necessary to give students and what I can let go.

Purposeful Time

A few years ago, after discussions with families, students, and other education institutions, my school took a deep look at our homework policies, including reading the ChallengeSuccess white paper Changing the Conversation About Homework from Quantity and Achievement to Quality and Engagement. The piece brings up a number of reasons for limiting homework, from the necessity of sleep to concerns of student burnout, and recommends that homework only be given if students clearly understand its purpose, if it is developmentally appropriate and will not take up too much time, and if it can feasibly be done outside of class.

Based on these recommendations, my school implemented clear guidelines regarding how much homework to assign. Middle school teachers like me give students no more than 90 minutes of homework and studying each night, even if it means extending deadlines or shortening assignments for some students. Teachers must be more communicative with one another about assignments, projects, and tests through either shared calendars or meetings so that large deadlines for different classes don't all come at one time.

Although negotiating that time can be difficult, it ultimately challenges us to be more flexible in how we use our time and scaffold benchmarks for assignments. When I found out that my due date for a large project fell on the same day as two other teachers' tests, I evolved the project into smaller, more manageable in-class assignments (with the opportunity to finish it outside of class for homework), allowing a more in-depth process that incorporated student feedback and discussions. I also had more time to meet with students to discuss their work throughout the process.

Crucial Questions

As my school continues another period of distance learning this fall, the new homework policy also pushed me to look at assignments with a more critical eye to ensure I was using time in ways that best suited students. When I give work outside my classroom, I consider the following questions first:

What skill or concept am I actually assessing? If I assign two chapters of reading with some questions, what am I hoping my students get out of it? Am I testing their willingness to follow instructions or setting them up for a discussion later on? If so, that seems like it's for my convenience rather than their learning. Yes, students need to build the stamina to read on their own, but I could better serve that goal by building students' love for books through choice reading assignments.

By focusing on my students' needs instead of my schedule, I am able to shift the purpose of our in-class time as well. It may be better to have us read aloud in class, for example, so that students not only are engaged as a community, but also can use the group to better understand and discuss the text.

Are students connecting what they're learning to their world or to a culture they may not know much about? Assigning work outside the school day can be a way for students to make personal connections that they may not make as a whole class. Instead of reading an article or doing a math problem, could students interview a family or community member or find a real-world scenario to practice that skill? When my students read Romeo and Juliet, they interviewed a trusted adult about their views on love and relationships, then compared their own ideas and the beliefs of the interviewee with the beliefs of a culture they chose to research. This allowed them to learn more about another worldview and practice interviewing skills.

Can students make choices or share their voices? So much of our current education system asks students to do what others tell them and aim for a standard they had no part in creating. Providing options on how to show mastery—whether it's collaborating with us on the rubric or giving them flexibility with due dates—can help kids learn how to succeed on their own.

The more students can practice skills such as critical thinking or content-to-self connections that mirror real-world scenarios, the more capable they are of figuring out what "success" looks like for them. At the end of last year's Romeo and Juliet unit, I couldn't use my traditional final project based on a stage performance, so instead I provided an assessment with lots of choice and multiple ways for students to show mastery, including writing, art, and performance.

Is this a good use of students' time? Students are as overwhelmed as educators are with all the changes in the world and increased anxiety around safety and stability. Why not ensure the work is a productive use of time and brain space?

Acknowledging our consideration of students' schedules and mental health can also build trust. When I shared that a homework assignment I gave was designed to prepare students for an upcoming essay, they were more appreciative and engaged because they saw I cared about their time. Copious amounts of homework often strip students of time to just be kids. If you believe homework is necessary, be prepared to share your rationale (and respond to student feedback).

Innovation isn't just about new technology or flexible seating. It's about adjusting our mindsets. We can let go of our traditional beliefs about what kids need and ideas that place compliance over community. We can see changes in homework as an evolution that will lead students to create their own success—rather than us telling them what success is.

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