Giving students the flexibility to choose the content and / or the outcome of their homework assignments increases engagement and promotes independent learning.
Giving students the flexibility to choose the content and / or the outcome of their homework assignments is an effective way to increase engagement and promote independent learning. By giving the class an open-ended opportunity to reflect on what they need and want to learn about, and then to choose the most effective way to demonstrate their learning, students are able to take more ownership of their studies and teachers are able to cover more material in a more diverse manner. Another great thing about this approach is its ease of implementation: it does not have to be adopted wholesale for all year groups and all homework assignments, but can rather be adopted to different degrees and at the most appropriate times. This is an approach which has been popularised particularly by Ross M. McGill (@teachertoolkit – see his blogpost at http://goo.gl/QMNbvj). The hashtag #TakeAwayHmk is used on Twitter to share ways in which the approach has been used.
The challenge for teachers using the “choose your own homework” approach is twofold. Firstly, students will need to be given enough of a framework to help guide them towards the most appropriate task without it being so constrictive that the spirit of the approach is compromised. Secondly, the process of feedback and assessment will also to be reconsidered: open-ended choices of topics and outcomes means a more flexible method is necessary. This in itself is a challenge worth rising to. Feedback becomes more individualised and based on work which gives a much clearer idea about the interests and talents of the individual student.
Over recent years I have tried various approaches to the “choose your own homework” strategy. What follows is a short summary of several of the more successful examples, each of which provides a slightly different method.
Example 1: “choose your own content”
The simplest way to get started with a “choose your own homework” approach is to allows students the freedom to choose their topic of study, but for the teacher to specify the outcome. In this way there is flexibility in terms of content, but the teacher will be able to measure some distinct skills through the work that is produced. I use this approach with my Year 12 students at the end of the first half term, when I set them a holiday homework designed to get them thinking about the possible focus of their Internal Asessment (a 2000-word independent study that has to be completed as part of the IB History course). The way I go about this is to give students a list of recommended podcasts (e.g. “Great Lives”, “In our Time”, “Witness” and “The Moral Maze”, all of which are freely available from the BBC). Their job is to listen to one hour’s worth of podcast material, and then use this to deliver a classroom presentation on one or more key questions raised by what they have learned. Example presentations that resulted ranged from “What are the main causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict?” to “How has game theory informed international decision making since World War Two?”. This podcast-based approach is easily adaptable to other subjects: the brilliant “Infinite Monkey Cage” podcast with Robert Ince and Brian Cox could give science students a similarly broad range of inspiration.
Example 2: “choose your own outcome”
My IGCSE History students reached the end of a heavily detailed and methodical study of Hitler’s foreign policy in the 1930s with a desperate need for some creative, independent work. I therefore gave them a homework which consisted of producing a resource designed to demonstrate their understanding of the key questions relating to Hitler’s foreign policy in such a way that they would find it a useful revision aid. I made it plain that I couldn’t care less what the outcome actually was, so long as it clearly demonstrated thought and effort and would prove useful as preparation for the final examination. I then gave the class some time in groups to list some possible outcomes, then we shared these as a class. The range of proposals was immense, including such things as a Google Earth Tour of the key locations of conferences and clashes relating to Hitler’s foreign policy; a ‘Diary of a Wimpy Fuhrer’ outlining the main steps towards World War Two in the form of an illustrated children’s book; a “TripAdvisor” review of each place coveted by Hitler from his perspective, complete with rating to indicate its importance; a photo-album scrapbook of a German soldier from the 1930s charting the progress of German foreign policy; changing the lyrics of a song to cover the topic essentials in a way that would be memorable, and much else besides. I took photographs of the best projects that resulted to provide further inspiration for next year.
Another great outcome was produced by Jade, who decided to revise her entire History course by creating this fantastic tubular timeline tower (subject of this blogpost).
Example 3: “choose the content and the outcome”
The most open-ended method of all, of course, is to give students the flexibility to choose both the topic and the outcome rather than merely one or the other. I tried out this approach recently with my Year 9 students. The broad theme I provided was the growth of the British Empire. I then provided them with a summary grid, with the main periods of growth forming the columns and the main countries and products involved forming the rows. Their job was to produce a homework based on one cell of the table (a particular event), one row (which focused on one of the key countries involved) or one column (which focused on one particular period). In this way they had a great deal of flexibility to choose a task corresponding to their interests and abilities. For example, the students who tended to focus on a single cell (event) in the table either did so because they wanted to keep the task more manageable, whereas others who did so opted for it because it addressed a key issue that stimulated their interest (a Dutch student investigate in more depth the occasion when the Netherlands sailed its ships up the Thames in a daring raid in 1667, for example). In terms of outcomes, one student decided to produce an image of what the dining room of an English middle-class family would have looked like before the impact of Empire, and then a second labelled image showing what it would look like complete with all the goods and produce at the end of the period. Another student produced a rapid stop-motion animation in which she shaded each territory as it entered the Empire, and then rubbed it out as the Empire dissolved, with captions explaining each step of the process.
Taking it further – “Takeaway Mark Scheme”
Designing “Choose your own Homework” exercises necessarily entails a “Choose your own mark scheme” approach too. I have written about this concept here in some detail.
Mark Creasy’s “Unhomework: How to get the most out of homework, without really setting it” (Independent Thinking Press, 2014) is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in trying out various “choose your own homework” strategies. Mark can be followed on Twitter (@EP3577).
Ross Morrison McGill (@TeacherToolkit) has written a great blogpost: “#TakeAwayHmk is #UnHomework” (http://goo.gl/02eN9c). This also analyses the latest research about the importance of homework.
Times they are a changin’, am I right? In technology, fashion, politics, you name it! Change is the name of the game–especially in education. As teachers, we are breaking the mold, questioning tradition, and hurtling into a horizon of endless possibilities. Change is hard, but progress is better. And I like progress. I also like news:
I, Erin Waters, am no longer assigning homework. You heard me correctly. The homework that has been in my life since my very own schooling began, is out. I. Am. DONE. As the cool kids say these days, I just CANNOT with the homework anymore. And before I tell you why, you better sit down. Because it’s shocking. And it might hurt a little:
I’ve always thought that sending homework home with my students was helping them, and me, to reinforce topics we’ve learned in the classroom. HOWEVER; recent studies have shown that the correlation between homework and achievement in the elementary grades is very minimal, if not nonexistent. I know, right?
In fact, studies have shown that too much homework in the elementary grades actually has a negative impact on students. Take a look:
And here’s another thing: the National Educator’s Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association recommend 10 minutes of homework per grade level per night. See how that works out for your classroom:
BUT then–there’s this:
THREE times too much. That is so much time that is unnecessarily spent. And it turns out, kids don’t have much free time to begin with:
The average 8-year-old has one crazy busy life! To top it off, K-5 students receive an average of 40 minutes of homework per day. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Alsooooo, as if 3x too much homework isn’t bad enough, studies show there is a severe lack of time available to spend as a family. Due to busy schedules with working parents and school-aged children, the average family spends 2.5 hours per day together.
That’s all, folks.
And 40 minutes of homework is almost 1/3 of “family time” being spent on homework.
Not only does homework encroach on what little family time is available, but this schedule also leaves very little room for play. Kids need to play, but spend a lot of this time hunched over a table with a pencil and frustration.
This is bad. This is really bad.
Now, I’ve thought a LOT about doing away with traditional homework. This is no willy nilly decision on my part. I’ve done my research. And once I did my research, I thought about my own experience with homework in my classroom. I’ve come to realize that, in addition to the statistics, we face the following problems with homework. First of all, homework is:
Homework doesn’t offer much choice. It is assigned, and it has a due date. Elementary students are expected to learn autonomy, responsibility and making the right choices; yet we are not giving them a chance to choose their own learning path!
Also (the worst in my opinion), a lot of times homework is:
OMG. This one just hurts my heart. In classrooms and schools that assign homework, it is common practice to punish the kids when homework isn’t turned in on time or done correctly. I’m talking loss of recess*, notes home, deduction of Dojo** points if that’s your thing–and more often than not, these kids are being punished for something that is out of their control:
I am a total cheerleader for accepting responsibility for one’s actions, but there are a few factors regarding homework in the primary grades that make this a little tricky:
- These are children. With ages in the single digits. Sounds crazy, but at this age, most kids do this weird thing called following the schedule given to them by their parents. In busy households, homework is sometimes put on the back burner—many times understandably so, given the busy-ness. This is an adult choice, and students should not be punished for a decision made by their parents.
- Resources vary from home to home. Many families do not possess the same amount of time, education, language skills, or basic supplies to complete homework assignments. A class of students should not be held to the same set of standards when their home lives most likely vary drastically.
*I also must reiterate that I am SO against taking recess from a child, but that’s a post for another time.
**I also must reiterate that I am SO in love with Class Dojo. But that’s also a post for another time.
Also, I totally get that things of this nature establish a work ethic. But we do TONS of work ethic establishing during the school day. It’s time we make some exceptions.
If you are totally a homework person and this is super depressing, I’ve got news for you: It’s going to be okay. I’ve lost actual sleep over these stats, and realized I (we) needed a solution. Are you ready for the good news, my friends? I have a solution that will save YOU sleep. And time. And lots more:
Friends, I am please to introduce to you…
This little guy has been brewing for MONTHS. Un-Homework is my answer to the woes of traditional homework. Homework as a thing is still physically there, it just looks–and feels!– a whole lot better.
Unlike traditional homework, Un-Homework contains:
That’s right. Students make a choice: They either do it or they don’t.
Every week, a list of choices goes home with the student. Students can choose 1-5 choices from the list.
Once it is completed, the student colors in the circle next to the choice.
Also, Un-Homework has:
Yes-prizes! Once the week is over, students fill out one raffle ticket for each choice completed. Raffle tickets are brought in every Monday and entered into our Learning Lotto for a chance to win a prize! It quickly becomes apparent that, in order to have the best shot at winning the lotto, one must turn in as many raffle tickets as possible:
Prizes are easy, simple, and interchangeable. I have 20 prize cards that I switch out weekly depending on
how much money is in my bank account current student interest. Most are cost-free. The ebb and flow of prize excitement is an ever-changing entity from year to year and even month to month. Some classes FLIP for picking their own jobs, others go nuts over lunch with the teacher, whereas other kids are all.about.that.CAAAANDY, yo.
I randomly select 3-4 Learning Lotto winners from the box, and they each roll a die. The number rolled corresponds to their prize. It’s a pretty exciting time in Room 65, y’all, and it’s a GREAT way to celebrate the students choosing to continue their learning at home.
Also—did I mention no punishments? If you complete some choices, great–you might win a prize. If you complete zero choices, great—you definitely won’t win a prize, but you also won’t be sitting inside staring out the window hating your life as your friends have a ball at recess.
This part is better than the prize, in my opinion. The choices given weekly are so dang flexible! Students can complete 1 choice per night, all 5 the first night, or none at all! Giving the students choices seriously empowers them and makes them the director of their own learning. Students who don’t typically dig the homework scene might find some thrill in choosing certain tasks and saying adios to others.
I don’t know about you, but I totally prefer to choose my own way rather than being told what to do. I mean, I knooooooow I have to schedule a dentist appointment every 6 months, but it’s totally more satisfying to do it on my own accord rather than my husband
nagging lovingly reminding me to do it. And these kids—they are all just mini-adults, so I think this making our own choices thing is pretty universal.
In addition, the actual format of Un-Homework is designed to let parents to keep the choice sheet even after turning in the tickets. Once the tickets are cut off, parents stockpile choices throughout the year, so there are always extra tasks on hand if the parent desires something a little extra for his or her little learner.
Also? Most tasks can be done in any amount of time. Because there is no final check-in or grade, tasks can be accomplished at one’s own pace. While this will save time on extra busy nights, this will more often result in a child choosing to do a task longer because they chose it and they are having fun.
Okay, this actually might be my favorite part. Gone are the days of PPT (paper, pencil, & tears) homework. No sirree. Un-Homework encompasses all sorts of fun arenas of learning that will really encourage students to exercise their creativity, physical prowess, and *gasp* embrace their kidness.
We’ve got playing, singing, dancing, games-you name it. Un-Homework is the life of the party.
Is Un-Homework for you? I encourage you to check it out in my store. Upon purchasing, you’ll receive an entire year’s worth of Un-Homework*, prize cards, a PowerPoint presentation you can use at Back-to-School Night to break the no-homework-news to parents gently & informatively, plus some more valuable Un-Homework resources.
*In addition, the UnHomework is fully editable for you to adjust based on your classroom’s needs, interests, and desires. The one offered in the pack is geared toward first grade, but you can use a lot of my choices as jumping off points to create your own!
I really hope you’ll join me on this no homework train! It’s going to be a great ride 🙂
A Footnote: I’ve been so touched by the outpouring of feedback on this issue that I am so greatly passionate about. I value opinions of all variations. One of the themes/questions that keeps arising is the importance of reading at home. While I chose not to touch on this issue in this post, I want to clarify my stance on it since it goes hand in hand with the homework. I believe it is extremely important to encourage nightly reading at home. I don’t assign it, I don’t check it, and I don’t log it. A Book Before Bedtime is my stance; if every student can read at least one book before bedtime every night, I hope that it will foster a love of reading that isn’t forced upon them. I’m feeling another post on this! Thanks again for your feedback—it has been invigorating and thought-provoking to hear from such amazing educators!
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