In the past, I’ve assigned homework when I’ve felt a lack of control, a sense of scrambling to cover everything.
I would think, “These students just aren’t where they need to be. I have so much to get to and not enough squares left in my lesson plan book.”
“I have to do something.”
That’s when the homework assignments would ramp up. Some students would do them. Others just wouldn’t — even though they knew it would impact their grades.
At some point, I realized something about the homework I was assigning. It wasn’t moving the needle very much. There was lots of activity (and, consequently, lots of discussion about the homework), but my students’ skills weren’t that better.
I was at a crossroads. I felt like I had two options: improve on the time we had in class together or assign more/better homework. (And based on our track record, the second option didn’t look very promising.)
Little by little, I tried new strategies to reduce the reliance on homework my students and I had. I didn’t drop homework cold turkey; I slowly phased it out.
Some of these strategies are mine. Others are from the co-author of Ditch That Homework, Alice Keeler. We also gathered strategies from other teachers we collaborated with from all over the world.
These eight strategies make up the chapters of our book, Ditch That Homework: Practical Strategies to Make Homework Obsolete. (The names in parenthesis are the titles to the eight chapters.)
1. Remix traditional classroom activities (Ditch That Textbook) — It’s so easy for students to switch their attention off when they’re not engaged. A lecture can be ignored — even when students are making eye contact and smiling! A worksheet can be skimmed and completed without much thought. But when we put a fresh twist on what we do, we can regain some of that attention. Frame a lesson through a theme that interests students (like Snapchat or a trend in popular culture). Get them hands-on and involved. When students disconnect from a lesson, little to no learning is happening. But if we have their attention, learning can flourish.
Classroom implementation example — Replace a lecture with a virtual guest speaker. Find someone with expertise or life experience in the topic the class is studying and invite them to speak directly to your students via video call (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.). Often, guests will do these calls for free and they can be immensely memorable for students.
2. Connect to content in new ways (Ditch That Lecture) — Students need information and instruction. That new knowledge opens up their understanding of the world and shapes their perception of it. But delivering content to students through the traditional means can be less than effective. (Ever feel like you’ve taught it and taught it but the students didn’t learn it?) A more student-centered model of learning can reap huge rewards. Instead of having students listen to you and wait for you, find ways to get them learning on their own.
Classroom implementation example — Provide directions before class even begins. Why do students have to wait to listen to instructions from you, the teacher, when they could just get started by themselves? Many times, when they hear instructions from us, they’re don’t give us their best attention and have to have us repeat them. Post instructions to getting started and let students start working independently. Starting class with a task students can do on their own promotes a student-centered classroom.
3. Build relationships and increase buy-in (Ditch That Referral) — There’s a quote about the power of the student/teacher relationship from Ditch That Homework that I keep coming back to …
For a student, a solid relationship with a trustworthy adult is a lighthouse in a tumultuous sea of uncertainty, which means that one of the most important things we can do, as educators, is build positive relationships with students—the kind of relationships that make kids want to come to class.
For many teachers, homework is a wedge driven between themselves and their students. By removing that wedge and getting to know students for who they are, everything improves. In the book, Alice talks about how ditching homework helped discussions of the day change naturally from arguments about homework to the true goal — math!
Classroom implementation example — Find ways (even small ones throughout the day) to learn about your students and their interests. (And yes, I know you’re probably already doing this!) Then, find ways to build lessons around them or even ways to pull small details into what you do in class. It builds trust, and that’s something they’ll remember about you and your classes for a long time.
4. Communicate with parents to build support (Ditch That Resistance) — When we’re not on the same page with our students’ parents, we’re like magnets with the same polarity — always pushing against each other. We just can’t seem to come together. When a parent hears of things that happen in class or new policies that they don’t understand, it’s easy for them to oppose them. But if they understand why they’re happening and how they’re being used in their children’s best interest, the teacher and the parents are on the same side. Suddenly, they’re like magnets with opposite polarity — the come together and stay together firmly. When parents and teachers are working together in lockstep, the learning never stops because it’s happening at school and a home.
Classroom implementation example — Share your vision and your heart with parents. Help them to see how passionate you are about helping their children succeed and how you intend to do that. Share it in person or voice-to-voice on a call when possible … the personal connection between you is stronger that way. Share it often with emails and text messages through Remind.com. Share it with the world through a class social media account!
5. Unleash powerful, brain-friendly learning (Ditch Those Habits) — In recent years, we’ve learned so much about the brain, how it works and how it learns. These findings can have immediate impact in how teaching and learning happen. Sadly, so much research in cognitive science has not made its way into the classroom. With some findings, a small shift in how students study or how a teacher teaches can make learning stickier so that not as much time is spent on reteaching. (Ever feel like everything you taught students leaks out their ears as they walk out the door every day? This is one way to combat that!)
Classroom implementation example — Practice spaced repetition. So often, we teach and students learn in big blocks of time — a week, two weeks, a unit of study. Then, we move on. But what the brain craves is spaced repetition, where we come back to a new topic every so often and revisit it. This forces the brain to go find what it’s learned before. The more it does that, the more it settles into long-term memory. If it seems like I’m saying that forgetting is part of learning, it is!
6. Help prepare students for college and the real world (Ditch That Remediation) — One argument for homework is that it prepares students for college and the real world. It instills a sense of responsibility in students. I, personally, have a hard time with this one. It just doesn’t seem authentic to create inauthentic hardship on students and hope that it builds character or habits. Plus, schools aren’t the only sources of responsibility. In fact, extra curricular activities and other things done in the home are probably just as effective in many cases. You may disagree with me on this one (which is fine), but personally, I think we can do much more to truly prepare students for college and the real world. Let’s look at the skills that will reward them and encourage them to build those skills.
Classroom implementation example — Help students learn to reflect on what how they’ve learned and how they can improve on it. Help them reflect on what they’ve learned to see if they think it’s credible or what they still don’t understand about it. Help them learn how to use the Internet to find solid, reliable resources and information. Provide activities that move up Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.
7. Help students own their learning (Ditch That Compliance) — Who is doing the work in your class? If most of the heavy lifting is being done by the teacher, you might consider trading spots with students on the bench press. For many students, homework is an exercise in compliance and not in learning. “The teacher says I have to do it to get points, so I’ll do the minimum required to get it done.” This, I believe, is “renting” your education. We want kids to own it! If we can turn more and more of the decisions and work over to them, they’ll have ownership of what’s happening in the class. They’ll be directing it instead of having it imposed on them.
Classroom implementation example — Let students help create lessons. Give them a voice in the kinds of activities they do. Let them make decisions, even if they’re ones that you think are doomed to fail. Then, after it’s over, have them reflect on their decisions, discussing what went well and how it could have gone better. Give them opportunities — even little ones — to make decisions throughout the day. (How much time should we have for this activity? Should we discuss with a partner or write digital comments in Google Classroom?)
8. Provide timely, meaningful feedback (Ditch That Red Pen) — One of the main reasons traditional homework doesn’t resonate with students is because the feedback loop is so great. From the time an assignment is given to the time students receive it back, it’s 48 hours at minimum. If we can give students feedback in the moment that they’re wrestling with a problem or assignment — and they can implement it right away — that feedback is more likely to stick. It’s also more sticky when we boil it down to just a few main comments instead of inundating a paper with red ink.
Classroom implementation example — I’m convinced in many cases that walking around the room and giving students one piece of pointed feedback (the most important one you could give in that moment) is more valuable than 10 comments on graded homework later. Another idea is to use a formative assessment tool like Quizizz, Kahoot! or Socrative to see results of student answers immediately. Give quick, in the moment feedback then and then let students put that feedback into action.
These aren’t the only strategies that can reduce a class’s reliance on homework, but when used together, they’re a powerful combination to help you cut back on homework until maybe you can ditch it completely.
[reminder]What are your strategies to reduce your reliance on homework? What have you done to ditch it?[/reminder]
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