What happens when you ditch homework

Our new “homework” in action.

There’s been a seismic shift in the culture of my classroom. Each morning, I greet students at the door — as I’ve always done — but this year, I get to actually sit down next to them and have real conversations during breakfast. They tell me the exciting things going on in their lives. We start the day off on a positive note. Contrast this to every other year when the first interaction with many students each morning included this dreaded phrase: “Where is your homework?”

There doesn’t seem to be a gray area when it comes to the homework debate. On one side, many people firmly believe that students will achieve more if their backpacks are heavy and they are assigned a bunch of rote tasks each night. (I actually overheard a parent say that because we are a magnet school, he was hoping his son would have eight sheets of homework each night instead of the usual five at his neighborhood school). On the other side of the debate are the parents who are so busy with extracurricular activities or work that they believe homework adds an unnecessary pressure to their evenings.

As a teacher, the biggest problem I have with homework is that we force students to do something they are probably not very passionate about. And it isn’t usually tailored to their current level of mastery, either.

In recent years, schools have tried to ease the burden by embracing the idea that homework should be something students can complete independently. But because students are at all different levels, it takes a lot of time to individualize those worksheets every day. So everyone just gets the same packet regardless of whether it is too easy or too difficult. It is a complete waste of time for the majority of students (not to mention a waste of paper). Students need to stretch their neurons to make connections and that usually happens when tasks are new and challenging.

Lots of studies have come out in recent years showing that homework has little effect on student achievement at the elementary level. So our school decided to ditch it. As a STEAM magnet school focused on personalized, competency-based learning, we wanted to see what students would come up with if we created a sort-of homework void. We sent a letter home explaining that homework would now be called “Off-Campus Tasks” and that most of the time, students could choose what they wanted to learn at home. We provided them with a list of options including things like:

  • Read a book or be read to (this is encouraged every night)
  • Discuss what you are learning at school with someone at home
  • Play at the park
  • Finish any work that was not completed in class (via paper or online – Google Classroom)
  • Spend time practicing skills on adaptive Web sites like Exact Path or Frontrow
  • Research a topic and create a presentation to deliver to the class
  • Work toward meeting a personal goal 
  • Help cook dinner or go grocery shopping (measuring, counting)
  • Eat dinner together and talk about your day. What was the best part? What do you hope to improve on tomorrow?
  • Draw or build something out of blocks or legos and then write about it
  • Listen to a new song and talk about the lyrics
  • Create your own flashcards using index cards or a Website like Quizlet
  • Play a board game (or create your own!)

We have a 20-minute “Innovation Block” at the end of the day so I’ve been letting students show off their at-home creations during that time. Already, I’ve had three students create their own board games and play them with their classmates. I’ve seen several students on KidBlog at night writing stories and commenting on each other’s articles. We use the site in class but they somehow figured out how to get on it at home. Students are logging onto Google Classroom and finishing missing assignments. One student is working on a goal to learn new BMX bike tricks for a competition while another said she’s learning to cook with her mom. When I explained to the students that this is what “homework” looks like now, I heard one boy whisper, “I never want to leave this school.”

At a recent Google for Entrepreneurs meetup in Vegas, a local Chief Technology Officer said he doesn’t really look at someone’s coding ability when he hires. He looks for people who are passionate and problem-solvers. I would argue that our new Off-Campus Task policy strives to develop those mindsets that our students will need in their future careers.

I’m not saying that an off-campus task should never be “academic-based.” If it is, then it will be something the student chose to work on because they’ve been tracking their proficiency levels and know what they still need practice. But without assigned homework and due dates, our students have managed to empower themselves to learn new things. And they are arriving and leaving campus happier knowing that the homework of the past will not bookend their days.

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