What Homework Should Be

I have three grown sons (22, 21, 18) with my last son having graduated high school in June 2010.  Parents have a tough job raising kids these days.  I’d like to focus on one aspect of this job: homework.  I don’t know about you but as a parent I found it progressively more difficult to motivate and help my kids as they climbed the years through their K12 education.  Homework was that dreaded task that we had to encourage, bride, coerce, force, argue about, etc. with our kids.  My kids grade 8-12 years were in a self-directed school which made this process even more interesting and difficult.  I always found it frustrating that my kids had to push through content before they “got it” at various stages.  Homework often further reinforced what they already felt, that they didn’t understand the concepts yet.  By doing more problems, tasks, etc. at night they got progressively more frustrated with what they didn’t understand.

I just read a refreshing and encouraging article in the September 2010 (vol. 68 no. 1) issue of Educational Leadership titled The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework.  The author, Cathy Vatterott (associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis), states “Homework shouldn’t be about rote learning.  The best kind deepens student understanding and builds essential skills.”  Wow, if that would have been the case for my kids I think their experience would have been quite different.  The author lists five fundamental characteristics of good homework: Purpose, Efficiency, Ownership, Competence, and Aesthetic Appeal.  I’m interested in how we can best leverage technology for teachers, students, and parents to support good (great) homework.  Maybe a change in homework practice supported by technology can move us away from busy work, reinforced frustration, dread, and ill-equipped parent helpers, etc.

Let’s start with Purpose.  What if students had the option to use online tools like discussion boards, wikis, or their own blog to write about or record as an audio or video reflection about the homework they are doing (students can choose the method).  U1120W_01[1]Flip video / audio camera / recorders are in the $150 range.  Perhaps classrooms could be equipped with some of these that can be loaned out to students.  Build in reflection time with homework using technology to help the teacher read, hear, or see what their students know, struggle with.  The purpose then is to help teachers know where each of their students are at and so they can adjust their teaching or reinforce / reteach material to ensure all students “get it”.

Or how about Competence.  Professor Vatterott says “If all students are to feel competent in completing homework, we must abandon a one-size-fits-all approach.”  My degree is in Computer Science and Math but unfortunately my boys didn’t receive any of the math gene from me – they all struggled significantly with math.  They definitely did not experience a sense of “competence”.  The one-size-fits-all approach was evident in the homework.  I know in school (remember, self-directed), they were able to work at their own pace, receive help when they needed it (in theory) from teachers, etc.  But at home, there was no access to differentiated homework.  Perhaps math curriculum could be fully supported by online resources.  I know there are a lot of sites that help with math concepts and problems but it’s difficult for parents to connect them to BC curriculum and grade appropriate material.  What if BC had their curriculum online with homework assisting tools and materials that could track student competence at each stage?  Teachers could review where their students’ competence sits with the material and surgically help them increase their competence (and confidence!).  What might a tool like this look like?

To finish up, Professor Vatterott says “Meaningful homework should be purposeful, efficient, personalized, doable, and inviting.  Most important, students must be able to freely communicate with teachers when they struggle with homework…”.  I think technology has a huge role to play here.  With better information, efficiently collected as part of homework activities, teachers could be better informed about each students struggles.  Also, perhaps students would feel better supported knowing that they will get specific help even when they can’t articulate exactly what they need.  I encourage you to read Professor Vatterott’s article and leave me some thoughts on this topic and specifically how technology might be able to help.


  1. Really enjoyed your post! As a young teacher, I thought homework promoted responsibility, because that's what I was taught. I wish I could go back to those years and start all over again.

    Homework should be practice. Plain and simple. Practice that kids WANT to do, and that gets them excited about learning.

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Thanks Brett.

    Michelle - glad you enjoyed it. I have grown to really appreciate the difficulty teachers have in designing learning and supporting it. Teachers have a honorable profession and you have a tremendous opportunity to influence and direct the next generation's future.

  3. These are some wonderful questions. I also like what you're suggesting to address those questions.

    Your idea about using digital video to promote reflection is fantastic. Reflection, as a general practice, connects a student to whey they've learned in a unique way. Each student will reflect differently, and each student will want to do something different with their expression.

    You're also making great points about the potential for technology to make differentiated learning possible. Teachers who area aware of powerful tools can assign only the work that addresses areas of need so that students are always getting better through homework.

    Plus, technology tools allow students to get more deeply connected with subject matter at home. A student who is sent home after an inspiring day at school has so many more choices about ways they can explore content for themselves.

    I've got a kid in my journalism writing class who got really into a story he is writing about a group of boys who do really amazing gymnastics training. He's decided that we wants to finish his story by making it into a video. He's going to create something more in-depth and meaningful than many of his peers who are writing a story, and he's doing the same process as the rest of them - plus some.

    I think it's past time for a revolution in homework practices, and I think it can make learning even better.

    Thank you for this post and for your comments on my blog. I'll be back here for sure.

  4. Ryan - thanks for stopping by and your confirmation of some of my thinking - much appreciated. Wouldn't it be novel if kids just couldn't wait to do their homework and don't want to stop? Kind-a like a kid hooked on WoW!

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  6. All right, let's try this again...
    There are so many important points that were raised in this article. Why are we giving these assignments? Why is everyone getting the same assignment?
    I remember in the first couple of years of teaching, there would always be questions that were sent home for the students to practice on, automatically. It was what I had done when I was a student, and it worked for me. In about my 3rd year of teaching I had a conversation with other math teachers around math homework. What should be given, why is it given and how much is the right amount of homework.
    At some point in the conversation, someone said something to the effect of "Why are we punishing the strong math students with boring questions and the weaker math students with more questions that they could not do in class with support? Its like bashing them over the head and telling them that they are lazy or stupid." Why were questions being sent home?
    I started listening more carefully to conversations that I was having with parents when they were looking for help with homework. I could not justify some of these assignments for a number of kids. Homework was creating nightly family disputes and was resulting in a lot of tension. They would ask for strategies for getting the homework done. The one easy way to help was to reduce what was being sent home to being purposeful and useful. If the child was struggling with the concept I would encourage them to stay after school so that we could work on it together and there would be no math going home. In the case of parents being able to help, then better communication to explain what they were struggling with and ask for only a few questions to be done and we would revisit in class the following day.
    I agree that practice does help, but let's make sure that we are helping. By assinging work that is boring or too challenging we are creating difficult relationships at home and then also in class. A child can become turned off by a subject because of the way work is assigned. It is much easier to work with families when they understand the reasoning behind the work, and why the work is being done at home and not at school.
    The situation that is being described in your home is fairly standard. As educators we must remain cognizant of what we are asking families to take on, especially with teen-agers. The last thing we should be doing is providing them with more amunition for arguments with their parents!

  7. Remi - Math is a great example... parents struggle, unless they are Math gifted, to help their kids. Besides reduced homework and 1-1 help from their teacher, which are super important in my opinion, what technological options would you recommend to students and parents to help with math homework? I'm wondering how we might leverage technology to extend the benefits of having a teacher available one 2 one and be an assistive tool for parents and their kids.

  8. In terms of tools there are some pretty good resources out there, especially at the elementary level. I am not overly familiar with secondary curriculum nor am I familiar with good secondary links. Sites of Virtual Manipulatives such as
    work well as they have the manipulatives that the students would be using through math makes sense and the parents can see their understanding. Wikipedia (shockingly) has a page on virtual manipulatives with more links.
    I am also wondering in the world of wikis, twitter and blogs, if there can be some form of online support via peer tutors who could be trained at the school as to how to respond to questions and give guidance. This could work in all subject areas, students could potentially be given credit for it either through volunteer work or actual course credit.
    Students who are struggling could post questions and the peer tutors would offer help and guidance without necessarily giving the answer. Students might be more willing to give this a go and it could potentially remove a lot of stress from families who might not know how to help, or not have the relationship with their children where the kids are willing to go to them for help.

  9. Remi - manipulatives are quite helpful - need a way to organize by grade/curriculum with some advice as to use to make it super easy for parents and students to access. I like your suggestion of online support via peer tutors. It happens face 2 face so why not remotely and online or even asynchronously (wiki)? Maybe we should pursue this idea hey?

  10. As a teacher myself, would it be unrealistic to allow students to have access to "us" outside the hours of instruction? Specifically with the use of blogs and wikispaces. If you are struggling as a student, post your questions. As a teacher organize a designated post deadline and a maximum response window for posting support. It would place ownership and responsibility on the student who is A - doing their homework, and B - having issues and wanting assistance...

    Just a thought...

  11. The trick with opening up your day as a teacher is not slipping into a 24x7 availability. You'd want to find a balance for sure. But your idea of designated post deadlines or time windows could probably work. Have you done this yourself? I do think that some flexibility of availability would benefit students and their parents for making homework more beneficial. The key is to increase understanding and grow learning!

  12. I also wrote about how homework is overrated, take a look:


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