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The End of Homework?

By Liz McColloch, French Faculty

The End of Homework?

As St. Mark’s anticipates our new schedule for next year, the question has come up repeatedly: How will we manage homework with only three class meetings a week? This question, in combination with our increased focused on collaborative work, has led us to think carefully about evening hours and how our students spend their time outside of class. For me, the answer lies in redeveloping our understanding of homework rather than the further restructuring of our schedule or manipulation of old curricula into a new timeframe. How do we make the most of our time, be it in or out of class? Have we moved beyond the concept of homework as we have traditionally known it?

In November, our Patterson consortium for blended learning[1] attended the iNacol Symposium[2] and in my first session I was introduced to a new paradigm for teaching and learning. Though it made sense immediately as a set of distinctions I was already making, seeing the visual depiction of our time was helpful for me in understanding how students and teachers can together approach course material and assessments. In his session centered around project-based learning, Andrew Miller shared with us an image presented by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in Better Learning Through Structured Teaching[3]:


What I liked about this image was its insistence on the overlap of student and teacher responsibility, no matter how or where the learning is taking place. And with the work we’ve done to apply blended learning tools in our classes this year, it left me wondering: Rather than thinking about classwork and homework, can we instead leverage technology to blend these two traditional concepts? Can we think about a continuum of student and teacher responsibility that ignores the walls of the classroom and the time constraints of our academic day? Is there a difference between what a student does in the classroom or outside of it? Or is it simply work? Of course, the value of the classroom is the shared time a student has with teachers and, more importantly, with other students. In order to optimize this time together, we must distinguish what can be done individually, facilitated by technology, and what should be done in concert. Looking at this diagram, the bulk of the work happens in the middle, where there is the best balance between student and teacher. And while it also promotes both teacher-centered lessons and individual study, neither focused instruction nor independent learning happens without the engagement of the student or teacher, respectively. But who is to say where or how any of this learning takes place? With the help of various tools, we can provide in-class reflection time for some students while others work with a teacher in a guided activity and yet another group works collaboratively on an assignment. Similarly, outside of class, students might use time for reflection, collaboration, or focused instruction, all designed to help them advance towards curricular goals. Work done outside of the classroom in preparation for the next class might look different for each student in each class every day.

I am not arguing for a simple flipped classroom[4], an idea that I first started investigating two years ago when I was not satisfied with homework performance in my classes. Students, assigned workbook pages or other rote activities, would often return to class with blank or half-blank sheets having done just enough to pass or declaring that they didn’t understand. This pattern led me to question the effectiveness of my teaching but also to wonder about the value of this individual work without guided instruction. How could their time be more productively spent? I instituted a series of web-based grammar lessons with formative assessments embedded. This work assigned out of class allowed class time for more effective application of new skills. It required a certain amount of independent learning, which was a shock to some students, but after an adjustment period, the results were evident. When focused instruction and independent learning can exist side by side at home, it frees up classroom time for collaborative learning. Moving beyond a flipped classroom, just as independent work with teacher support can happen outside of the classroom, technology can also facilitate reflection or collaboration outside of class without requiring physical proximity. Learning can take place in a multitude of settings, and not necessarily at the same time and in the same way for every student. Our goal, of course, is to make the most of our time so as to meet desired learning outcomes. Flexibility when it comes to the manner in which we achieve these outcomes may mean altering the kind of assignments we give to students both in class and at home.

Next year, with one fewer class meeting per week and therefore one fewer opportunity for class preparation, we are faced with the decision of how to restructure our courses. But, we also are fortunate to have two extended teaching blocks that provide ample time for collaborative work and individual conferencing as well as more traditional classroom activities. In order to use the time we have effectively, I hope to employ careful planning and effective digital tools to make learning more fluid, differentiate instruction for students who benefit from a variety of approaches, and provide time for the much needed reflection that allows for better investment in the material and deeper learning over time.

Liz McColloch is a French teacher at St. Mark’s and is the faculty co-chair of the Haiti Partnership Committee. She utilized the Patterson Grant for participation in the Blended Learning Consortium. She also coaches basketball and crew. 

[1] Ms Berndt, Dr. Harwood, Ms Matthews, Ms McColloch, Ms Millet, Dr. Riva

[2] http://www.inacol.org

[3] ASCD, December 2013. www.ascd.com


[4] http://flippedclassroom.org

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