Homework: Give It Purpose or Give It Death!

I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” 
Lily Tomlin

(This post was co-written with my colleague Marcie Faust, Director for Innovative Learning in Deerfield Public Schools)

My daughter, Jordyn, is 21 and a senior in college. Marcie’s daughter, Valerie, is a 9-year-old third grader. In commiserating with Marcie about Valerie’s recent homework experiences, we realized that not much has changed in the quality of homework assignments during the 12 years that have passed since Jordyn finished, and Valerie began, third grade. Marcie became so frustrated with the inane assignments her daughter was expected to complete that she posted this video capturing her daughter completing a word search (38 minutes that neither of them will ever get back) on a recent evening:

Video: Last Night's Homework (1 minute) via @mfaust

We suspect that Marcie and her daughter could have put their limited evening time together to better use than laboring over a word search. Our PLN pal (also a parent), Adam Bellow (@adambellow), has shared his own frustrations on the topic of homework on more than one occasion, including this wonderful short video he created two years ago about the dreaded “Homework Packet.”

Video: The Homework Packet (1 minute) via @adambellow

Honestly, we are a bit surprised that homework packets, word searches, and other random assignments still go home with such regularity. We have many strong feelings about this issue, enough to fill a book as opposed to a mere blog post. For now, however, let us first take a page from our revolutionary pal Patrick Henry by suggesting, if nothing else, we must either give it purpose...or give it death. To elaborate just a bit, let us share five quick additional points:

  1. First, we are not advocates for never assigning homework. Adopting such a rigid stance presents almost as many problems as having a policy FOR assigning a certain amount of homework each night. Like most issues we face in education, homework is not a black/white, always/never issue and we are well served to align with neither side of extremist stances. What we do stand for, however, is ensuring that any homework assigned is…
  2. Assigned with intention. Every single homework assignment we expect kids to complete should be assigned with a clear purpose in mind--for every student expected to complete it, which leads us to…
  3. Not all homework should be assigned to all students. Even our educator friends who advocate for no homework policies generally agree that, if there is a legitimate purpose to homework, that purpose is to practice skills first learned at school. We find it highly dubious that every child in any given classroom of 20 or more students needs the exact same amount of practice on the exact same content. When we do assign homework for practice, it should be…
  4. Differentiated to meet the needs of each individual student. To use a medical analogy, when we diagnose (through daily formal and informal formative assessments) that a student is showing symptoms indicating a need for some type of support, we might well start by prescribing additional practice during class or at home. However, we should no more prescribe the same type/amount of homework practice for every student than we would prescribe the same medical remedy for wildly varying ailments, as evidenced shown in this video: 

Video: Prescribing Homework (2 minutes) via @mfaust 

In a recent post another friend, Eric Sheninger, touched on key differences between personalizing versus differentiating learning. We think this subtle, yet significant, distinction applies to learning at home as well. When not assigning homework for targeted, intentional practice, we may want to assign it to inspire individual exploration/extension of learning. This type of homework assignment should be personalized based upon the individual student. However, whereas in differentiation of homework assignments, we differentiate based on the academic needs of the student, in personalization we again differentiate, but based on the academic interests, passions, and desires of the student.

Discussing homework often provokes strong reactions among teachers, students, and parents, with views ranging from those insisting on certain amounts of homework nightly to those insisting we abolish homework altogether. Although there is no clear consensus on this topic, we believe it is important to start with a somewhat obvious question, “What is our purpose in assigning homework?” and then--assuming we can identify a legitimate reason--intentionally differentiating our tasks by asking kids to complete additional (but limited) amounts of practice to reinforce learning based on their needs and to personalize assignments by challenging students to extend their learning after school hours by exploring topics based on their interests and passions.

The debate regarding homework is likely to continue and we do not profess to have a one-size-fits-all answer, anymore than we would assign one-size-fits-all homework, but here are two final challenges:

Like many of you, we are not only educators, but also parents, and we have experienced the homework challenge from both ends of the spectrum. Full disclosure: Once we became parents, our perspectives changed a bit as we saw first-hand how homework impacted our families, oftentimes negatively. So as a challenge to teachers everywhere, we encourage a practice we first learned from Nick Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher), who took it upon himself as a teacher to actually complete himself all homework assignments he assigned to his students. We wonder, as he did, “...how much homework teachers would give if they were expected to complete it.” To be fair, however, it is often our parents, not our teachers, who expect and even demand that we assign homework. To parents, we suggest asking your children, “If you could do any kind of work for a homework assignment, what would that be?” Our guess? Your child(ren) will likely NOT ask to do something meaningless like a word search or writing their spelling words five times each. On the other hand, they may answer--as Marcie’s daughter did when asked that very same question, “I’d like to create my own country and design its flag. Then I would build my country in Minecraft for other kids to see.”

Although some of our friends still lament the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we actually believe that when it comes to homework, the Common Core--interpreted at face value and implemented with fidelity--compels us to act in a way that will actually result in a decrease of mindless homework assignments. The overarching goal of the CCSS--to ensure that all kids leave their PK-12 experience college and career ready--is a noble goal; we are hard pressed to argue against kids leaving us fully prepared for the next stage of their lives. Alas, assigning mindless homework to all kids, without taking into account their current knowledge and skillset and not allowing choice and interest to play a role in whether or what kind of homework to assign strike us as ways to actually do the opposite.

So, we ask: Is the work we are assigning our kids to complete at home tonight designed to prepare them for their tomorrow? If not, let’s reconsider. Deciding if and when to assign homework can be problematic to say the least; it might behoove us to put on our medical hats when considering what to assign. Monitoring our students’ learning “symptoms,” “diagnosing” their current status, and based on such diagnoses, “prescribing” a course of action (including, perhaps, no homework at all if the “patient” is healthy) is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!

Why Joe Maddon Should Be a School Principal

“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” 
Tony Hsieh, Zappos

I am writing this post with a great deal of trepidation, fearful I am about to bestow a new curse upon my beloved Chicago Cubs, a team I have followed fanatically for my entire life. However, the other day I was on a Voxer chat and Joe Mazza--one of the few members of my PLN who understands my passion for all things Cubbies--asked me what I thought about Joe Maddon as their manager now that we are well into his first season in the role. Reflecting on this question, I realized that not only do I consider him an outstanding baseball manager, but I would also hire him to be a principal in our school district. Although I suspect he is not “highly qualified” in the eyes of our State Board of Education, I am confident our students and teachers would fare well were we able to lure him away from Wrigley and bring him to Deerfield to lead one of our schools. In fact, I stand ready to extend him an offer.

What makes me think this? Because school success starts with successful school leadership and successful school leadership looks a whole lot like successful leadership in any other walk of life. Perhaps the foremost responsibility of a successful leader--in schools or on the baseball field--is to, as Tony Hsieh suggests, "get the culture right." In many ways this is a leader's Job #1 and it is a job at which Joe Maddon has excelled. The Chicago Cubs are winning this year NOT because their roster is filled with star players; rather, they are winning because they finally have established a winning culture. Some may disagree regarding my estimation of the players' talent on this year’s squad, so let’s confront some brutal facts about my favorite team:

  • As I write these words, the Cubbies are dead last in team batting average in the National League. They are not merely bad in this area, they are the worst in the entire league.
  • They are also dead last in team hits, more than 30 hits behind the team immediately ahead of them in this statistic.
  • They do find themselves in first place in one batting statistic, however. Unfortunately, that stat is strikeouts. Yep, they lead the league in Ks, having struck out almost 200 times more than the next worst team.
  • In terms of individual offensive stats, the Cubbies have nary a hitter who is batting .300 this year, typically considered the batting average of an excellent hitter. In fact, their shining star in this stat is Anthony Rizzo, whose average is a pedestrian .281.
  • Maybe they are winning because of defense? Nope. Only 5 of the other 29 teams in the majors have committed more fielding errors than my beloved Cubbies this year. My mom (age 82) would likely commit about as many errors as Starlin Castro has this year had she been playing infield for them.
  • Well, it’s gotta be the pitching, then. Statistically speaking, this is a comparative bright spot. Their team ERA of 3.59 places them 5th best among the 15 National League teams, so they perform in the top third. However, they have but two consistently reliable starting pitchers: Jake Arrieta, a true superstar, and Jon Lester. Nearly anyone who follows the team would agree that Lester is the team’s second best starting pitcher. His current record? 8 wins; 10 losses.

Looking at these stats alone, an uninformed observer would be excused for suspecting the Cubs overall team record to be pretty miserable. However, in terms of winning--the only stat that truly counts--the Cubbies are unbelievable: There are but 3 teams in all of Major League Baseball with a better record (unfortunately, of course, for us, 2 of those 3 teams are in our own division). How is it, then, that a team with mediocre talent and statistics among the worst in baseball, finds itself playoff-bound for the first time in years (unless, as I fear, I have now doomed them, adding to the many curses with which they already face)? Leadership. And the Clubhouse Culture that Maddon--and other team leaders (e.g., Rizzo) have created. Are there any comparisons to be made between the Cubbies success so far this year and school success? Here are just a few thoughts:

Relationships First: Maddon cares about the players he leads. He knows them, treats them with dignity and respect, and appears to genuinely like them. Successful school leaders start with relationships, too.

Team Over Individuals: Maddon does not need (and perhaps does not even want) a mere superstar or two on his team. He is interested not in pockets of excellence, but in networks of excellence. He will sacrifice the interests of an individual team member in favor of the interests of the entire team. Successful school leaders cultivate a team mentality, focusing on the collective mission, vision, and values, too.

Gotta Have Fun: Although playing baseball for money seems like a pretty cushy gig, Maddon knows that over a long 162-game season, it can also be grueling. It requires discipline, tedious practice, and an intentional focus on fundamentals. To get the culture right, he is equally intentional about having fun. As an example, look no further than the recent team pajama party! Successful school leaders know that teaching is tough and important work. They find ways to balance this work and seriousness with a regular dose of fun, too. 

Believe to Achieve: Many players on this year’s team were also members of the team last year, when they had the worst record in their division. What has changed is not so much a roster overhaul as much as an attitude overhaul. An attitude that believes they can do it. Successful school leaders instill confidence in the students and teachers they lead. They know that when kids believe they can achieve, they are likely to do so. They know that their own belief in their kids’ abilities to succeed influences whether the kids will believe in themselves.

Focus on What You Can Do, not What You Can’t Do: Maddon will not have the league batting champ on his team this year. Nor will he have the Home Run King, the Gold Glove shortstop, an established base stealing threat, or even a left-handed starting pitcher who can execute a pick off throw to first base. Guess what? None of that matters and he wastes little time fretting about it. Instead, he focuses on what he does have: decent hitters, reasonable power, consistent pitching, especially in the bullpen, and outstanding character. Successful school leaders focus on what they do have in front of them and do not waste time complaining about what they do not have.

Would I hire Joe Maddon to be a principal in our school district? Absolutely. Here’s the really interesting part: I actually disagree with many of his tactical decisions, probably more so than I did with Renteria or Sveum before him. I still despise his penchant for batting his pitchers 8th instead of 9th. I decry the lack of sacrifice bunting exhibited under his tenure. Still, I suspect he would be the type of school leader who would create a culture in which others would be empowered and encouraged to do great things. I suspect the students and teachers in a Maddon-led school would find themselves working hard, having fun, and being nice to each other every single day. These things are far more important than any single decisions we may--or may not--support.

So, Joe, please give me a call so we can commence with negotiations (that is, as soon as you wrap up the Series this October!); as difficult as your current gig is, honesty compels me to suggest you will find serving as a school principal even more difficult. However, I am confident you will do well and that you will find it equally--if not even more--rewarding! We likely will be unable to match your salary, but we offer amazing benefits: some of the best students and staff in the free world! Focusing on school and classroom culture like Maddon focuses on clubhouse culture is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion! 

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...