Monday, July 7, 2014

Assigning Optional Homework?

So... Should homework be required or eliminated?

A few years back, my district went through an exercise of looking at homework and our policies surrounding it.  Meetings were had, discussions and debates occurred, and in the end... nothing much seemed to have changed.  I understand why... this is a tough issue! Homework, after all, is truly a pillar of education.  So as the debate over homework seems to continue on like Pink Floyd's song "Comfortably Numb" ...looped..., some arguing for it and others against it, all with no solution... I'd like to propose an optional new policy... The Optional Homework Policy.  The optional homework policy states this... "Students, if you or your parents would like you to complete homework, then here are your options."  Yes, giving the decision making power, to have or not have homework, over to the students and their families. Crazy!?  Will Not Work!  Kids' Scores Will Drop!  Before you judge, please think growth mindset... and know that I've actually been testing this out over the past school year with positive results for all parties involved with the homework debate.

There are three basic explanations/reasons why I reconsidered required or no homework:

Grades, Grades, Grades...

As teachers we have the choice to calculate homework into a grade or not.  Most teachers I know have homework as a small percentage of a student's overall performance, yet many of the report card conversations between teachers, parents and students, from my experience and as shared with by many other teachers, revolve around the topic of missing or late homework.  Now I don't believe that something should be changed to avoid a conversation, but these conversations can often become distractors or points of contention between parent and student, student and teacher, and teacher and parent, thus creating problems in partnerships that are vital to real learning. These homework conversations are another draw away from the important conversation about learning, true student needs, and areas of growth.

The important question to ask oneself about homework grades is why is it being given?  The typical answer would be work completion, practice of concepts or responsibility at primary levels, and preparation at the higher levels.  Most don't say that the primary or important factor in homework is as a diagnostic tool to report to parents on a students ability or performance. There's too many variables that impact homework to use it as a diagnostic for student learning or as a tool to help guide future lessons and instruction. When homework becomes optional though, the feedback, and not the grade, become more important to the learner.  Feedback is how we learn.  I've seen the focus shift and become about the quality rather than the completion. So rather than giving grades based on completion of work, grades can continue to move towards being about reporting levels of learning growth.

Help or lack of it

It's a "Goldie Locks" deal... some get too much, some not enough and others just the right amount. While parents and teachers are often on one side or the other in this debate, the optional homework policy pleases all. Ideally the parents who may offer too much help to a child, thus taking away their chance to feel the success that builds confidence, find that their help (which is at times aimed at grades) becomes obsolete and the focus shifts to supporting a child's learning.  Fewer conflicts occur between child and parent and student and teacher.  On the other hand, the student that always struggles with homework, and comes to our learning environments already with a feeling of failure, now is far more open to learning.

Real Impact?

On a study my teaching partners and I did in 2007, surrounding homework's true impact, we found that through a comparison based in data, the students who received less homework (in the subject area of math for our study) had three key factors surface.  First, parents reported better relationships with these children. Next, students positive attitudes and feelings towards learning and school showed a measurable increase as well as in-class focus and participation based on surveys and observable evidence by two outside teachers watching the three groups in class for engagement and effort. Finally, the group who received the least amount of homework, actually showed the highest percentage of gains from pre-assessment to post assessment on the math concepts.  Again, with the number of variables, I can't say beyond doubt that homework or lack of it, was the factor that truly made the difference, but it did play a key factor.

Still not convinced... Me either

My main hope is to "get you up on the fence" about this topic so you can look down on both sides and clearly evaluate homework requirement practices and why they are in place.  One quote that sticks with me came from some of the additional video content from the movie Race to Nowhere.

"Homework may be the greatest single extinguisher of children's curiosity that we have yet invented..."

So, where do our fears as educators and in education lie with letting go of homework? Are we giving homework because it's always been done or because it makes a positive impact?  If you believe it makes a positive impact, what real concrete proof do you have that it's the homework providing this improvement?

I write this blog only to encourage you to question things that have always been... I hope you'll question some norms... maybe even check out my previous post titled "Subversive Education Unconference Style"

My Steps and Results

So what did I do to make homework optional? Well... when I change things I don't only consider the implementation I will make, but I consider "will others be able to do this too?"  Confession... This isn't for everyone. Baiscally I took the assignments I would normally assign and said... "This is optional..."  after all, I have no foundational research to show homework was actually beneficial, so how could I justify continuing a required practice that no one could prove even worked after decades and decades of research and debate.  So rather than stop giving it, or continuing to require it... I made it optional leaving the decision to the parents and students.

How has my experiment gone? First, please know I wouldn't have tested this without the data from the study we did in 2007 and a great deal of research... but it's been great!  One of the most positive outcomes I've seen is that it's pushed me as an educator to continue create in-class assignments that drive kids to want to continue their learning on their own at home, intrinsically, by choice. It's so rewarding to have my students have the desire to learn more about a subject I'm teaching, because it's one of the main reasons I went into teaching... to inspire my students to learn.  In addition, many students who have wilted under "required homework" policies have started to blossom and come to life as learners in my subject areas.  I can't say beyond a doubt that The Optional Homework Policy has alone created the success and desire to learn I've seen, as I'm always trying new ways to inspire my students to learn, but I do feel confident it's been a key contributing factor to success for both my students and myself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Are you going to try The Optional Homework Policy? Tweet at me or comment to let me know.  My next action step... student choice self-assigned homework. I'll let you know how it goes...

Additional reading on the homework debate that's gone on since the early 1900's ACSD's look at Homework through the 20th and 21st Centuries

Thanks so much for reading!  With my best hopes for you and your students!

Subscribe and check out my next blog post on Creating E-Magazines with your students or read my recent post on Live Broadcasting: Creating Your Own Student Press Conferences!


  1. Scott, I love this idea. I was very vocal a couple of years back about the idea that homework (and too much of it) was detrimental to some of the children, including one of mine. He was closing himself off to school and becoming very negative about school in general. He was losing his sense of curiosity and his self-esteem, as well. I think optional homework is an extremely progressive idea, in which the teacher, parents and student can work together to create the best plan for each individual student to best facilitate learning, which of course is the final goal. I hope more teachers and school officials will join in this very important conversation. Thank you for your work in this.

    1. Thanks Maureen! You have amazing, creative, intelligent boys and their story is an example of why real solutions need to be found! I too hope the conversation grows... it seemed to have been on the front burner, but has now fallen by the wayside without much change nationally. I know the great people in our district continue to try to find a balanced solutions based in evidence, but change is often hard and agreeing on a solution even more challenging. My very best to your family!

  2. GREAT stuff. Been circling around this for a while now. May I ask though then what the final grade (which you're assuredly required to submit) was based upon? Or how it was determined? Just subjectively?

    1. Thanks Chris... Final grades are based on summative and formative assessment data (student choice is often built into assessments from traditional tests to non-traditional forms of knowledge demonstration), in-class projects (individual, partner and group, all typically rubric based but some competition based), teacher formal and informal observation (I try to avoid subjective grading, but I do believe educators are professionally trained to be able to identify students strengths and areas of needs and that all assessment shouldn't be numbers based, but those observations are made in connection with standards and high expectations), completed optional homework (a very small percent of the overall grade, but the same that I had prior to going with optional homework) and some other in-class assignments that are content focused vs project based. Final grades were calculated on each student meeting or exceeding the learning and content goals within the above structure, the improvement in their ability to learn (My goal for next year is to create new ways to assess this as it is the "tech a man to fish"concept...) and their ability to demonstrate their learning... that all being said... I'm always looking for ways to improve the information I report to parents so they can understand their students progress... I tried adding Three Ring the last few years to share more information and I feel I failed at using it consistently enough, but will try to develop a better structure for using it to share with parents. It's an area I'm always trying to improve in professionally.

  3. Scott, I love this post.. I really want to push this idea with my staff this year. The point that you make is excellent, creating an optional homework policy is the solution to so many arguments. let's talk!


    1. Any way I can help count me in! I'll be having a GHO with a staff next week and would be more than happy to support your efforts.

  4. You have a GHO with a staff next week? Oh wait, that's MY staff! And it's tomorrow already! EXCITING! Can't wait! Thanks for taking time for us. :) Amy

    1. Thanks again for giving me a chance to share my ideas Amy!

  5. Hi Scott!

    I'm a 4th grade teacher. I have always been of the mind that homework should be an extension of the classroom. I do not give busy work. Period.
    That said, it IS one of those rites of passage to some parents, just like the infernal weekly Spelling Test!

    Last year, I was fortunate enough to work with a group of 36 students on a year long PBL project. It was only a 45 minute period, 4 days per week, and there was no grade, just participation. I have to say that I have never felt more free, or seen kids engage more fully. For the first time, I had numerous kids online at home working on their projects, connecting in Google chats, and learning (at home! I guess one could call that "homework"?) They were not bogged down by my putting ideas on them, so they were able to fly. It was an amazing window into the possibilities, and I plan on giving your idea a try!

    Can you expand on how you actually worked informing parents, as well as how you handled the work that did come in? Did you grade it? Was it cr/nc? I'd love to know the nitty gritty of the process...

    Thanks for putting this out there! It's time to let go of antiquated procedures!


    P.S. I'm also nixing Spelling tests! :)

    1. Hi Tracy,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience! And sorry for any convention errors in my writing... this was in the informal draft stage and I'm still refining it, but it's meant to be in a conversation style (in an afford to continue the conversation on homework).

      Great questions. I'll be in a Google Hangout On Air today talking with some principals about the topic. I'll add the link above once I have it. It's set for 11:30 AM PST. It will also be recorded (I'll add the link).

      The short answer is that I focused my discussions on learning and slowly implemented all while checking along the way to make sure there was only positives for my students. Even though I felt it was the best for my students, I still felt unsure because required homework is almost in the DNA of education. Again... I'm not advocating for the elimination of homework in any way, but more of asking "Why" do we require it, does the data support this practice, and how can we inspire our students to have a passion for learning.

      As far as grading, I think focusing on feedback, rather than scores or letter grades, is far better and is a foundation to learning.

      I'm working on a follow up post now on how I think teachers and schools can implement this in there classroom or at their school.

      Hope that helps :-)

  6. Scott,

    Love your spirit for doing what's best for kids! Thanks for being fearless and for sharing your time with us today during the GHO.

    Best wishes,


  7. The study that you did in 2007, where you staggered the amount of homework that you gave to see how if would influence learning really interests me. I must say, I started reading this post a skeptic and still am. I can't help but wonder if some of the students that "received the least amount of homework" and "showed the highest percentage of gains from pre-assessment to post assessment" made these gains because these gains for some reason other than lack of homework. In addition, it seems that the sample size of the experiment was too low to draw an substantial conclusion. Though I am finding myself wanting to be skeptical, I must say that I am interested. If assigning optional homework would get my students motivated, I would try it.

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for the comment. I'm thankful you are thinking about the practice itself. Please undertstand my choice was not only based on our study, but on the research I did to try and find any evidence that homework is an effective practice. I wanted to proove what I had been doing for over a decade was effective. Also know that if someone came to me and presented evidence that homework was an effective practice, I would immediatly start to require homework again. I'm certainly not against homework by any means (My students still have optional homework which they consitently complete), but rather against requiring unproven practices. I really just want to do what's best for my students.

      Our study was with three groups of 35 students in a departmentalized 5th grade program. The students received the same instruction from the same instructor. We made a strong effort to isolate the homework practice, get pre and post feedback from parents and students, and find ways to measure observable evidence on top of the assessment data. While it is a small sample size, it was just one factor in my move to an optional homework policy. (Please note that I do disclaim that I couldn't draw a fullproof direct conclusion, but homework was the sole isolated practice that differed.) There certainly are other potential factors.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to consider the issue. I've always heard arguments for and against homework, I just thought there was a middle ground where we could land and optional homework was that middle ground for me.

      Homework is an institutionalized practice and I would expect most to be skeptical. Obviously in a blog post I wouldn't be able to cover the issue completely, but I really just hope it encourages people to to reconsider the approach to accepting practices that have always been.

      Wishing you and your students the best in your classroom!

    2. You may want to try it with one class, one subject or even one unit to see your results. :-)

    3. Homework optional? I could do this! It would alleviate the stress of those students that never do it. It would make the majority of my students happy. If it is not beneficial for them, WHY do it? And then, there is the MOM in me that I hear... If MY daughters had not homework, would they have been as successful in college? Hmmm... If MY daughters had been allowed to just do classroom assignments, their grades WOULD have been better. Speaking as the Mom of not one, but TWO daughters with A.D.D., my life would have been exponentially easier. But wait, what did they LEARN by doing projects and homework? They learned that work outside of class was absolutely necessary for success. Not because they learned more or perfected the skills necessary for classroom success, but because they learned that it was a HAVE TO DO IT mindset. What if my daughters did not respect homework? Here is a little scenario that I see play out each year. At the elementary level our students are given minimal (if any) homework each week. Teachers are very cognizant of students having lives outside of school and want to respect extra curricular activities and family time. Our students go to middle school and for the first two six weeks are inundated with homework. The feedback we hear from parents over and over is... I wish that you had instilled these practices at the elementary level. HUNDREDS of our district students drop out of pre-AP classes because the work load is daunting to them and it is easier to just check in to easier classes. Would this have happened to MY daughters if they had not had teachers that made homework a priority and part of the grading process? Would my daughters have dropped out of college because the amount of work required would have seemed daunting? I don't know... It's funny. I was on board until I turned that around and brought my personal family into the picture. College is tough. Homework is required and graded in all cases. Students that do not come from that type of mindset are the most likely to struggle with this intensive study - work habit. Do I believe in homework because it will make my students score higher on standardized tests or because it will make them better understand skills? Absolutely NOT. However, I do believe that homework has a place long term in building habits that will help our students to be future ready. There I have said it. Throw rocks if you will. But, the MOM in me, just knows that without that diligence my daughters would not have been college ready - future ready.

    4. Thanks for your thoughts! No rock throwing here. I’m thankful you were willing to share your personal experience. All the reasons shared though are really for the debate of “homework vs no homework” not the optional homework policy. I don't disagree with your personal perspective as you would only know what was best for your family, and that is the main point of optional homework. Optional homework, among many benefits, puts the parents in control of their child’s time and also allows parents, who know their child’s needs best, to make the decision for what’s done at home in regards to additional practice and development. I want that as a dad. Your children needed to develop diligence while others have different needs. Mandating homework or eliminating homework doesn't allow for the individual needs of a student. Optional homework does. Other parents may want their child to develop determination through sports, music, art, chores or other means. Also optional homework allows for students to start to take responsibility for their learning and development of determination and diligence before the stakes are high. You don't become responsible by being forced, that's contrary to the definition of responsibility. What is typical in this homework issue is the debate quickly goes to the “required homework vs no homework” argument. I want to be clear… I am in no way against homework, but what the post is about is that there is a third possibility.
      I do want to address a few things and I hope to address them respectfully as you did share personally. Again, thanks for sharing.
      I believe that your daughters may not have been college ready without you, a highly supportive mother who was pushing them to be their best. I don't believe though the success and future readiness in your family had anything to do with a homework load, but rather 100% to do with their efforts and you fully supporting their development as people. College used to be what you needed to survive to show employers your determination. This "surviving school mentality" is now pushing its way lower and lower. Do 10 year olds really need 6 hours of school and 1 to 2 more required hours of homework to be successful? If so we need look at our instructional strategies because at no time in US school history has this been necessary for future readiness or success.
      *Another quick response to avoid hasty generalizations and red herrings on the issue as The Optional Homework Policy is not against or for homework.
      There are many ways to develop a "Have To Do It" mindset besides mandating homework. For many students, mandated homework develops a lack of desire to learn or care about school. If pre-AP class has become about surviving work loads, rather than learning, then maybe we need to look at the purpose of the class, not blame all the other teachers that may or may not have assigned homework. If homework is that important then there should be statistical evidence, which there is not. Maybe students need more direct instruction in organization? Maybe the originally student placement in a pre-AP class itself was a poor choice? Maybe, just maybe, the workload itself is the problem? I could as easily argue (with evidence) the amount of homework being given at the elementary, middle and high school levels (across the nation) is leading students to an early academic burnout, increased stress and depression, along with many other downsides which push them to drop out of classes and worse. My point is that the pre-AP issue shared is in no way connected to the topic of optional homework and The Optional Homework Policy wouldn't have prevented you, as a mom, from having your daughters do homework.
      My main goal in this post is to push education out of this fixed mindset on the homework issue and beyond being “for” or “against” homework. I hope we can all avoid that polarized mindset and be open to the evidence and new options like the The Optional Homework Policy.
      I appreciate you sharing and I hope you’ll give it a try.