Rethinking Homework

For the past three years at HFS we have removed what traditionally has been known as homework and replaced it with a term by term ‘Homework Challenge’ and, even though we still face some of the same issues that we faced before and it is not a perfect model, it is an improvement on what we knew as homework.

Our old model of homework was not working, was not user-friendly for the parent, teacher or student and in reality we saw very little improvement in class as a relation from it.  Reading at home, practising of spelling words and basic facts seemed to help, but the rest was often contrived tasks that had little benefit and were parent driven (and on many occasions parent completed). We live in a very busy community where after school activities are part of life; it was common place for students to have 4-5 activities a week and more during sports seasons. Children would get home tired and late then be required to ‘Do their homework’, which would relate in fights, tantrums, late nights, having to get up extra early to finish or the homework not getting completed leaving a sense of failure.

Once the homework was handed in on a Friday it was up to the teacher to collect the books in and make the choice to either ignore or berate the child that had not completed their work. Then the teacher needed to take the homework books home over the weekend to spend much-needed planning or relaxing time marking books and creating new tasks for next weeks homework.

We knew it was not working and so did our parents.  Half of the parents wanted more homework and the rest wanted none, so we went looking through research and the internet.  It is actually quite hard to find research out there that is pro-homework, yet there are many educationalists who write about its null effect.  Alfie Kohn, the writer of ‘The Homework Myth‘ writes…

The positive effects of homework are largely mythical.  In preparation for a book on the topic, I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the research.  The results are nothing short of stunning.  For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school.  For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.

So we decided to revamp our homework and try to make it more enjoyable, more relevant,  optional and yet keep the spelling, basic facts and reading components from what worked in the previous model.  We aligned it to our school’s Pillars of learning (Learning to be, Learning to know, Learning to do & Learning to live together), made it seasonal, related it to events happening in the school and community and tied it into each terms inquiry.

Then at the beginning of 2010 each child received a scrap-book to record their homework journey and stuck in their first sheet – the journey had begun.  some families embraced it, some did not, but it gathered momentum.  Now going to Cubs on a Wednesday night did not mean that you had to get up early on a Thursday to complete you homework, it meant that you earned 5 points for belonging to a community group. As the school Triathlon or Cross Country is approaching you can practice your running and earn some points.  Read a book three times a week to a younger sibling or neighbour and gain 3 points. Go for a bush walk and picnic and earn 3 points. Learn to bake or cook dinner for your family or do the dishes every night or… and all you need to do is sign off on a task, get your parents to sign off and then provide some proof, like a photo or recipe in your scrap-book and Mr Dyer will sign off. Depending on how many points you collect you will receive a certificate and at HFS we do not hand out certificates, so this one is special.


This is the journey that has happened over the past 3 1/2 years it is my challenge to really look at it this year and ask those hard questions that we must ask as educators like…

  • Is it working?
  • Is it just the old homework, but in a new guise (SAMR model)
  • Does it meet the needs of the parents, students and community and if so why or why not.
  • And finally I think back to Edward DeBono who introduced me to his new word Ebne (Excellent But Not Enough). If it is excellent then how can we make it better?

I would really appreciate any tricky questions that you can throw at me on this one as I would love to see it improve and really have an impact on the students and community.


18 thoughts on “Rethinking Homework

  1. I applaud the creativity and have two points to offer.

    You are still giving homework just better homework. It’s baby and bathwater. Perhaps the problem before wasn’t the fact that students had homework but that they had ineffective homework.

    As for research, there are a multitude of confounding factors that impact research in education. For example, effective homework vs ineffective as you describe. One major benefit overlooked in education is how homework is a means of training students to be responsible and to be independent learners.

    I’m a long time high school teacher with years of college instruction experience. What is striking is how college students have such poor study skills. They exhibit the same behavior as the high school students but they don’t have the same level of support. Students who enter high school with poor study skills are probably more likely to fall behind from the start.

    Good luck, I do like what you are attempting.


    1. I think that you have hit the nail on the head with the ‘Baby V Bathwater’ question, as well as raising the issue of developing study habits and a work ethic when it comes to education. I am still trying to find the worth of Primary (Elementary) homework beyond spelling, reading and times tables, as they are the key skills in my mind that need to be ingrained into their schema, but then I also want to provide opportunities for students to explore their creative and cooperative sides.
      Thank you for your thoughts, as they have made me look at ideas that I was overlooking.

  2. Hi Luke
    Ive had this discussion SO many times over the past year. with parents, teachers and students. My daughter in grade 4 has homework from the book. Every night. Do pages 34-38 for homework. No connection to what they are actually learning in class in many cases. Its a bit tricky, her teacher is my colleague. Despite my gentle and not so gentle nudges (like ripping her Math text in half – yes in hindsight stupid move on my part but it got my point across, and for the record I got it fixed and explained my actions) to make homework about learning and thinking. Its a frustration we all go through on a nightly basis and it takes a toll on everyone. Im actually taking a break from ‘doing homework’ with my daughter right now.

    Thanks for sending me your home challenges a few month’s back. I revamped it for Grade 1. Sometimes the challenge is up to the students, like tell me or show me something new you learned or want to know more about. Above all they are fun and relevant. Parents love the challenges too. Truth be known Id rather not give ANY tasks to do at home, but we have a school policy that requires it. Parents expect it.

    Love the application of the SAMR model here too. Very relevant.

    I appreciate Randy’s comment above, its still homework so if you HAVE to give homework or challenges or whatever you want to call it then why not give the best quality of homework? I think its about thinking skills. Acting and making good decisions. These are skills that need practice in school’ and out of school.

    You might also like to join in an upcoming #pypchat on Twitter. We will be discussing Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth. We’d love to have you contribute! Watch this space

    So my question is then, what is the purpose of homework and who is it for?

  3. Great journey and even better that you are willing to challenge this idea even further. We visited Windsor School in Christchurch who have an amazing system running with their Home Learning challenges. They call it the PRIDE model and you can find out more here:,3831

    A few of our teachers developed a Summerland Home Learning Challenge based system ( that is optional for students. It develops skills in Giving, Community & School, Arts, Academic and Sports. With opportunities for kids to design their own challenges. It’s working well – we are still quite new to it. But as a teachers I’ve had the chance to learn a lot more about my students, their passions and interests and to celebrate some great failures and successes with them!

    Looking forward to the conversation around this. Great post!

    1. Thanks Amanda,
      Loving how through this blog and twitter PLN (with many degrees is separation) I can record my thoughts and reflections and get feedback from people who are professionals as well as passionate and knowledgeable about the subject.
      I will follow those links and hopefully they will broaden my understanding.

  4. Perfect timing – I am currently reading that Kohn book myself.

    I like how you raised the idea of having the students explore their creative sides. I am just getting my students started learning how to blog, and I think having them learn to upload pictures (and hopefully talk about them) will get them thinking a little bit more outside the classroom. If they start writing about the pictures they take, I think their writing will take off.

    1. We used blogging as a sharing and celebrating medium as well as a way to model and learn how to post and comment on blogs.
      More classes are having individual student blogs this year, so I see it as being a bigger component of the homework challenge.
      Maybe, as most students have an iPod or iPad and there are great blogging apps, some kids might use the blog as a way to share rather than the scrapbook?

      1. Peter Montague

        I think a blog is a great alternative to the scrapbook. Much easier for a teacher and parent to track. It also equips students with computer skills.

  5. Great stuff, Luke. It seems that the upcoming PYPchat is going to bring together some very ‘like minds’ on this topic. It seems so common-sense to change to a more ‘effective’ homework system rather than throw the baby out, but it still strikes many as ‘controversial’.
    Perhaps soon we will be the norm…. In the meantime, I’m enjoying following all of these different versions of the same simple idea – make homework work in our homes.
    Keep sharing. We’re watching.

    1. Thanks Rich. At the moment I am in the position of having to supply some form of homework, so it is about making it work for each family and each student.
      Looking forward to the PYP chat.

  6. Paula Hogg

    Hi Luke,

    Some great comments and good questions already posted.

    I do like how you aligned homework with your pillars of learning and related it to events happening in the school. I also like how it is holistic rather than a sole focus on numeracy and literacy.

    I will jump on your point about homework being parent driven, even parent completed. This is, as you point out not conducive to good learning.

    Ron Ritchhart in his ICOT2013 breakout talked about enlisting parents as allies. One great point he made about parents and homework is that parents should monitor the learning and not the work.

    Parents often focus on the work the child has to do and monitor the completion of that work. He suggests that learning is the goal not completion of the work (can you complete homework and not have learnt anything)? My thought is that it is entirely possible especially if the work is too easy or mum or dad completed it!

    Instead parents should be asking children ‘what is the purpose of the assignment you have, or what do you think your teacher wants you to learn and get better at as a result of this home learning’ (or challenge as you call it)?

    My question would be how often do we talk to our parents about what good learning looks like?

    I did like your question around meeting the child and parents needs. If homework is not meeting needs or contributing to lifting student outcomes, then why are we prescribing it!

    Not sure if my ramblings have been of any use to you, but I want to thank you for sharing your good work and wish you all the best with it all.


  7. @CarolynTavener

    Hi, we did a big revamp of our homework expectations at my school last year- similar problems as you and all schools I guess- some parents want it, some hate it, busy families, not much time. Hattie’s research showed that parents talking with their children about school and their learning had a significant positive effect on their child’s success at school. Given that, we tried to plan homework that encouraged children and parents to talk about the tasks together and the tasks were all related to the week’s work. I think we still have the same number of parents wanting/not wanting homework but more parents seem to know more about what their child is learning about. Does your homework program encourage conversations between parents and their children about school and their learning? Is it building connections with home and school? I like the idea of using your school Pillars of Learning as the basis.

    1. Not sure if it fosters relationships between home and school. There are tasks that foster relationships in home and community, but I think that they are not making connections between class and home.

  8. Peter Montague

    The flipped model is also appropriate here. The students are tired after school, as are parents. They can more passively pre learn skills for following day’s practical class with less parental input.

  9. Jodie

    Thanks for including me in this link. I have enjoyed reading yours and others responses and ponderings. I have also been thinking long and hard about this too. Do we leave our challenges more open which fosters independence and allowing chn to follow their passions which we touched on last term and was a huge success. Are we narrowing it too much and making it a huge set of tasks that are imput output processing only. How can we bring in our learning dispositions and the skills we want our children to develop as life long learners??? Developing their own challenges around their year long goals??? I think I am starting to form some ideas as I am writing this. How exciting, lets get our heads together and make some changes aye!?! 🙂

  10. It seems that a common theme is that as we improve our ability to guide students toward autonomy, we feel more insecure about looking like we’re “doing something”! In what environment can teachers feel comfortable taking risks?

    1. I think that in a forward thinking school, one that believes that it is a 21C learning environment, teachers have to have the autonomy to take risks. Risks that fail and risks that succeed, but visible risks that push the bar of education and provide a working model of what risk taking looks for our students.

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