Let Students Assign Their Own Homework

The best way to make sure homework is valuable, meaningful, and engaging to students is to — you guessed it — let students assign their own homework.

Grant Lichtman recently shared a white paper via Twitter, titled Changing the Conversation About Homework from Quantity and Achievement To Quality and Engagement.  It notes that:

… the questions [about homework] that seem to be the most critical are asked infrequently: What is the quality of the homework that is being assigned? Is the homework valuable and meaningful to students? Does the homework serve to engage students more deeply with the material?

I started 2014 thinking in depth about the question of homework because my good friend Bo Adams wrote a compelling blog post about homework at the end of 2013 that has been running around in my head ever since he wrote it (thanks, Bo!)

Please click above to read Bo’s piece — as well as the more than 20 responses it generated (it looks like more than 40 people because Bo provided a thoughtful response to each person who took the time to write on his blog — that’s the kind of guy he is).

Bo’s post contrasts a typical assignment — of the “do problems 1-19 odd” variety — with a more open-ended 10-day assignment that guides students through an exploration of the essential question “what is beauty?”

Grant Lichtman reported about the first five people who responded to Bo’s post, and titled his piece Do You Have Discussions Like This At Your School?

Grant notes that the discussion on Bo’s blog happened among a diverse group of educators:

None of these educators work at the same school.  They are loosely connected through Twitter and the blogosphere and are powerfully connected through the sharing of ideas and thinking…which makes them an equally powerful force for their own work, every day.

Let’s think about what it means for 20 people to comment on Bo’s blog in a meaningful way … and let’s connect that phenomenon to the idea of choice in homework.

All 20+ people who engaged virtually with Bo (including at least one of his former 8th grade students) chose to do so.  Nobody “assigned” them to read Bo’s post and comment on it.  They did so because they were interested.  They value Bo and his ideas.

So here’s my thought: let’s quit assigning all students the same homework assignment all the time.  I’m all for a thoughtful assignment of the sort Bo posits when he suggests a 10-day exploration of “what is beauty?”

But on a day-to-day basis, what if we tried the radical concept of letting students assign themselves homework that they find meaningful?

This is actually how we will approach homework at TLC Middle School (opening in fall 2014):

Before leaving school at the end of the day, each student will have to explain, in writing, what she or he is doing for HW, as well as the rationale for the homework.

We won’t start the year this way — this is a major cultural shift for students (and teachers and parents) — but by January or February, I’d expect sixth graders to be able to assign themselves homework that is both meaningful and appropriately challenging.

To make this more concrete, I’ve made up four students — here’s what their individualized homework might look like on a given evening:

Bobby is working on understanding negative exponents — he learned about the concept recently and is intrigued by it.  He will spend at least 50 minutes learning and writing about that concept.  He plans to start by watching this 7-minute Khan Academy video about negative exponents.  He will also read The Hobbit for 30-40 minutes, because he’s enjoying reading that book on his own.

Julie is going to follow up on the discussion we had when we read an article during our morning news session.  She’s intrigued by the Polar Vortex (who isn’t?), and wants to make a short video by the end of next week that explains the Polar Vortex in a way that’s compelling for middle and high school students.  She will work on this project for an hour to an hour and a half tonight.  Two resources she has identified are this short piece from NPR, and these pictures of how Niagra Falls froze from The Guardian.  She will also review her vocabulary words and learn at least 10 new vocab words — the vocab work will take her about 40 minutes — she will do this on the bus to and from her volleyball game.

Marco was intrigued by the discussion earlier in the week about the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He’s especially intrigued by how the Enola Gay got away from the blast in about 45 seconds — how fast was it traveling?  What are the physics behind dropping a big bomb, pivoting 155 degrees, and getting away as quickly as possible?  Sources he’s identified are this discussion thread and this explanation of why the Enola Gay made a 155 degree turn, rather than a 180 degree turn:

Marco is also reading the classic “Hiroshima,” an account by John Hersey.  That piece is available online at http://www.eflclub.com/10books/hiroshima.pdf

Marco has already read pp. 1-9 (chapter one) and plans to read at least chapter two (pp. 9-22) by the end of the week.

Marco’s 3-week long project that he’s working on with two classmates will be a multidisciplinary look at the use of atomic weapons in warfare, with a focus on the ethics, physics, biology/genetics, and geopolitics of the bombings.

Anais is following up on our discussion of World War II (where Marco learned about the bomb).  She has relatives who live in Ethiopia and she was fascinated to learn that Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and the world community’s lack of response to that invasion, likely emboldened Hitler to break the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and rearm Germany.  She’s going to explore this issue in more depth tonight and will write about what she learns on her blog.  She will start by reading and asking questions about this Wikipedia article — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Italo-Ethiopian_War

She also wants to do an oral history with her grandparents, who grew up in Ethiopia and now live in Kenya.  She has scheduled a Skype session with her grandparents and will talk with them next weekend.  She is curious to learn what they remember learning about the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.  They once met Haile Selassie, and she wants to ask them questions about their impressions of him.  As background to prepare for this interview, she will read this Wikipedia article — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haile_Selassie — and identify a short biography of Selassie in the local library to read.

As a common assignment, Bobby, Julie and Marco will each read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the first time by next Friday, so that we can discuss it on the Friday before MLK Day, Jan. 17.  Anais has already read the letter and participated in a discussion about it last year.  She will lead our discussion on Friday, Jan 17, and will prepare essential questions to pose to the group by Wednesday, Jan 15 (that’s MLK’s actual birthday — he would be 85 years old).

That’s homework that each of these students will care about and engage with.

So here’s your homework, dear reader 🙂 —

I’d love comments/feedback/suggestions.  Is this sort of individualized homework possible/desirable?

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Let Students Assign Their Own Homework

  1. Yes, I think this is possible and desirable, Steve. The crucial point is that you would help the students learn how to do this, that it would take a lot of practice. This “theory of homework” fits right in line with what your school… community, I mean… is about: fostering a love of learning.

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Thanks, Scott. Yes, it will take a lot of practice. This is why it’s hard, I think, for some families to see the value of TLC’s approach. The one-day sessions I do with students are generally led by me. They also are not nearly as in-depth as the work would be once we develop as a community of learners.

  2. Deb Schiano says:

    The big and creative thinking here is for students to figure out what they need to do, and can do to meet their Learning Objective. One way to foster this skill may be for teachers to regularly describe their chosen instructional methodology and express why they chose to use it. When you think about it, this idea is extremely Montessori like. Will take a while for students to get but incredibly empowering and authentic.. Love!

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Hi Deb. Thanks for the comment. I like the meta-idea of having teachers explain why they are doing what they are doing — what choices have they made to create the best possible learning environment. That level of transparency would also allow students to make suggestions for improvement. By the way, when students are blogging at the end of they day to reflect on what they learned and to assign themselves HW (the last 20-30 minutes of each day is devoted to this), teachers are doing the same. Teachers will read what students plan to do before the students leave for the day, and may make suggestions. I like to think of this approach as a hybrid between Montessori and Dewey, infused with meaningful technology.

  3. I’m impressed. I’ve written about homework in the past and have criticized its practice. I think the core of education is engagement through the direct relationship between teacher and student. Homework distracts from that relationship by creating a situation that brings parents into the mix, and when homework is not done, terrorizes them through the consequences intended to mobilize the student. I like the underlying notion of engaging children in a dialogue regarding what they need.

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Thanks, Ken! Bringing parents on board with this shift will be key. You make a great point that parents can be a problem — but I’d argue that thoughtful parents can enhance the learning their kids do. And as noted above, in response to Deb, if we are transparent about the choices we make as teachers, we could invite parent suggestions (though we’d want to avoid critique sessions — that can be a tough balancing act). I am going to steal your phrase at the end when I talk more about TLC — at the end of each day, “we engage students in a dialogue about what they need.” Thanks!

  4. boadams1 says:

    Thanks for continuing, expanding, and amplifying our discussion on homework. Without a doubt, I believe this type of work habit to be possible, learnable, and desirable. Essential even! In fact, I think the meta-construct of such a philosophy and practice is present in our youngest learners – in the crib, in the toddler stage, and in the pre-school (not necessarily PreSchool) stage. Learners in pre-school stages and post-school stages regularly and consistently assign themselves “homework” or Explorations as we experimented with calling it on my blog post you referenced (thank you, by the way, for your kind accolades).

    To be human is to explore – to assign ourselves things we want and/or need to learn. I believe formal school should much more closely model, mimic, and nurture this humanness. Further, I believe HW of this nature and the kind I suggested on my post is a critical part of the path to getting to the school transformation these types of changes indicate. It is an end and a means to that end.

    One of the MAIN points I was/am getting to in my “homework” exploration is the power of:
    1) invitation over requirement (see Amanda Palmer TED talk)
    2) practicing the traits of innovation if we want to help learners become more innovative.

    Thanks again!

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Hi Bo. Thanks for inspiring this whole thing 🙂

      What does “practicing the traits of innovation” mean to you?

      I can think of a number of schools that say they are “project based,” when in fact the teachers are the ones choosing the projects (and often recycling the ones they consider to be most successful). One way I think TLC will be innovative is by having teachers use that “gradual release of responsibility” you taught me about — I know what some of the initial projects will be in the first few months of sixth grade, but TLC is designed to allow students to propose their own projects by about this time (January or February), and moving forward — culminating in a 6-month capstone project where each student leads a small team to do something real that makes the world a better place.

      But I’m curious what you mean by point #2 above. And how do you know/measure when a learner is becoming more innovative? Maybe you look back at their blog and see how it has developed over time… Once again, you have me thinking. Thanks!

  5. candcteam says:

    I love this idea and appreciate the examples you give of what students are actually doing in a real classroom. It’s very exciting! I am just trying to envision how this would look in a Second Grade classroom with students that do not have internet access, few resources, and parents that do not speak English. I think we have a long way to go to in getting students (and teachers) to realize that we do not have to be under such rigid structures as we have been in the last 10 years or so (in my district). Any ideas? Thanks for being a visionary!

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Thanks for seeing me as a visionary 🙂

      I’m not sure this approach does work in a second grade classroom — at least not to the extent I describe for middle school students. Many 6th graders will not be ready for the level of responsibility that TLC offers — but a number will be able to do this (those are the ones we’re looking for), and as we develop the culture through 6th and 7th grades, students in their 8th grade year at TLC will be experts at assigning themselves engaging and challenging work.

      As Bo Adams noted in his comment above, “Learners in pre-school stages and post-school stages regularly and consistently assign themselves ‘homework’ or Explorations … To be human is to explore – to assign ourselves things we want and/or need to learn. I believe formal school should much more closely model, mimic, and nurture this humanness.”

      I don’t think internet access or parents who don’t speak English necessarily present insurmountable barriers, though the lack-of-internet situation may require a teacher to print out materials for a student to work with at home.

      As for parents, whether they speak English or not, they will have to buy into this model, and that will take a lot of communication. This is quite different from how most people experienced “school.”

      The key is to engage students — or rather, find a way to allow students to engage themselves — and there’s plenty of amazing ideas in print that can do just that. The internet is great, and we should work to bridge the digital divide, but it’s not absolutely essential for students to have home access.

      • candcteam says:

        Thank you for your reply. I was asking a rhetorical question as this is a new way of doing things that I think is very valuable. Please know that, as an educator of second language learners, I in no way believe that the internet is necessary for them to make great progress. I just wanted to join the conversation and see if you had seen anything like this in primary grades.

        I agree that engaging students is the key. I am continually looking for ways to further engage my students (or ” allow students to engage themselves”) in their learning process.

        I feel like I was spoken down to in you reply. I am sure it was not intended. This is the problem with email communication. In the future, I will be more careful about I choose my words for comment.

        Again, thank you for taking the time to reply to each post you receive. Best wishes.

  6. candcteam says:

    Please forgive the above typos. 🙂

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      I am new at “replying to a comment,” so my apologies for seeming to talk down in my reply — that was not my intent. As you say, electronic communication can be difficult. Thanks for your understanding.

      I’d not thought about how this might work for second graders, for example, and that’s a useful point to consider — would this work with fourth graders, for example… Thanks for stretching my thinking.

      • I am working with 4th graders now, and this idea intrigues me. Students taking personal responsibility to determine their learning and organizing themselves for their learning. I will certainly be checking back to this blog in the future to see how it evolves next year. Will you need checks and balances for instance, or will the student buy-in be high enough that it will be self-motivating?

  7. Etta Kralovec says:

    As the author of The End of Homework, I continue to marvel at how we keep trying to make ‘homework’ work. As I watched my own children grow and develop, they didn’t need to commit to ‘homework’ they just needed to time explore their own interests, build their own worlds. 8 hours in school is a full work day, kids need time to develop the other parts of themselves. While Bobby might find a part of math interesting and might say, “yea, I’ll watch a Kahn academy on that,” do schools really have the right to dictate that students spend after school time engaged in academic work, maybe Bobby would be better off learning how to fix his bike or care for his dog. Continuing to try to make homework more engaging, deeper, etc. doesn’t solve the basis problem with it and that is that it imposing on families and limits their time to come together as families. All parents have educational agendas for their children, whether we as educators like those agendas or not, and schools have to honor that family time. 8 hours is a long enough work day for kids. While I appreciate your commitment to trying to make homework better, I suggest that you think about drawing a line between school and home and let parents figure out, together with their kids, how to structure a homelife that is meaningful, purposeful and free of homework. Or better yet, why not have the parents tell the school what their kids are doing at home and having the school incorporate academic lessons on what the families are doing at home. with their kids. There is a lot of chemistry in cleaning toilets. Now that would be an innovation.

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I understand and appreciate the thesis of your book, but I do think there can be a role for homework — particularly when it is custom-tailored to each student. If you want to get good at reading and writing and math, you need to practice those things.

      At TLC we are looking to create a completely different paradigm for learning — one where students choose to engage with issues they care about — and in the process they will develop all sorts of skills. TLC Middle School will operate from 8:30 to about 3 p.m. and students will have a full hour for lunch, so that’s really only 5 1/2 hours of work.

      The last 20-30 minutes of each day is spent reflecting on what they learned during the day, and thinking about what sort of preparation/homework they want to do that evening. All of this work is in service of making authentic projects (in the post above, for example, Marco is working with some classmates to produce a multidisciplinary look at the use of atomic weapons in warfare), not busywork to pass a test.

      I agree that 8 hours of work a day seems about right, so rather than extend the school day or rush students through lunch, we will have students do meaningful work — reading books they care about; thinking about issues that came up and that require research and reflection; creating projects that matter — for about 1.5 to 2 hours every afternoon/evening. We will reserve “school” time for collaboration, discussions, community-building, and project work that generally works better in person (though we will often collaborate from home on projects as well).

      I take your point that families need time together, and we’re small enough that we can work with individual families to find the correct balance. But a blanket statement that “all schools everywhere should get rid of homework” seems a bit extreme to me.

      I do like the idea of thinking about the chemistry of cleaning things (not just toilets).

      At TLC, we will not have janitors by design — the idea is to have students take pride in cleaning up after themselves and in maintaining a clean and healthy learning environment. I just read this short piece called “The Japanese Art of Cleaning Up After Oneself” — see http://japandave.com/2013/12/japanese-art-cleaning-oneself/

      Thanks again for your comment, and I look forward to reading your book in its entirety — I have read some reviews and I am now intrigued. Readers who want a link to “The End Of Homework,” please see http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Homework-Disrupts-Overburdens/dp/0807042196

      • Etta Kralovec says:

        What is so refreshing about your ideas is that you are actually THINKING about these things, which most schools don’t have the luxury or energy to do, so bravo on that and hopefully you will model some new ways of ‘doing school.’
        I love the idea ending the school day with reflection time. So rarely do we ask students to reflect on what they learned, which is very different from asking them on a test whether they know what we, as the teacher, think they should have learned. In my graduate teacher education classes, I ask my students to write a pre-test at the beginning of the term and to write on the same subject at the end of the term and then I have them reflect on these writings and write about what they learned during my course. You might be surprised (but probably not) that only a few students over my 20 years of teaching say they have EVER been asked to reflect on their learning during a course!
        Will be interested to watch your school develop.

    • candcteam says:

      I retract my earlier comment and have to say I was wrong. I agree with you. Students ARE already taxed after a long day at school and deserve to go home and have family time or time to choose activities. For students who enjoy exploring and studying (there are some) this is great. For most, they need a break. I have not heard of your book and have read many books on the subject of homework. I will definitely look into getting a copy! Thanks for setting back on the right track. 🙂

  8. David Medvitz says:

    I am the robotics “coach” at my school. We have time scheduled in the day for robotics, just like the basketball team has scheduled practices. Over winter break, several of my robotics team members chose to get together on their own time (I was out of the country) to work on their robots for an upcoming competition. I did not require or even suggest this. It was their initiative. Rather than look at schoolwork vs. homework, we should just be looking at the work. If a project is compelling, part of the approach should include figuring out how much time it will need and where that time will come from. Too much of school is about punching the time clock, and traditional homework is an extension of this mentality.

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      I agree Dave! Thanks for writing. We should, as you say “just be looking at the work” and the work needs to be compelling. Because not every student is compelled by the same things, I don’t think every student should have to do the same work (though every student should learn to communicate, empathize, work with people from around the world, and learn to sort through massive amounts of information — to name a few objectives). I’m going to blog again about (home)work, and this re-framing away from homework and towards “work” is quite helpful. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s