One of my favorite lines is “technology allows us to do things differently, so we do things differently.” Now that we have technology, how do our classrooms look different from when we were students? Start by challenging assumptions. Many things we accept as norms for school may not be because they are best for learning but instead are a response to the culture and technology of a time long gone.
As a parent of 5 children, I do not want my children doing homework. I have yet to see anything of value that necessitated doing work at home. I have tried having conversations with my kids and do things with them only to be told that they have to fill out this worksheet of stuff they already know. The assignments are not differentiated for their ability level. When my son did not know about the commutative property for his 3rd grade math homework I had to teach him the math lesson. First, doing 3rd grade math is not my idea of a good time. Secondly, I have a degree in math and can explain this to my son. However, I really question how many of the other parents could have taught the commutative property to their kids. If I could not have helped my son he would have been frustrated and spent an inordinate amount of time struggling and possibly crying. We have all cried over homework, I know I have.
Homework widens the inequality gap. Students with parents who are able to help them with their homework are at an advantage. Every student goes home to a different situation. Beyond the door of our classroom, the playing field is not level. If the system is designed to require students do work outside of class then we are setting up some of our neediest students to struggle.
I want to start with the premise that school should be designed so every student can be successful. The environment should be as fair and equal as we can make it.
I Do Not Grade Every Night
I know very few adults who do work every single night. I do not grade or lesson plan every single day. Some days I have the intention of grading but am so exhausted I end up not getting it done. If our students are tired or have family stuff come up they are not able to say “I’ll get to that tomorrow.” In some cases, those students are given detention or other penalties.
I want kids to be involved in sports and other things they are passionate about exploring outside of school. Homework can get in the way of family time, the ability to do extra curriculars and playing outside.
Absolutely, students need independent practice. Should they do this practice without the guidance of a teacher when they get stuck or if the directions are unclear? No matter how clear I thought I made my directions there were always some students who had questions. Everyone filters information differently and has different life experiences that causes them to interpret information differently. As a teacher I want to be there to support my students as they do independent practice and to clarify directions. This means they need to do the work in class.
Do Things Differently
You can not just stop assigning homework and think students will have enough time in class to get the independent practice completed. If your class is structured like a traditional class like when we were in school, then homework is an essential part of that structure.
To stop giving homework, you have to change what your classroom looks like. Move away from a teacher-centered classroom to a more student-centered model. Start by creating a really good classroom website. I call this a digital haversack. Your digital haversack is not where your syllabus goes to die, but rather is the central hub of your classroom.
Give Directions Digitally
Information should not be ephemeral. When you speak directions, the students who are absent are not able to access the directions. Even students who are paying attention can not memorize every word. Directions have to be repeated often times. This takes up a significant amount of instructional minutes. This leaves less time for independent practice. It is also difficult to differentiate directions when you have to attempt to direct different groups of students to do things differently.
Use your classroom website to disseminate directions. Students walk in the door, go to the website and get to work. Daily organize the agenda, which includes the directions for tasks, onto your classroom website. I always make my first agenda item something students can do independently so they can get started right when they walk in the door. Students start getting independent practice right away rather than sitting and waiting for the teacher to provide them with directions on what to do. Directions can be written, visual graphics, short videos or short animations.
Placing directions on your classroom website also provides transparency for parents to know what their child is engaged in all day. This also makes it easier to collaborate with other teachers when they are able to see how you are running things in your classroom.
Buy Back Time
It takes time to go over homework, collect it and record it in the gradebook. Eliminating homework buys back instructional minutes that can be used for independent practice.
I have a rule, if the computer can grade it, it should. Sending students home to do non-digital work can be frustrating for the student and creates paperwork for the teacher. This is lose lose. The student may do the work incorrectly and has now practiced doing it wrong. Going over the homework, students may discover they did the assignment incorrectly. This is frustrating and demoralizing. Showing a student how to do the work correctly and asking them to redo the assignment is rarely welcomed by a student. Mentally, when a student is done with a task they are done. Asking them to go back and redo work can cause grumbling or resistance.
If students are doing the work digitally they are able to receive immediate feedback. This is better. Students immediately know if they are on the right track. Getting a problem incorrect, the student can try to figure out why and tackle a 2nd problem. Getting the second problem incorrect they do not go onto a 3rd. Doing this independent practice in class allows the student to get help when they need it. This reduces frustration and increases motivation. I use Quia.com to create some of my digital independent practice, however, there are a lot of great tools that teachers can use.
Technology allows me to improve my workflows for many classroom tasks. If I am using something like Google Classroom to distribute and collect student work I no longer have to wait for papers to be passed forward. This savings in time can be applied to allowing students to do independent practice during class.
Computers and technology do not reduce the importance of the teacher. The exact opposite is true. Technology allows the teacher to reduce time spent disseminating information and directions. This allows the teacher to instead work with students on building critical thinking skills, engage in interesting projects and discussions, and provide high quality feedback.
If you spend the majority of your class time giving students information, you have been replaced by YouTube and Google. Technology changes what our classroom looks like and what our role is.
Students can and should do independent practice in the presence of their highly skilled teacher. When we shift what our classrooms look like, we can rethink the need to assign homework.