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Creating Learners Rather Than Students

October 1, 2013

I remember getting so frustrated when I taught American History to high school juniors.  We would complete a unit, I would give a test, and then it seemed like the students caught a case of collective amnesia.  When I asked them to make connections, they seemed to have forgotten what we had learned earlier in the year.

Then one day, while giving a reading quiz, it hit me.  Students were coming into class, taking out their textbooks and quickly scanning the pages hoping to remember enough to pass the quiz.  Wait!  That’s not how learning happens.  Students were playing the system by memorizing/cramming for tests and quizzes; they were not really learning.  I was teaching at a school with an amazingly gifted group of students.  They were incredibly smart, but we asked too much of them as teachers.  So they did what humans have done for millennia, they adapted.  Instead of spending time learning, they found ways to get by.

Elif Koc, a freshman at NYU wrote a piece in this month’s Atlantic magazine about his experiences with homework in high school.  As he put it, “My friends and I realized we didn’t have to do everything assigned to us in order to succeed in high school. We found shortcuts and we minimized our efforts in order to get the grades we wanted.”

Elif continued, “Smart, charismatic kids could go into English class without doing the previous night’s reading, listen to the class discussion for a few minutes, and then join in with ease.”  Recently, I met with a former student who  admitted that she had done that frequently during high school.  She would spend her evenings doing homework for the classes in which she had large tests or projects due, and she would come to my history class unprepared having not read the material.  Yet, she was so smart that she was able to synthesize what her classmates were contributing to the Harkness-style discussion (  I wonder what insights she could have brought to class had she really wrestled with the homework.  She would agree with Elif when he said, “We were maximizing our academic success while minimizing our effort in certain subjects. We understood our teachers’ expectations and aimed to meet them, not to exceed them. There is a difference between being a good learner and a good student, and in high school, my peers and I learned how to be good students.”

So, perhaps the issue with homework is not that its unworthy but that there is too much of it.  As a friend remarked, “Here’s my beef with HW as the parent of two teens: the amount. I don’t question the value or quality of what my kids’ teachers assign, but I hate the late nights!”  Too much homework forces students to work at a rapid pace in order to complete their work, and it impedes and stifles the learning process.  As Elif said “I would study and do my homework in a frenzied focus, switching from subject to subject in an attempt to maximize my efficiency.

How do we approach homework differently?  We need to move away from the notion that the test is king.  It isn’t.  Often, students who excel on tests do so because they understand the material and have the skills to express their understanding. Not only do they write and test well, but they also have strong enough memories to retain and recall the information.  Instead, we need to figure out what we really want our students to be able to do.  Being able to express their understanding through reading, writing, creative thinking, and collaborative projects is far more important to me than whether or not they can recall the name of the 15th president of the United States (James Buchanan – I had to look it up).  Instead, what I really want them to know as a historian is how the past applies to their present.  How did Buchanan’s passive approach to solving the problems of the antebellum republic ultimately lead to its demise?  More importantly, I want them to be able to use that knowledge to be better informed about the world in which they live.  How can Buchanan’s legacy help us better understand our own President and the partisan politics of Washington?

I want to teaching in a way where my students become lifelong learners because it feels good to learn something new.  Here I am taking a year off from teaching, yet I’m  spending time writing about education.  Why?  I’m doing it because in grad school I finally was able to dive into the actual process of learning instead of just studying.  It was incredibly rewarding to use skills that I never utilized while taking tests or writing papers.  Additionally, the ability to make connections and see knowledge from different paradigms was incredibly rewarding.  I’m hoping what I learn during my “sabbatical” will make me a better teacher.

So what do we as teachers need to do in order to make homework a useful tool in helping students to master the material?  First, it needs to pass the “Ben test”  As Jessica Lahey explained in her 2012 New York Times editorial, teachers should only assign work that they would want their own children doing.  Second, we should only assign homework that students have the skills and understanding to complete.  Third, each assignment should have an important educational objective.  It must enhance the learning process and build necessary academic skills.  Fourth, we should only assign homework on nights when students can complete all of their work in a given time (an hour for sixth graders to eighty minutes for eighth graders).  Finally, we should strive to assign work that fuels a student’s passion not only to learn but also to become more interested in history.


From → Homework

  1. Deb Smith permalink

    I think one of the key’s to successful, productive homework is that it needs to matter if you do it – or don’t. In other words, the homework must play a key role in the next day’s class, so that if you haven’t done it, you miss out. Otherwise, students begin to see that it really doesn’t matter if you do it or not.

  2. Deb – That is a great point! I have never thought of it that way, but you are totally right. If students see the value in doing work at home, if there is buy in, not only will the work get done but students will retain more of the information. In that sense, the entire class benefits because students will bring more to the table.

    Thanks for your post.

  3. Anonymous permalink

    I agree. Great point. Now how do we get the system to change???

  4. A.Church permalink

    Now that I am a parent of a child that receives homework….uuughhhh, more authentic professional development! As a teacher, I have assigned less homework over the years and now even less. When a student says, “hey, my family is taking me out two weeks early to go to India. Or ” hey, I am going to Florida this weekend to visit my grandma, can I get the assignment?” Yeah, I say, enjoy your family, experience India- nothing I dole out will teach you more than the relationships you build and the travel experiences you have….

  5. Abby: There is no way to beat the learning that happens when students are able to visit a country and dive into the culture. The Journey to Japan was a perfect example of that…

    Now that I’ve spent nearly two weeks thinking about this – I think I’ve come to realize that I am a fan of well designed homework because I see real educational value in it. But reading up on it as I have this week has convinced me that I need to lighten the load when I return in the classroom next September. It’s likely that I will be teaching at an independent school again – so the question is what will the administration/parents think about the fact that we are assigning less homework? I wonder if there will be push back. Do you get any of that now that you are assigning less hw?

  6. A.Church permalink

    Never hear complaints of not enough…especially with all the student enrichment after school.

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