During the tour, I asked the guide why they had the grapes growing on the hillside instead of on the flat adjacent field. He explained that if the grapes were planted in ideal soil, they would never develop the kind of flavour they needed to make truly great wine.
It turns out that struggle produces a wine with far more character and depth, and so the vineyard manager purposely plants them in soil that isn’t perfect.
As teachers, our goal is similar to a winemaker’s: we want students with character who are willing to engage in academic struggle without giving up. So we create interesting and complex tasks to be completed during class.
However, for most subjects there is more to learn than can fit into class time, so teachers begin assigning homework, and that creates a different kind of struggle. Perhaps the struggle for students is because the homework material is far more complex than the examples given in class. Perhaps it’s a struggle between the student and his parents over how much time and effort goes into it. And perhaps it’s a struggle to get the specific letter or number applied to that homework to measure effort and learning.
As teachers, it is our job to create all of our assignments to have some level of struggle. But the art in being a teacher is not only about creating struggle, it’s also about creating a place where struggle is accepted and even desired. Creating a classroom where students feel heard, supported, and valued is the right kind of environment for them to be open to challenge. In fact, struggle is essential to learning. Struggle builds connections from new information to long-term memory, and those connections are essential for learning retention.
But when it comes to homework, we’re doing struggle wrong. That is not only costly for our classroom culture; it’s costly for our students too.
Part of my job when I plan is in designing the most challenging tasks, the ones with which my students will struggle most, and make sure they are the tasks we complete together in class. By using our face-to-face time for the tasks that will create struggle, I build in a level of safety that is important. Students who are scared of failure see struggle as a bad thing. Students who know that it’s more about how hard you work than about how “smart” you are will see struggle as a challenge that is both fun and something they can conquer.
A big factor in creating a supportive environment is having me, the “expert” in the room, available to help. Another important factor is having a group to help when they get stuck. I aim to create groups that are a range of ability, interest and content knowledge so that students who struggle in one task can get help, but also provide help on something else.
In a traditional English classroom, students have discussions, do projects, and do worksheets, then are sent home to do the reading and essay writing. In a traditional History classroom, it’s much the same, with students discussing in class and reading the textbook and writing essays at home.
I don’t run a traditional English or History classroom.
I start by deciding the skills that will require most struggle, and prioritize those for our face-to-face time. That flips the traditional classroom on its head entirely, because the most challenging tasks are typically the ones sent home for students to complete alone, without the benefit of peers or the teacher. Other subjects do the same thing - difficult word problems are sent home for Math and Science, while the easier task, the lecture and presentation of new content, is left for class time.
That seems incredibly backwards: we send students home to struggle while using our class time for tasks that require very little struggle.
Many teachers have good intentions when assigning homework - they want their students to have the time and space to struggle with the material meaningfully, and come out with a deeper understanding of the subject. But the reality is that by doing that, we create a cycle of frustration, power struggles, grade anxiety, and eventually, disengagement. That struggle causes students to lose confidence in themselves, and can make them less willing to engage in challenging activities in the future.
So the goal of designing meaningful homework is deciding which skills will allow students to practice something essential to our content without falling into the destructive cycle created by traditional homework. Frankly, that requires rethinking just about everything we do in our classrooms. Bad homework is so detrimental to students that it can even undermine a supportive classroom environment. In the English classroom, bad homework includes sending students home to read a complex text and essay writing. Those are the most challenging tasks, so why would I want students to do those tasks without any support?
A common argument for giving homework is that it “teaches responsibility.” But homework doesn’t teach responsibility. It merely requires it. The way you build responsibility is give students choice, and then allow them to learn from the consequences of those choices in a safe place.
A good friend of mine has a sign in her classroom that reads, “School is the right place to be wrong.” Letting students make choices, even when they end in failure, helps them learn. But sending them home to fail on an assignment for which they are unprepared, or at least under-prepared, doesn’t create that kind of responsibility. It just creates a feeling of failure that is hard to overcome.
Using homework well requires a drastic re-think of its function. It starts with determining what is the best use of your face-to-face time with students, and which skills or topics are most like to give them trouble. Those belong in class time. Then, determine what ancillary topics or skills might be fun or provide students an opportunity for choice. In my class, the function of homework is to fulfill requirements for reading and vocabulary instruction in a way that allows my students to choose where they learn or read.
Like a good vineyard manager, I want to create an environment where struggle helps develop character. Where I’m managing struggle so that my students can feel safe in taking risks and digging deeper. Where struggle produces something amazing, and well-worth the effort.
Next week in Part Two, I will discuss ways of building homework assignments with an appropriate amount of struggle, especially in subjects where there is a lot of direct instruction necessary.