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?