The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

My Homework Policy

It is funny how the Internet works.

About three years ago, I started paying attention to research on the impact of homework on student growth and learning, especially in the elementary grades. What I saw was a large body of work that determined that homework had a “net zero” impact on student achievement. That is to say, having homework did not seem to have a positive impact on students, but it didn’t have a negative impact, either. It simply had no impact.

This intrigued me, so I started looking deeper, starting with myself. Why was I assigning homework? What was my goal? What was the point? I realised that I had fallen into a trap that so many other educators fall into. I call it the Roast Beef Trap. drawn from this parable:

A young husband was helping his wife prepare a pot roast for dinner and noticed that she cut the ends off of the roast before putting it in the pan. “Why did you do that?” he asked. “What do you mean?” she responded. “Why did you cut off the ends?” he clarified. “It makes the roast taste better; everyone knows that!” she replied in amazement.

The husband thought this very odd and was determined to investigate further. A few weeks later, as luck would have it, he was at his mother-in-law’s house and he decided to ask her about. “You’d never believe what your daughter told me!” he started. “She told me that you are supposed to cut the ends of a pot roast off before putting it in a pan because it makes it taste better!” He laughed, but stopped quickly as his mother-in-law gave him a funny look. “Well, of course, you do! Everyone knows that!” she told him.

The husband was flabbergasted. He had never seen anyone else do that, but both his wife and his mother-in-law insisted it was true. He loved and respected both of them, so he admitted his surprise. “I’ve never known anyone to do that before, but your pot roasts are delicious. Where did you learn this trick?” “My mother taught me!” he learned from his wife’s mother.

Well, he did the only sensible thing. He went to visit his wife’s aged grandmother, a kind, cheerful woman who loved baking. “Grandmama,” he asked her, “both your daughter and granddaughter have told me that you taught them to cut the ends of a pot roast off before putting it in a pan and they both say that this makes the roast taste better. Your family’s pot roast recipe is delicious. I was wondering if you would tell me how you learned this trick.”

“What on earth are you talking about? I don’t cut the ends off to make it taste better! I cut the ends off because my roasting pan is too small!”

And so it is with us. We often do things because other people did them and we assume they had a good reason. Then we start to make up reasons that seem valid but aren’t based on any real evidence. So instead of giving out traditional homework simply because that is what teachers do, I started to look for ways to make homework worthwhile.

What I learned is that students benefit from reading independently each evening.

And that’s about all.

There’s no benefit from doing math worksheets or spelling worksheets. Neither type of assignment has any noticeable impact on measured student learning. Some claim that there is a benefit of learning study habits early to aid when students get to middle school and beyond, but the research shows that students who don’t receive homework until sixth grade do just as well as those who receive it from kindergarten. In fact, there is only one other rationale for sending homework that makes any sense: communication.

When I send a math sheet with my students, it gives them an opportunity to show their parents what they are learning in math at that time and it allows parents an opportunity to discuss math with their children. That’s always a positive in my book.

After learning all this, I decided to do something drastic: I did away with homework. I told students to read each day, but that’s all. No more math worksheets. No more spelling assignments. Just read.

That started off okay, but soon I had parents asking me why I wasn’t sending any homework and then they started calling my principal and asking her about it. She and I talked and we worked out a compromise. It became my official homework policy last year and seems to work well, especially once parents and students understand it. I call it the Homework Menu.

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 4.59.45 PM

Students always read each night, then they pick one other item on the menu to do for homework. Items include traditional math work, writing, research, physical activity, and visual or performing arts. At the end of each week, they turn in a Homework Menu Checklist to show me what they did.

And that’s all there is to it. Simple, customised, and designed to make homework less about doing something just to do it and causing a lot of stress and more about homework being a way to encourage independent learning and family communication.

Oh, and that comment at the start about the Internet? Well, it seems like a second grade teacher in Texas has similarly declared a moratorium on homework and is getting a lot of attention for it. I don’t think intended to, and she’s probably shocked that people are so surprised and encouraged by this. But I do hope she makes the most of it.

Even if I did start doing this three years ago and haven’t gotten any viral Internet attention.

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