The Homework Project
The Homework Project, Post #1
I am embarking on a blog journey that I am titling ‘The Homework Project.’ One aspect of the Queen’s PME I appreciate is the ability to relate coursework directly to my day-to-day professional life as a teacher and administrator. For this blog project, I am going to document a concurrent real-world project we are tackling at our school: the present and future of homework in Grades 9-12.
Context: I have the privilege of working at Trinity College School (TCS) in Port Hope, Ontario. Now 153 years old, TCS is a co-ed, CAIS-accredited, independent boarding school with 560 students through Grades 5-12. The school attracts boarding students from 40 different countries and day students from Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa, Cobourg, Peterborough and environs. TCS is a highly academic school, and Senior School students (Grade 9-12) are expected to be complete approximately 2 hours of homework per evening. Teachers have a high degree of ‘collaborative autonomy’ to craft the best possible learning experiences for students, and by corollary, there can be different homework expectations by academic department and grade.
As a school environment dedicated to continuous improvement, we do our best to monitor students stress and academic pressure points with an eye to help students negotiate their myriad of curricular and co-curricular demands. Enter homework. Through conversations at multiple departmental and committee tables, a feeling began to arise that there was a need to clarify the rationale and role of homework in Grades 9-12.
As the Director of Teaching & Learning, it is my role to facilitate this project. The guiding question of the project and the topic of this blog is: “To what extent can we improve our homework practices in Grades 9-12?”. I have kept the research question broad to allow as many entry points as possible, including an exploration of brain-based research on homework, research on homework efficacy, and working to arrive at a common understanding of the why, how, and when, and what of homework.
Thanks for joining me on the journey to come.
The Homework Project, Post #2
After our guiding question was set, “To what extent can we improve our homework practices in Grades 9-12?” we needed to take a pulse check of where faculty were at in terms of their thinking around homework. In order to ‘prime the pump’ for future discussions, we asked each of our ten academic department heads to facilitate a discussion about homework with their respective teams. On the first day back after Christmas (a professional development day), the afternoon was spent in departments discussing the following prompts:
- What are the predominant 3 or 4 reasons you assign homework in your course?
- How do you know if you are giving too much or too little homework?
- What are the consequences, both formal or informal, of a student not completing homework in your course?
- How much class time do you allot for students to begin to work on homework?
- How does assigned homework help students prepare for the next class?
- How many minutes of homework (recognizing this is a range depending on the student) should a student in your course be completing for each class? Per week?
- Are student assigned homework over long weekends? What about over Christmas or March Break?
- What have you found to be the most effective ways to track homework completion?
- What percentage of homework time is spent working on assessments (e.g. major projects, presentation preparation, essays, etc.) versus consolidation or practice of material learned in class? (recognizing there is overlap in the two)
- Does the homework assigned in your course help further student understanding of curriculum expectations?
- If you were a student in your class, would you find the homework you assign interesting?
- Do you think your course has less or more homework than other courses your students are taking?
- If you could improve homework practices in the School, what are the top three strategies you would suggest?
- If the School was to develop a homework, what would be some non-negotiables vs. guidelines you would want to see included?
Following this afternoon, all the department heads send me a summary of the discussions, most with responses to each of the prompts above. My next task is collate and summarize the feedback so we can see where there are connections, similarities, and differences. For the sake of transparency, all the raw feedback is stored in a Google Drive folder that all faculty have access to. I will not be sharing this data outside of our school. In the coming weeks, I do hope to share in this space some of the key insights that the project generates.
The Homework Project, Post #3
The pump being primed with departmental discussions around homework, it is now time to delve into the research on homework.
There is a significant number of online articles, forums, research papers, screeds and rants about homework that may be found online.
If you have not read much about homework philosophy, a really good primer about the “homework wars” in Canadian schools may be found here: https://www.ourkids.net/school/homework-policies. This article summarizes, with references, the main ideas held by “traditionalists” and “progressives” around homework; it is a good starting point.
Here are some other helpful sources to take a run at understanding the issue:
Homework in the New Millennium, NAIS: https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-teacher/spring-2009/homework-in-the-new-millennium/
The Case for (Quality) Homework, Education Next:
While not an article on homework per se, I thought I would share one interesting tool that could be used as a way to chart skills and homework. It is a “Progress Bar” Google template by Alice Keeler: https://alicekeeler.com/2018/12/10/objective-progress-bar-template/
A great book about neuroscience and education is Whitman, Glenn, and Ian Kelleher. Neuro Teach: Brain Science and the Future of Education. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. In the book there is an exceptional chapter relating to homework entitled “Homework, Sleep, and the Learning Brain”.
As we continue to explore the wide field of homework, additional resources will be added to our repository of research.
The Homework Project, Post #4
As we move forward in our homework project it is time to clarify what our end goal could look like and backwards plan from there. Put another way, we should first articulate our distal goal and the proximal goals required to meet the distal goal.
Collaboratively create research- and experience-based guidelines for homework in the TCS Senior School
Step 1: Start the conversation
- Facilitate discussions on homework with all Senior School faculty. Status: Completed, notes from departmental discussions shared with faculty.
- Facilitate a discussion with the Academic Student Council (called Academic Stewards at TCS) about student perceptions of homework. Status: Completed, notes shared with faculty.
Step 2: Seek out, share, and discuss research
- A resource file of research sources has been created and shared with the department head committee (called Course of Study at TCS), with an ask to collectively add further sources to the repository.
- One particular source, a chapter from Whitman and Kelleher’s Neuro Teach: Brain Science and the Future of Education was photocopied and shared with all members of Course of Study. The accessible chapter talks about what mind, brain, education (MBE) science tells us about homework practices. This chapter will be discussed at the January Course of Study committee meeting.
Step 3: As a faculty, develop the questions we need to answer related to our homework practice, considering multiple perspectives including students, faculty, and families.
- This is the objective of our January 25th Course of Study meeting. The research listed above, particularly the Neuroteach chapter, is to be discussed in small groups. The tasks for each group are as follows:
- 1) what are the three most salient points from the Neuroteach chapter and how do these relate to your practice?
- 2) develop three questions about homework that we should endeavour to answer at TCS. For example:
- If a student has mastered a particular skill or concept that a homework assignment seeks to practice, does the student need to complete it?
- How do we differentiate our homework assignments for different learners?
- How do we explicitly teach our students how to study for tests in our own classes?
- In reference to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, how do we create assignments that promote the deep engagement the flow state creates?
- Is there balance, or does there need to be balance, between the amount of homework assigned in different disciplines and regular vs. Advanced Placement courses?
Step 4: Answer these questions using research and the collective wisdom of our experienced faculty. (Step 4 and/or 5 could be the key focus/foci of the Saturday, April 6th day)
Step 5: Based on the steps above, generate a list of potential homework guidelines and seek broad feedback from all Senior School faculty and the Academic Stewards.
Step 6: Finalize the guidelines based on this feedback, communicate widely to stakeholders, and identify action items, pilot projects, and a timeline for feedback and review.
The Homework Project, Post #5
By now, multiple discussions have occurred in different faculty groups at the School on the issue of homework. In this post, I will talk about the process and results from our concurrent efforts to solicit, collate, and analyze the student perspective on homework from our senior students in Grade 11 and 12.
The Academic Stewards Committee is a group of 17 students from Grade 11 and 12 that assist the academic directors (myself and my colleague) with gathering feedback and disseminating information about the academic program. A group discussion was held at a recent meeting about homework and here are some of the salient points that were raised:
Question Prompt: If you could improve homework practices in the TCS Senior School, what are the top three strategies you would suggest?
- “Scaffolded model [having more required/checked homework in Grade 9/10 and then removing that in Grades 11/12] works well”
- “Once you have achieved mastery of a skill or concept, do we need to keep doing homework questions?”
- “Student mindset: if I promise to do well on the test, do I have to do the homework questions?”
- “As long as you are above 96%, we should be able to do what we like in class!”
- “There should be no homework on long weekend and holidays, but you can do so if you want.”
Question prompt: If the School was to develop a homework policy in the Senior School, what would be some non-negotiables vs. guidelines you would want to see included?
- “Pretty good actually, no changes are needed”
- "Depends on what courses you choose."
- "Message we receive from our teachers is that homework is mandatory…but we are not going to check it."
- “Clarify of learning items from for learning items."
- “Hard to get above 91% in English and the social sciences, but you can achieve higher than in math and science."
This group was more balanced about homework than we were expecting. To be fair, the group is comprised of students who have self-selected to be part of an academic group. By the nature of the committee, the students are positive about school and generally succeed at a scholarly level.
The one point that elicited a great deal of head-nodding and assent was questioning the requirement to do homework if the skills and concepts have already been mastered. This is a compelling question for faculty to address, namely: how can we structure homework so it both reinforces daily learning outcomes and provides extension opportunities, differentiated by students? Based on this and other similar feedback, one academic department is already looking at revamping daily homework assignments to include a three-tiered series of questions. This could look something like the following:
Question Group 1: try at least X questions from the following list. If you can complete them without a problem, move on to Question Group 2…
Question Group 2: try at least X questions from the following list. If you can complete them without a problem, move on to Question Group 3. If you are struggling, try your best and see your teacher for extra help tomorrow…
Question Group 3: try the following questions. If you struggle with any questions, make a note of them and bring your questions to the next class…
A strategy like this could potentially help students avoid completing more homework questions on content they have already mastered, allowing homework time to be focussed on extension and application. It would also allow students to self-identify area where more work and extra help is needed.
The Homework Project, Post #6
Grade 9 Students: There are eighty-eight Grade 9 students at our school. As a non-semestered school, Grade 9s generally take eight full-year courses. Correspondingly, that means with a rotating odd day/even day schedule, students attend—and possibly are assigned homework in—eight classes every two days (the timetable stipulates four classes per day). With mandatory co-curriculars and some students being on the bus for over an hour+ each way, these are busy kids trying to fit all their school activities in alongside homework, outside commitments, and the omnipresent social media feeds.
It was to this group that the thoughtful Grade 9 Coordinator sought feedback from through an online survey on homework and related practices. There were 56 respondents or 64% of the students. Here is a sample of the questions/prompts and some of the responses:
Question prompt: “If I don’t get my homework done on time, my teachers may think that…”
- I am irresponsible / was slacking off / I’m lazy / not putting in enough effort / don’t care [many responses were to this effect]
- I had too much work or had trouble
- I didn't even try when I really did
- I am lazy when really I have so much homework that I cannot complete some of it
- I purposely chose not to do it
- I’ve been busy but will catch up
- Something is wrong
- I’m a bad student
- I didn't have time because of sports
Question Prompt: “One thing I wish the school would improve is…”
- Less homework [16 related responses]
- The curriculum. Focused on skill, not memorization.
- Fewer rules and more freedom
- Let us go home a bit earlier so that people with after-school commitments can do their homework.
- Keeping the phones at night [boarding student must submit their phones at bedtime]
- Spacing out tests, so there isn't a lot in one week.
- Spares for Grade 9 students
in the first prompt, the overarching feeling one gets is that students are aware that they would be perceived as lazy or irresponsible by their teachers if they did not complete their homework. At a school with close-knit relationships between faculty and students, this can translate into students being motivated to do their homework so as not to disappoint their teachers. On the one hand, this helps motivate students to complete homework, which is a good thing. On the other hand, it would always be my preference for students to develop intrinsic motivation for completing work rather than a desire to please (or at least, not disappoint) someone else.
When asked what the School could improve upon, the most common answer by a significant margin was giving less homework. Suffice it to say, Grade 9 students are particularly sensitive to the School's homework requirements since at 14 years of age they are still developing the self-regulatory skills necessary to complete regular homework. How? Why? How much? When? – all of these questions need a particular ‘Grade 9 lens’ on them when we look at any overarching homework policy at the School.
The Homework Project, Post #7
Grade 10 Students: homework feedback. As you see in the last two posts, the School solicited feedback from specific students groups on the nature of homework. One of our most successful survey data sets came just recently from the Grade 10 students were given an online survey by the Grade 10 Coordinator that included questions about homework. In terms of a response rate, 44% of the grade responded to the survey (56 students out of a possible 122). The answers give a rich dataset of narrative responses. Here is just a sample of some of the question prompts and student comments:
Question Prompt: Why do you choose to do your homework?
- To review what I did in class and keep my grades up
- it affects my learning skills [multiple responses related homework completion to learning skills]
- Because I know it will help me when it comes to tests
- Because I need to have good marks to get into a good university
- Higher marks, and improve my performance
- Grades. I worry that my teachers will be disappointed with me if I do not.
- Because it is our responsibility to do our homework and homework is just a form of preparation
- To know what's happening in class
- I'm required to
- Because I have no option, my average decreases if not
- I enjoy it
- I choose to do my homework so that I am caught up in my course.
- To get a higher mark and refresh my brain on what we learnt and expand it
- that's why I came to school
- It was assigned, and I want to exercise good study habits
Question prompt: Why do you choose NOT to complete your homework?
- too busy or don’t understand it
- I either don't have the time, or I forget about it
- Sometimes there is just too much to do
- When my homework load is too much, and I simply cannot finish it, or because I'm so overwhelmed and can't do it all
- I always do my homework. If I do not complete it causes me distress.
- Sometimes it’s irrelative and I don’t need to know if for tests
- Wi-Fi cuts out [the School turns off Wi-Fi at bedtime in the boarding houses]
- Don't have time/energy/motivation
- If I have assignments due that are for marks and some homework that isn't marked, I'll do the assignment instead of the other homework because it is more important
- Takes up a lot of time for a day student who gets home at 7:30 pm each night
- I feel overwhelmed/issues in my personal life
- Lack of time to finish it all
- Because it’s unimportant and not a priority
- Because I have other compulsory activities to do
- When I’m too tired I would rather just sleep.
Question prompt: Is there anything else you would like to share about Homework at our school? What would you like your teachers to know?
- That we take more than just your course and we need less in each subject in order to be able to complete it all.
- I think the homework is great, but I find that I get lots of it on one day and then almost none the next, and I do not like it. I want to have balanced homework each night (an hour of homework each night).
- I think that more of it should be optional, for some people I know that it really helps them understand/learn the material. However, it can take up a lot of time when it doesn’t help me learn better.
- The homework is fine, but assignments and test preparation are a bit time-consuming. I spend several hours a night doing them. The homework load is not impossible, but it could be lighter.
- I think the amount of homework is very reasonable.
- Mostly I just don’t believe it should be given over long weekends and breaks
- I can understand why teachers give out a lot of homework so we can practice. But we have eight courses at once and all courses having homework all the time is overwhelming and stressful. Maybe doing some in class or looking over it would be better.
- I think sometimes teachers should be more reasonable when assigning homework in terms of work time because essays/projects are given a small amount of time to finish. As students are trained to be 'all-rounded' they do not have enough time to finish their homework when they have mandatory co-curriculars.
- All these responses may vary by course
- I am much more likely to do the homework in a course if I have a positive outlook on the class that day - so if the class is fun and interesting, I will most likely do the homework that evening because I’m excited about the course
- Some kids have super busy lives, like as a day student sometimes don’t get home until 7:30 pm and are already so tired at this point
- Homework is essential and helpful for the students, but many students are sleep deprived. One way this issue could be resolved is by learning more in class when kids are more likely to stay on task rather than having students complete independent homework.
This is a rich trove of data on how Grade 10 are feeling about homework. When you read this blog post and the two posts prior (about feedback from the Grade 9s and Grade 11/12), a larger picture starts to develop about the student perception of homework.
The question is now: what are we going to do about it? More to follow in the coming posts.
The Homework Project, Post #8
By this stage of the project, we have gathered a significant treasure-trove of data related to how students and faculty feel about homework. It is time to synthesize and analyze the data to see what trends emerge. Our first stab at this came through the Course of Study group, the committee of department heads and academic leaders in the Senior School. We gathered for close to an hour and a half and divided the data into three sets: student feedback, teacher feedback, and homework research. Much of this data may be seen in the blog posts above.
To try to bring meaning to the multitudinous anecdotal points, we used a ‘pro-pro’ methodology. We learned about this model through an Integrative Thinking workshop held at the School and facilitated by the I-Think Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Instead of a traditional pro/con model of decision-making, the pro-pro framework encourages participants to see the benefits of competing models from multiple perspectives. In this case, we set up chart paper with the following heading prompts:
pro: current practices | pro: new/revised practices
pro: current practices | pro: new/revised practices
pro: current practices | pro: new/revised practices
Course of Study committee members reviewed the resources, research, and data at each station and added resonate points under each heading. Two key constituencies were not included in these lists: parents and ‘the School’ as a whole. In terms of parents, we have not yet gathered survey feedback from parents specifically on homework and are wary of creating too much survey fatigue by reaching out on a single issue. There may be opportunities to engage the parent community in the months ahead. In terms of the School itself, there is a strong culture at TCS of respect for teacher wisdom and professionalism, and the School’s leadership is keen to follow the process and understand the issues involved in order to inform a collaborative process of creating homework guidelines.
The pro-pro exercise generated a significant amount of discussion, and the resulting lists will be a crucial resource for the next phase where draft guidelines will be suggested.
The Homework Project, Post #9
The next step on the project is particularly important to get right: proper analysis and synthesis of the data in order to draft research-based draft guidelines around homework at the School.
An essential part of this process will be tackled on Saturday, April 6th when faculty will gather for a special strategic meeting to discuss issues of importance for the School. The strategy day is entirely optional, and over the past two years when we have run similar days, we enjoy the input of at least 30 faculty members who give up part of their weekend to participate. This is an incredible benefit of working at a school with such highly committed professionals.
The strategy day will run from about 9 am to 12:30 pm and will include two separate facilitated conversations on the research question: “To what extent can we improve our homework practices in Grades 9-12?”
Using the collated data shared in the posts above, each of the two discussion groups will draft two lists of guidelines on flipchart paper:
- Key ‘Non-Negotiables’ related to homework
- Key ‘Effective Practices’ related to homework
We use the term ‘non-negotiables’ in other academic areas in the School, so this language will be familiar for those assembled. Generally speaking, the ‘non-negotiable’ tag is only applied to practices that are so core to professional practice that to not do them is considered not meeting baseline teacher expectations (e.g. report cards, parent-teacher meetings, marking, safety and supervision, posting journal entries on our online learning management system, etc.)
The concept of ‘effective practices’ purposely strays from the more common ‘best practice.’ moniker, as great teaching is too varied and individual to prescribe a single best practice, though there are many effective practices.
At the end of the sessions on April 6th, we will come together to look for consistency and discrepancy between the two lists of non-negotiables and effective practices relating to homework. People will be asked to review the lists created on the flip chart paper and use sticky notes to add new ideas and show their support for the different points proposed.
Once the flip chat paper has accumulated the flurry of sticky notes, a quasi ‘heat map’ should emerge, showing the homework points that generate the most questions or support. We will then take that feedback and do our best to iterate version 2 of the non-negotiables and guidelines to be shared back at the next faculty meeting.
The Homework Project, Post #10
As we come to the end of this project, it is time to reflect on lessons learned and to create an action plan for next steps. By the metric of generating discussion, the project to date was a sure success. By the parameter of building genuine, lasting change, we are not there yet.
To move the needle regarding homework culture in a busy secondary school may be considered a bold change project. For this last post, I am going to talk about directing change projects through the lens of my favourite book on the subject, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The book is required reading for any leader seeking to move an organization through a change project.
The central thesis of Switch is that leaders need to motivate a desire to change through three means. To explain he uses the metaphor of trying to direct an elephant and a rider to go in a particular direction. The metaphor is an apt one when you ascribe a human quality to each component of the story. As a leader you have to:
- Direct the elephant (appeal to the heart of people)
- Direct the rider (appeal to the intellect of people)
- Shape the path (ensure the road to change is laid out for the desired change)
The metaphor makes sense when you consider that the heart or people basic desires will often overpower the rational brain, just like an elephant can easily overpower even the most skilled elephant rider. In an organization, the deep-seated opposition to change, based on habit, tradition, or obstinacy, will often overwhelm a rational argument of why change is needed. To counter this, leaders must appeal to the heart first, then the mind, while clearly showing the path the change will take. Sure the elephant may wander off the track at times during the change process, but with skilled leadership, the elephant can be encouraged back.
To adapt this thesis to a change project in schools, leadership teams must find ways to appeal to the heart, i.e. what stories and human faces are we trying to help with the project. From there, the rational arguments about the ‘why’ of the project, including sharing compelling research, must be articulated, followed by laying out a clear vision for the steps to be taken along the way to reach the goal.
Following through with the change project is the next phase of the project at our school.
Wish us luck!
Thanks for reading,