Sunday, August 8, 2010

Should Homework be Schoolwork?

I got the chance to attend my first School Administrators of Iowa Conference last week.  This is my fifth year in administration but due to various conflicts I had never before been able to attend.  The conference is held annually in early August in Des Moines.  Hundreds of administrators from all over the state gather to learn, network, and discuss topics relevant to schools.  I must say it was an outstanding conference and really challenged the thinking of a lot of people including myself.  Our entire Okoboji administrative team was there and we had some really thought provoking conversations during and after many of the sessions. 

One of the presenters was especially memorable for his presentation style, research base, and truly challenging ideas.  His name is Alan November and he has an extensive resume.  Most recently he has developed a consulting service called November Learning.  Their website is  He has also authored two books based on his research in classrooms across the country.  Mr. November presented two sessions at SAI and all members of our team attended one or both.  Mr. November presented many concepts and ideas that challenge many of the common educational assumptions we tend to hold.  He also gave many practical examples of ways educators across the country are working to improve the educational process for all students. 

Like many of this year's presenters, Mr. November believes strongly in the ability of educators using technology to alter the educational process for the better.  When used correctly, technology can empower students and enable teachers to individualize and differentiate learning to ensure all students learn and to make learning more relevant and applicable to the future we are preparing our students for. 

One of his most challenging assertions is that the model that has been used for years in school; one in which students receive group instruction in school and are sent home to practice what they have learned by doing homework, is backward.  This can be a hard idea to wrestle with.  It goes against the basic process of the American educational system for more than 100 years.  I can certainly remember being taught a lesson in school and then going home to complete "1-53 odd".  This model says the teaching of new material or concepts should be done in the large group (in class) and the students should practice individually at home.  Makes sense right? 

The problem with this method is that an overwhelming amount of research shows that when we practice something like math for example, and make a mistake, our brain remembers the mistake.  The student who is doing homework at home often does not find out they have made a mistake until the next day when they check the homework in class.  By then the mistake becomes so ingrained and the mistaken process becomes so difficult to unlearn that we are very likely to repeat the mistake.    Couple this research finding with the fact that homework is often a repetitive process - after all, practice makes perfect - and you have a recipe for disaster.  If a student makes a mistake in the process and then repeats that mistake over 10 or 20 problems, the brain will have a very well learned mistake.

If students did their "practicing" at school and were able to receive immediate feedback, the mistakes could be caught and corrected early, before the brain memorizes the mistake.Athletic practice makes a good analogy.  Lets say you are practicing basketball.  If you shot 50 free-throws but were blindfolded and were not told how many you made until you met with the coach the next day, do you think you would be able to improve? In order to improve you need immediate feedback.  You need to see which shots went in and which did not and have a coach there to give you tips on how to improve.  Mr. November says the same should be done for learning.  Practicing should be done at school. 

So where does that leave time for instruction?  How can students practice something they have not been taught?  We do not have unlimited time.  If we make homework into schoolwork when, where, and how do we "teach"?  That is what we will discuss next week...this post has gotten long enough! 
Have a great week!


  1. For your math teachers who may not be willing to make this huge paradigm shift, here's another possibility: Give students all of the correct answers to the assigned problems from the minute the assignment is announced. Students receive immediate feedback, no matter if they're completing the practice problems at home or at school.

    I found this changed the culture of my high school math classroom. Why should students have to wait 24 hours to find out if their answers are correct? It doesn't make much sense.

    Good thoughts here, Brian.

  2. So where does that leave time for instruction? How can students practice something they have not been taught?

    Is it they haven't been taught or just not taught by the sage on the stage. Many many resources that can be used on the the students time to learn information in a direct instruction format. This leaves valuable teaching time for one on one instruction. I hope to implement this process with one of our math instructors.

  3. Hate to tell you this, but what you are saying isn't new at all. Many of us "experienced" teachers have struggled with this for years. Madeline Hunter promoted the idea of guided practice for many years. Have the students do the work right there in front of you, so you can give immediate feedback and correct mistakes or misconceptions immediately. It is also why I am constantly cutting down the amount of math problems I do assign as homework. If only I could have a longer math period....

  4. This is a great discussion topic, but we have to be careful to not think that homework is not a good thing.

    Two things that must be remembered: 1) homework can be either productive or nonproductive. 2) the right homework significantly increases student understanding of content.

    The key is to design appropriate, both in duration and kind, homework assignmentes that reinforce student learning. For reference, I suggest Marzano et el