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Homework Reimagined: A Case for Continuous Learning

Curriculum Coordinator and Math Instructor

The boarding school I teach at instated a mandatory evening study hall, accompanied by the expectation that teachers assign homework each night. I am grappling with this mandate. I fundamentally believe that busy work shows students that we don’t respect them. It devalues the differentiation that we work so hard to achieve in class.

At the same time, if we truly want to instill the idea of lifelong learning in students, keeping them academically engaged outside the classroom, bridging the divide between school and the real world must surely play a role.

To prepare for the year, teachers at my school read Starr Sackstein’s and Connie Hamilton’s Hacking Homework and had a PD day with Starr as we reimagined homework as “continuous learning”.

As I read Starr’s book, I began to ask myself some questions about homework.

  • How can we differentiate homework? More specifically, can we maintain a focus on learning but be flexible about “how” students practice?

  • How can we offer students voice and choice in what they do outside of class? Can students assign themselves homework?

  • What new ideas for homework arise when we reframe it as “continuous learning”

  • Is it possible to “create homework on the fly” based on what we observe in class?

  • How does our Learning Management System and grading policy help or hinder this flexibility?

  • How do we spark excitement about the material through activities outside of class?

  • How do we evaluate whether or not our assignments are “purposeful”?

As I read further and throughout Starr’s time with us, I tried to summarize all that I learned into a few “Pillars of Effective Continuous Learning”. I ended up with four categories. Our continuous learning assignments should be: differentiated, purposeful, empowering, and inspiring.

  1. Differentiated: We work hard in our classrooms to tailor learning experiences to our students' needs. Early on in our teaching careers, we learn to differentiate process, product, and content. Yet, when it comes to homework, typically, teachers assign the same thing to the entire class. Meaningful continuous learning should be just as careful about giving individual students what they actually need. If you ask students to reflect on learning, differentiate the product: let them write, record themselves, or draw something. If some students are struggling with adding mixed numbers but others are still stuck on getting a common denominator, provide different sets of practice problems.

  2. Purposeful: With every continuous learning assignment, make sure that you can easily answer the age-old question, “Why am I doing this?” For learning outside of the classroom to be meaningful, it should actually help students connect the content to what’s going on in their world and allow them to use their new knowledge in real ways.

  3. Empowering: Continuous learning should give students a choice in what they engage in. Students should think deeply about what they need to do in order to reach mastery. They should make choices about how they can achieve that outside of the classroom. Of course, having the ability to make these choices will require a lot of practice with self-assessment and frequent opportunities for students to reflect on their learning. Eventually, though, students should be able to articulate their own challenges and set goals for themselves. If students assign themselves homework, they are far more likely to actually do it.

  4. Inspiring: Continuous learning should also tap into student curiosity, interests, and wonder. It should get students excited about what they are going to learn in class next. Find ways to spark awe and get students to ask questions. When students wonder, they are not only more engaged, but they actually learn more deeply.

With coaching from Starr, each department generated lists of ideas for continuous learning assignments. While the specifics in each department were different, there were certainly common themes.

Theme 1: Current Events/Media/News:

  • English: Connect our class text and something going on in the media (sports, TV, social media).

  • Social Studies: Describe a throughline between a historical event and a current one that you find on the news or in an article.

  • Math: Choose a statistic from a news program or article. Describe how it was calculated and whether or not we should trust it.

  • Science: Listen to a recent podcast that is related to the topic we’re studying.

  • World Language: Listen to or read a news story in our target language.

  • Art: Find examples of the class content in fashion, music videos, cinema, or television.

Theme 2: Connections to Self

  • English: Keep a reading blog or vlog where you discuss your reactions to our text. Write fan fiction about the text.

  • Social Studies: How does a major part of your life/culture connect to history? Constructs (i.e. The History of — Food, Holidays, Language, Education, etc.)

  • Math: Keep a journal of “math encounters” in your daily life.

  • Science: go on a scavenger hunt to find examples of various concepts in your immediate space.

  • World Language: Listen to music or read a book of your choosing in our target language.

  • Art: Free draw but be intentional about using a skill (perspective, line, shape) that we’ve been practicing in class.

Theme 3: Project Work

This one works with all subject areas. During a Project-Based Learning unit, have students reflect daily on where they are and where they need to be with the project. Encourage them to make to-do lists and self-assign which of these items can be completed outside of class..

Theme 4: Connections with Others

  • English: Create a playlist of music for characters in a text.

  • Social Studies: Interview and catalog learning about family members. Consider apps like Story Corps to save these interviews with the library of congress.

  • Math: Play a board or card game that requires math and logic with friends or family.

  • Science: Interview a specialist or ask someone else’s opinion about a topic we are studying.

  • World Language: talk to or write to a friend who is a native speaker of our target language.

  • Art: Publish your work on social media and dialogue with your fans.

A final note: One thing that Starr said really resonated with me. “The things we spend time on in class show our values”. To me, this means that everything we dedicate to “outside of class” work needs dedicated follow-up time during class. If we don’t take time to intentionally connect what students do outside of class with what we do together, no matter how great our continuous learning assignments may seem, students will view them as busy work and meaningless.

If the overarching goal is to create lifelong learners, we need to strive to blur the boundaries between the classroom and the real world.


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