Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Who's Failing Who?

Tonight in a workshop on differentiated instruction, I was talking with a teacher about her son who is a high school senior.  She talked about how smart her son was but that he was failing virtually every subject at school.  The reason? Homework.

The kid just doesn't do it. 

I asked her how he did on tests.  She said very well.  I asked her if this was something new, this "not doing homework" thing.  She said no, that it had been ongoing since elementary school.

I told her that her son was not a failure.

It's him that's being failed by a system that is hell bent on holding kids accountable for behaviors with grades.  The doing of homework is a behavior.  It is an action associated with continuing practice, but not all kids need it.  I told her that this story was perfectly applicable to our purposes here tonight.  The "DOING" of homework is a process oriented task that leads, usually, to a formative assessment of the understanding of the material taught.

Formative assessment is meant to drive instructional practice to ensure that the learning is sticking and if not, establish a plan for reteaching, reframing, or restructuring how the material is going to get into a kid's brain.

It is not meant to be punitive.

Grades that reflect behavioral actions or that are punitive are WRONG. 

Let me say that a different way.  If our collective objectives are to teach students, then what we teach and what they LEARN are the priority factors, correct?  How we teach and how kids learn are as individual and unique as the way we look.  If a kid needed extra time because of a reading problem, we would accommodate.  If a kid needed a special adaptive technology, we would accommodate.  If a kid needed additional copies of notes or specific after school support, we would accommodate.

But when a kid demonstrates, time and again, that homework just isn't their bag, why do teachers exclude that from the list of things for which we would accommodate?  There are many ways to differentiate process and product besides homework, but many teachers would rather call the student irresponsible and then punish them with low grades that DO NOT REFLECT WHAT THE KID KNOWS.

Why do teachers get hung up on this?  Does the kid who doesn't do homework deserve not to graduate? 

Why is homework such a dominant factor in the overall grade?

I'm not saying that homework doesn't have a place.  I'm just saying that some kids don't need it.  It's a perfect opportunity to differentiate instructional strategies and provide opportunities for students to do things in different ways.  I'm not talking about more work for some, less work for others, I'm talking about truly understanding a kid's needs to the point of blazing new trails of instructional strategies that may be outside of our own experiences and/or traditions.  The way that things have always been done is a poor excuse for continuing to do them.  There are other ways to hold kids accountable for their learning without punishing them with bad grades because they are a poor fit for an instructional strategy chosen by a teacher, by a professional who should know more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak.

In this holiday season, I'm reminded of a certain reindeer who was pushed out of the traditional learning path and took a different path to proficiency. What Rudolph learned in the nontraditional way served him so well that he became the most successful and famous reindeer of all.  Can't we create opportunities/choices for our students like that?

Like much in education today, homework needs to be reframed.  It's part of the paradigm that needs to be majorly shifted.

Ten years from now, I have a feeling, we are going to look back at many of the practices we participate in today, and be embarrassed by what we did to kids.


  1. Clarification:

    When I say homework, I mean in the traditional, more rote sense, not necessarily ongoing projects or other performance based instructional strategies.

    It boils down to my feelings about how this particular kid is being punished for not participating in a particular strategy when he can demonstrate that he has learned the material. If he knows, and he can show it, he should not have to re-do it.

  2. Thanks for this very insightful post. I am in complete agreement with the perspectives offered. I've shared this homework approach with my faculty on a number of occasions. In addition to its connection with differentiation, the approach is exactly how homework should function in a standards-based classroom.

    We have made great strides, but there is a core group of teachers (effective, less effective, young, older, etc) that I have found who choose to continue incorporating the "old school" approach in their classes. We are making some gains with these teachers by strongly recommending that they incorporate choice in homework assignments and provide additional opportunities for homework completion. I see it not only as an issue of pedagogy, but also of school culture.

  3. I am embarrassed now by some of our practices!

  4. I assign homework in every class I teach. It is for the student's benefit, however, many of them need the motivation of a grade in order to do it. (I teach Physics and AP Physics).

    I do have some students who can do well in the tests, projects, and other assignments without doing the homework, but that is rare.

    The homework I assign is an extension of the classroom because we don't have enough time in class to go over everything. It is an integral part of the class. It is not rote, it is application and extension of the material. It is meant to help them explore the concept further, gain an understanding of how the concept is applied and how to use the concept to solve problems.

    Homework in my class only counts 15% of their final grade, so if they never do the homework, they will not fail. However, I have seen that students who consistently don't do the homework I assign don't do well on other assessments.

    Homework is an essential part of the education process if it is GOOD homework and not just busywork, which I think was what you were more talking about.

    If a student never gets homework in high school, they will not be prepared for college where there is a ton of homework assigned.

    We need to strike a balance and make sure the homework we assign is relevant and worthwhile, just like any class assignment would be.

  5. Hi,
    Assigning homework is a continuation of what has been taught in the class. I think it's a good thing to work on such elements
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  6. It seems to me that when you write about homework, you're thinking of "independent practice" of a skill or technique learned and perhaps practiced under supervision during class time. My approach is somewhat different. I teach literature. I ask students to read a short (fifteen minute) selection at home and come to school prepared to discuss it or do some activity with the material. I think it makes a poor use of time for students to read in class material which they could read at home or in study hall. When they arrive in class having already read the selection, we can then use our time profitably to examine many different aspects of the work and our reactions to it. Of course, if the class wraps up the investigation/ exploration/discussion before the period ends, then they may start reading the next assignment in class. Most of the time, the students would rather continue the discussion instead.

  7. First, I am a fan of memorizing with mnemonics rather than rote if at all possible.

    Second, I recently read an article on deliberate practice. If this is what homework promotes, then I am all for it.

    Third, I work with gifted kids, the kind that absorb and store information as easily as breathing. Although few in number their needs should be met. Requiring all students to adhere to a policy because it is best for the majority is the opposite of differentiating.

  8. I teach 7th grade math. I try to give assignments that can be completed during class, if the class time is used wisely. It is important for me to be available during this process in case the kids have questions.

    I provide the kids with the opportunity to revise all assignments, on their own time, to help them master each concept - this is optional.

    I agree that homework is abused by many teachers, though assignments are quite necessary in the area of mathematics.

    For more thoughts regarding good teaching practices, please go to: