The notion of school without homework is one which has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in the writings of Seth Godin. It was a notion I hadn’t thought about for a while, until Jeff Utecht brought it up during a visit to one of my classes this past Monday.
Briefly: assuming all of your students have easy Internet access (a smaller and smaller assumption as the years go by, even for kids from lower-income families and especially in school districts with a 1:1 device ratio), and acknowledging that, by and large, a teacher is not the best lecturer in the world, nor is lecture/direct instruction the easiest way for all students to learn, then it is reasonable to assume that students are just as able to learn at home – by which I mean, absorb facts – as they are at school. That being the case: instead of lecturing students at school and giving them packets to practice at home, why not assign them something online to watch or read – a widely accredited blog, a TED talk, an online journal article or two – and have them do that at home; then when they come to school the next day, give them a project to work on which builds on what they’ve learned. That way, school is an environment in which students are constantly showing what they know, rather than being made aware of what they don’t; students see that learning happens throughout their lives and not just within a classroom; often, students all come to the table with the same information, and if they haven’t understood it, they have each other and their teacher to rely on. They can do and learn, rather than just sitting back and being taught. They can see their own, and each other’s, work unfold before them as they create it in a social setting which is seen as a resource rather than a distraction.
A good point was raised during Jeff’s presentation on Monday: if we have the technology to learn anything in the comfort of our own homes, why go to school? Answer: because we are social animals. Yet “socializing” is a word I so often hear used negatively in school settings, as in “The boys in my class just like to socialize, and don’t get any work done.” Do I advocate for spending an entire school day recapping the latest [insert popular culture reference here]? No. But I do contend that “socializing” can be an asset to learning – and, used more broadly, is maybe even half the point of putting children together in school.
Anyway, thinking about all this “no-homework” theory (which educators worldwide have tried successfully at this point), I went to my first ever parent-teacher conference this past Saturday. I observed (and only observed) two different conferences, and one of them went in an unexpected direction: the parent in question wound up rambling extensively on her son’s (not the child she was there to discuss, by the way) “disgusting” (her word) lack of homework which he was getting from his middle school. She went on and on about how it was going to hurt him in the long run, that he’d be unprepared for schools which gave homework down the road. (I did not have the chance to ask her whether her son was assigned videos or readings in place of the packets she obviously thought he should be doing.)
I admit I wilted a little bit, and this experience has left me with a couple of questions.
1. Assuming the “no-homework” model is a good idea (as I have described it above), how do we sell it to parents who almost always will have grown up under a very different scholastic paradigm?
2. Keeping the same assumption in mind, what do we say when such objections are raised? Would I, indeed, be doing a disservice to my students by setting up an environment which, as I see it, is better for their learning, yet out of kilter with the way things are done, still, in so many schools today? If they wind up in some of these other schools, will they be at a disadvantage? If so, how can I counteract that disadvantage?
I have serious doubts that telling anxious parents “the System is outdated and needs to change” will do anything to assuage fears (of which there are a lot, aren’t there?). So what do I say instead?