Here is what I have observed in the eight years I spent teaching before Redwood:
- The only kids who do homework are the ones who are A) scared their grade will drop or B) have parents pushing them (and usually both are true).
- Homework is generally worksheet-y, even in English and Social Studies.
- Teachers are frustrated that students don't do homework. They continue to assign it and deal with non-completers in disciplinary ways.
- Students hate homework. No matter the value or purpose or length or subject.
- Many students give up on a course when their zeros keep mounting from incomplete homework assignments.
- Teachers assign homework if students fail to complete the assignment in class. Teachers assign homework to cover concepts they don't have time to cover in class but are in the standards.
This last one is more controversial:
- Teachers assign homework because they are more concerned about teaching Responsibility than teaching the student.
At Redwood, most of those answers are still true. The only one that's different is the first bullet point. At Redwood, 90% of students do homework. That's in a general class, not an AP or Honours level class. They expect to get between 2-5 hours of homework a night.
But everything else is the same. They hate homework, teachers assign it, and it's primarily about teaching Responsibility. There is an added element of You Need To Be Ready For College (and I can't fit everything into our face-to-face time).
I stopped giving homework when I started working at San Lorenzo. They wouldn't do it, and I started doing research on the effectiveness of homework as a pedagogical tool.
So when I went to Redwood, I spent some time reconsidering that perspective for one major reason:
Students would do it, and all teachers expected it to be assigned.
I didn't stop believing the research that said homework was not helpful for learning retention, and often was more harmful than it was beneficial. I didn't stop believing that students needed the evening to unwind, spend time with family and friends, and pursue hobbies or other interests.
No. I started to consider assigning homework because I was afraid of the consequences if I didn't. The same reason most of my students completed their homework.
I got scared. What if my colleagues thought my class was "too easy" without homework? What if my principal accused me of subverting the culture of the school? What if my students thought my class wasn't rigorous enough?
That is the world of fear many of my colleagues inhabit, and the world of fear that my students pass though, hoping that they will escape when they get to college. It's the world of fear that keeps them up until 3 AM doing college application because they had so much homework they couldn't start it until 1 AM...and they are so afraid that they won't get in that it makes them angry, depressed, and more afraid.
It's the world of fear that causes good teachers to go against their pedagogy and pretend that they are just "fitting into the school culture."
And it's bullshit.
A classroom built on fear is a classroom that denigrates the importance of community. A classroom built on fear lives in the reality of reward and punishment. A classroom built on fear cannot produce students who are responsible for their own learning and who pursue learning from passion and not pressure.
And it's not the kind of classroom I want.
There has been a lot of talk on Twitter about how flipped classrooms without homework can't really call themselves flipped.
Now, I have written about our definition of the Flipped Mindset before. So you know that I'm not a Flip 101 adherent - instead of flipping lecture onto video and off-loading it from class time, I don't lecture. Instead of using class time to do the kinds of practice (let's be honest: worksheets) many of the English teachers I know assign, I try to build interesting discussions, engaging projects, and close reading of texts.
So when you ask me if homework is required for a flipped classroom, my answer is an Emphatic No. The REAL flip in my class is that I have flipped the responsibility for learning to my students, and made the place where my students seek knowledge much more broad and no longer confined to my ten pound inadequate dyslexic brain.
I used to spend a tremendous amount of time rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour. I had charts and systems. I had Good Students and Bad Students, and that was largely down to who could most closely match the definition of "good" I had in my head and tried to superimpose on them.
But why were the Good Students doing the homework? Did they see the relevance to their lives? Did they genuinely want the knowledge? Were they doing it because they liked me and believed in me enough to do what I asked of them?
Or were they doing it because they didn't want the consequences if they didn't?
The whole point of the flipped class Andrew and I run is to get students to the point where they pursue learning for the love of it and work towards becoming an educated person. Where they believe in us and know that we believe in them. Where they see the work we assign is relevant, purposeful, and not excessive.
Where assignments are about mastery, and not a number or a letter. Where responsibility is developed over time, not as the result of turning in an assignment on time. Where the Good Students are the ones actively engaged to the best of their ability at that time.
Where there are no Bad Students. Only students who haven't Got It Yet.
So we don't give much homework. The only major exception is that we have assigned students reading homework for the novel we're reading. Now, we read parts in class, and often give them class time for the purpose of reading. But many students prefer to read at home, as they have done their entire educational career. And it's my job to be flexible and listen to my students. If they use class time well, and want to read at home, I can deal. After all, it is all about them.
However, I work really hard to make the reading "homework" not be about Teaching Responsibility or about reward and punishment.
I work on igniting their passion for the story by creating engaging activities that draw them in, rather than punish them with zeros on reading quiz after reading quiz. We're reading Indian Country by Philip Caputo right now, and this is what seems to be working:
- I give them assignments that make meaning from the text in a way that gives every student a way of completing it, regardless of where they are in the novel.
- Every day, I spend a little bit of time talking about something in the section they read or the section they will soon read. Today, I told my kids that there were two...disturbing...scenes with a woman and a bear. And it doesn't end well...for either of them. The one kid in class who had read ahead laughed knowingly. And ten kids tried to read the book instead of watching the video about the Vietnam War.
- At the start of class, I ask who made progress in the reading the night before, regardless of where they are in the novel.
- I gave them the power to control when the reading is due. They named the Final Deadline, which is when we take that section's quiz.
- The quizzes I give are revisable and low stakes. On the last one, I asked students to trade with someone who was roughly in the same place they were in the novel (so if they were on page 100, they shouldn't pair up with someone on page 3). Then I had them add to or correct their partner's answer. That gave them the time to critically think about each question, figure out if their partner answered correctly, and then add to their thoughts. Many of the questions were opinion questions, so I had them add a personal note to their partner to encourage community.
- The grade they get on the quiz isn't really important, because it's all formative assessment. So there's nothing punitive - in fact, the only score they get is a point in the gradebook for completion. They will have to have read to complete the essay and project, and they will need to know enough to participate in discussions.
- The quizzes I give are often verbal. That way, they can actually hear their classmates answer the questions, and they get to clarify misconceptions. More repetitions=more practice.
That list is how I justify asking students to do reading at home.
Because if I can't make a list like that, I shouldn't be assigning homework. Here are my questions for you to consider in relation to your homework policy:
- Is this something they absolutely must do or they will not be able to pass my course? If it is, isn't it important enough to make sure they have the time, space, and assistance in class that they need to complete it?
- Is this something that I value so much that I would complete it myself? If it isn't, do I really need to assign it? If it is, am I willing to do it on the same schedule as my students?
- Am I giving this assignment because I'm afraid? Am I afraid of what people will think if I don't give homework? Am I afraid that my students won't take me seriously if I don't?
- Am I giving this assignment because I failed to teach something adequately? Is it fair to punish my students for my failure?
- Am I giving this assignment to teach something other than the content? Is it fair to be teaching values rather than content?
So that's a really convoluted way of saying that I think carefully about any assignment I give students that requires work outside of class. I think about what my goals are, what my students need, how to make the work relevant for them, and how to show them what being responsible for their learning looks like.
And if, once in a blue moon, homework is required, I give it.
I urge you to have the same conversation with your colleagues, your students, and with yourself. Don't let the culture of fear push you to do something that is not good for your classroom community.
And if you have more suggestions for how to make reading homework (or any homework really) work in a flipped class, or other thoughts about the Great Homework Debate, please comment. I love the dialogue that has already come from this subject. And it's good for all of us to examine our practice, be reflective, and adjust when necessary.
And yes, leaving a comment is your homework assignment. Don't make me put you on the Bad Blog Reader list.