Is Homework Helpful?: The 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask

The Common Core has asked teachers to increase rigor by diving deeper into the material. Consequently, everything has been ramped up, classwork and homework no exception.

My nephew, a fourth grader, has 40-50 minutes of homework a night plus independent reading and projects. When you include a snack break, the distractions from his younger sister, and his fourth-grade attention span that is bound to wander, that time often gets doubled. He is hard working and conscientious, but many nights result in distraction, frustration and anxiety.

The National PTA recommends 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for 12th). If you follow these guidelines, students will spend 137,160 minutes doing homework from first grade to 12th grade. That equals 2,286 hours or 95 straight days of homework.

Yet, high school students in Finland rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. It, as a country, allows children to engage in more creative play at home. This is significant because its students scored remarkably well on international test scores. It has many parents and education advocates in America questioning our practices.

So, are we misguided with all this work? To answer that, one must step back and question the value of assignments. How often should they be assigned? Where is the line between too much and too little? Here are five considerations to help you determine what to assign and why.

1. How long will it take to complete?

There are no surefire guidelines or golden rules that say how long students should work, especially since they progress at different speeds. Assignments need to lead to better learning outcomes. To achieve this, one must balance efficiency and effectiveness. The more efficient the assignment, the more material and learning that can be covered over the course of a year.

Yet, here’s the rub. It must not be so quick that the material is not mastered, nor so long to provoke boredom. In between there is a sweet spot that everyone should seek.

2. Have all learners been considered? 

Often, teachers make assumptions about the time it takes to complete an assignment based on the middle-of-the-pack kid. Yet, struggling learners can take double or triple the time as other students to complete an assignment. Don’t just think about the average learner, consider the needs of al students.

3. Will an assignment encourage future success?

A longer assignment can be justified if it is meaningful. Work that builds confidence and opens the door to future success is certainly worth it. Worthy assignments encourage participation in upcoming activities rather than discourage it. Teachers must explain the benefit of classwork and homework so that students will be sold on its benefit. Without the sales pitch, or the awareness of its purpose, students will view assignments as busy work.

4. Will an assignment place the material in a context the classroom can not? 

Homework is effective when classroom learning is transferred beyond the school walls. When teaching area, have students measure the area of a refrigerator shelf to determine what size sheet cake will fit for an upcoming party.  When teaching the types of clouds, have students observe them in their own back yard. Make the learning applicable to everyday life, and it will be worth the time it takes to complete.

5. Does an assignment offer support when a teacher is not there? 

Students can reduce the time it takes to complete assignments if they know where to turn for help. In the case of homework teachers are not there at all. Assignments should not only check for understanding, they should also offer support when students struggle.  Teachers should provide links to online tutorials, like Khan Academy, that offer instruction when stuck.

This post is the first of two parts. The second part can be found here: Homework: Helping Students Manage their Time.

Paper, Pencil, Chalk, or Doc: Which Medium for Which Lesson?

As much as I love the myriad ways that the internet and a variety of digital tools have engaged and empowered my students, I’m in no hurry to become a paperless classroom. This means that when I’m planning my lessons, in addition to asking, “What is the best way for my students to tackle this concept, practice this skill or learn this new material?” I have also learned to consider, “Should we pull out the laptops or smart phones, or will our spiral notebooks be a better medium?”

Here are just a few examples of when and why I decided to keep our lesson unplugged:


Although writing in a Google Doc allows students to more easily draft, cut, move and revise their writing, I find students dig in more to the writing process if they can work through some of the stages with paper and pencil. They might brainstorm first on paper (doodling, webbing, listing, etc.), then draft in a Google Doc, and then double-space, print out and use a colored pen to edit and revise on paper (we all know that colored pens are better for the revision process, so I try to keep lots on hand). I show them pictures of authors’ drafts that are full of hand-written changes to inspire them to go ahead and get messy with their writing – it’s a messy process! And they seem to be most productive when they are working with a hard copy of their current piece.

I remember the days of final drafts written by hand, and how students hated that part of the process. Often they wouldn’t actually improve their writing, they would just rewrite it. Much neater. So I’m all about final drafts in a Doc. But for revision, we’re sticking with the good ol’ messy, marked up paper.


In the August weeks before school starts each year, I watch for spiral notebook prices to drop to a quarter or dime each. I buy enough for all of my students, and store them in the classroom so they don’t get lost or used up for other classes. My students use these notebooks for a variety of purposes: taking notes, practicing new concepts, making lists of “books to read someday,” journaling, brainstorming, etc.

As we move more of our work online, I wonder if I still need to buy the notebooks. We usually use only half of the pages by the end of the year. But studies like this one (“The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” by P. A. Mueller and D. M. Oppenheimer, Princeton University) suggest that there are brain benefits to writing by hand. Even more than that, though, I want my students to be able to doodle as they listen, list, web, scribble and brainstorm with all the freedom that pencil and paper give them in a tactile, hands-on way.


I know what you’re thinking: blogging is done online, isn’t it? Yes, of course. But before my students launch their own blogs, they practice blogging on paper. And here’s why:

Before they write their first blog post on paper, I tell them that what they write will be passed around the class for all to read. Their eyes get big and they glance around to see who will be reading their work. I point out that blogs are like that: whatever they post on their blog is passed around the internet for all to see. And now “audience” takes on a whole new meaning.

After their paper blog post is passed on to someone else in class, they each write a comment in response to a classmate’s blog on a small piece of paper. Then they tape their comment on to the blog. My hope is that this physical action of taping their words on top of another blog post will help them see the responsibility they have when commenting online on any blog or website. They are attaching their words to someone else’s piece of writing. And that is powerful.

How do you decide when to use digital tools and when to go the more traditional route? What benefits do you see to paper and pencil vs. digital? Please share in the comments below.

Debunking Homework Myths

«Do you have any homework tonight?» I asked my daughter Mercedes.

«No, I don’t have any homework! Yeah!» she exclaimed.

«When is your next test or quiz?» I countered.

«It’s Friday,» she quipped.

«Today is Wednesday, shouldn’t getting ready for the test be your homework?» I questioned.

«That’s not homework. That’s just study,» she responded, as if I didn’t know anything.

«Oh, I get it, homework is not study…it’s…» I conjectured while Mercedes finished my sentence.

«…it’s worksheets and problems at the end of the chapter. Just busywork,» she told me.

It’s an obvious myth that students think homework is for their benefit. I wonder how many other students also view homework as pure busywork, or as something you do just because the teacher assigned it for a grade? With that attitude, a student may think, «It doesn’t matter how I get the homework done, just as long as it is done before the teacher checks it. Right?» This is why on the day the homework is due a group of students can typically be seen frantically huddled over the «smart girl» copying her answers.

This of course applies to students that are motivated by grades. If not motivated by grades, what is the incentive to do homework, for the joy of learning? Hm, let me think — not! I know it wasn’t until I went to college that I understood that I always had homework whether it was assigned or not. I had to review my notes, read the chapters, and prepare for the exams on my own homework schedule.

As a teacher, I became a proponent of homework in my master’s degree program when I learned that by assigning homework, the teacher significantly extends the classroom learning time. I also learned that a teacher should never assign homework on a topic that has not been practiced first in the classroom. It should be focused on one concept and should be difficult enough to challenge a student, but not so difficult that the student feels overwhelmed.

Students need the habit of homework and that every day homework should be graded and feedback should be provided. Those ideas made sense to me at the time because I didn’t really understand the conceptual myths that they engendered.

Myths vs. Reality

It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that were some things about the homework strategies I had learned that were more mythical than real. For example, while daily homework was supposed to be a major part of the learning, the myth was that I typically only made it worth a quarter of the student grade. Additionally, I soon discovered the myth that in assigning homework, the students would be doing the heavy lifting. I realized that giving homework every day was exhausting not only my energy but also my time. I felt a huge burden in grading the 120 workbook papers daily. Another myth that I debunked was that homework would actually save time in the classroom.

Because I assigned homework every day, I felt compelled to take valuable classroom learning time to review the homework, that sometimes took half the class period, or more, leaving little for instruction and practice of new concepts and skills. I justified this investment of time because I wanted to make sure that the students were «getting it» before we moved on. Feeling defrauded about my fervor for homework, I began questioning my original thoughts on homework:

  • Why was I assigning homework?
  • Was I doing it to increase learning or to absolve myself of the responsibility for student learning deficits (the I-taught-them-so-they-should know-it syndrome)?
  • Was assigning all that homework helping the students learn more?
  • What about the students that struggled doing the homework, or the students that simply copied the work from another student, or what about the students that never did the homework?
  • What benefit were they getting from homework?

These were all poignant questions and I was fortunate enough to have experienced mentor teachers who were able to help me answer these questions and shared with me some of their strategies.

Homework: Facing Reality

I had to come to the determination that homework was extended learning time only if the students were inspired enough to want to practice the skills obtained in class. My worksheets were hardly inspiring, so I had to change what I assigned as homework. I heard other teachers, and I still hear teachers, recite this worn out myth, «I don’t assign homework because my students aren’t the kind of students that do homework. Now if I had Mr. Sullivan’s students, I would assign homework because they would do it.»

My answer then and now was, «Then make homework worth doing so they will want to do it.»

A New Approach

I began assigning projects that required the students to apply their learning from class. Instead of filling in the blanks on a worksheet I requested that students find a Spanish speaker and have a discussion with them using what they knew. I asked the students to teach a family member how to introduce themselves in Spanish. I asked them to fill out a family history tree by interviewing family members. I had them reporting on Spanish language movies and television shows they watched at home.

I assigned the task of finding Spanish advertisements, news articles, and personal ads. I had them creating Spanish menus, trip itineraries, and illustrated dictionaries. I assigned groups of students to create reader’s theaters, reenactments of historical events, game shows, detective who-done-it similar to CSI, Spanish class newspapers, fashion shows, sidewalk art, food bazaars, travel agencies, restaurants, and department stores.

I also had to change how I graded the homework assignments. I was savvy enough to know that if the homework was not recorded in some fashion, students would see it as optional and not do it. I also knew I could not sustain the daily grind of 120 papers to grade, dealing with late work, and keeping up with the grade calculations. One of my mentors suggested a method that simplified this for students and for me.

Homework was due at the beginning of class every day. Class started with a warm up sponge activity while I took roll. I asked the students to pull out their homework so I could see it as I walked around the class, recording one of three things on my grade book: full credit if the homework was completed, half credit for not fully completed, zero for less than half completed.

Stamp of Approval: Grading

Students needed to know that I had recorded their work so I stamped their papers with a smiley face if it was completed, a frowning face if it was not completed (I turned the stamp upside down).

Students who had done their work or even tried to do it were insistent that I stamp their completed papers. It took me five minutes to look at the homework and give feedback to every student. To check their understanding, I asked the students to teach their elbow partners what they learned in the homework.

They then traded papers and we quickly went over the correct answers to the homework on the overhead projector, again it took only five minutes. I found that the students liked this system because it was less tedious and provided immediate feedback. I liked it because I had more time to inspire learning and I got an immediate pulse of where my students were in their learning progress and what students needed my attention for that class period.

What about Blended Learning?

As a teacher I have never experienced blended learning; I have observed teachers in schools over which I was the administrator be successful in flipping the classroom and turning homework into the major learning tool. During my time as a high school principal, students all had iPads and some of the teachers set up learning management accounts (LMS) on places like Moodle. They assigned students work and research projects through the LMS and students did the work at home. When they came to class, the teacher would either review what they had done individually, or step up the learning by providing further opportunities to apply their knowledge in group projects.

So, as I understand it, in blended learning at home or wherever they are, students acquire the skills and gained content knowledge, and in class the teachers prepare scenarios, case studies and projects in which the students could apply the skills and content knowledge. This brings me back to the question of what is the purpose of homework. I would say that the purpose of homework is to not only extend classroom learning time, but to create independent and enthused learners.

Whether it is a blended learning environment or a regular classroom, we must make sure our homework is worth doing. What myths about homework have you debunked and what strategies have you discovered to be successful in engaging students in homework? Please share in the comments section below.

The Flipped Class: Is Flipping for Everyone? – EDUTOPIA

When the subject of the flipped class comes up, many educators see how it applies to academic subjects like math and science education, but don’t realize that the methodology has applications in a wide array of other classes. According to a survey of 2358 teachers by the Flipped Learning Network and Sophia Learning (PDF, 1.2MB), 33 percent of those teachers who are flipping their classes are math teachers, 38 percent are science teachers, and 23 percent teach English language arts and social studies. But can you flip the other subjects? Can you flip an elementary classroom? The answer is a resounding yes.

To flip the non-flippable classes, teachers need to ask this key question:What is the best use of my face-to-face time with students? Since every teacher has a specified amount of time with his or her students per week, we must consider how to maximize that class time. The answer to this question will be vastly different for an elementary teacher compared to a middle school PE teacher compared to a high school English teacher. Though there is no one way to answer this question, there is a «wrong» answer: information dissemination. Lower-level cognitive information should be moved out of the group space and into the individual space where students can consume data at their own pace and interact with the content in a manner that meets their individual needs. And as teachers answer this question, their class will be transformed into a center of learning where students are applying, analyzing, and creating content, rather than simply acquiring information.

Let’s look at a few examples of teachers who use the flipped learning model in what many have considered non-flippable courses.

Physical Education

Jason Hahnstadt is a K-8 PE teacher at the Joseph Sears School in Illinois. When he first heard about the flipped class, he understood how it would dramatically change his practice. He was frustrated with spending too much of his valuable class time telling kids how to move their bodies instead of seeing his students actually moving. So he embraced the flipped class, and his students now spend more time moving their bodies. He has also taken the flipped class into his second job — as an athletic coach. His teams benefit from additional time to practice because less practice time is devoted to instruction. You can read more at Jason’s website, The Flipped Coach.


Leif Blomqvist is a middle school woodworking teacher in Sweden. He embraced the flipped classroom because many of his students had never used a handsaw or a screwdriver before. However, others were familiar with the tools, and those students were not getting adequate help when he was teaching basics to the whole class. Ultimately, he wanted his students to spend more class time creating things out of wood instead of watching him teach them basic skills. In response to this need, he created two different types of flipped class videos — those that teach a basic skill, and those that teach how to make a specific object out of wood. Even if you don’t speak the Swedish language, you can get a pretty good idea of how this works by visiting Leif’s YouTube page.

Dance Education

Maura Herrera is a ballet instructor who wanted to spend more of her face-to-face time with students actually dancing. She created a series of short videos which demonstrate different ballet moves and exercises so that her class can spend more of the their time together dancing. You can see an example of one of her videos on YouTube.

Elementary School

Randy Brown is a third grade teacher in the Seattle area who has always wanted an additional teacher in his room to help students who struggled to learn. He told us that when he read our first book, Flip Your Classroom, he realized that we’d granted his wish. Instead of getting another person in his room, he saw how he could replicate himself to become that second teacher. He then set out to make flipped videos for his students. In his case, students don’t watch the videos at home, but rather in class. Half of his 26 students watch them on devices in the classroom, while the other half are working independently and with Mr. Brown. After a time, the students rotate. This method is becoming known as the in-flip, where students don’t interact with the instructional content at home, but rather in the class. Randy told me that his student test scores have significantly improved, but more importantly, his students are getting more individual time with him where he can differentiate for each learner.

What each of these teachers has in common is that they have answered the question about the best use of their face-to-face class time in their own unique ways. They have customized and contextualized the flipped class to meet the needs of their students.

For those of you who are flipping your classes and don’t fit the «flipped class» teacher model, tell us how you are flipping your class. We would love to hear from you in the comments section below.

8 Myths That Undermine Educational Effectiveness | Edutopia

Image credit: Thinkstock

Certain widely-shared myths and lies about education are destructive for all of us as educators, and destructive for our educational institutions. This is the subject of 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education, a new book by David Berliner and Gene Glass, two of the country’s most highly respected educational researchers. Although the book deserves to be read in its entirety, I want to focus on eight of the myths that I think are relevant to most teachers, administrators, and parents.

Myth #1: Teachers are the Most Important Influence on a Child’s Education

Of course teachers are extremely important. Good teachers make a significant difference in achievement. But research indicates that less than 30 percent of a student’s academic success is attributable to schools and teachers. The most significant variable is socioeconomic status, followed by the neighborhood, the psychological quality of the home environment, and the support of physical health provided. There are others, but the bottom line is that teachers have far less power to improve student achievement than do varied outside factors.

Myth #2: Homework Boosts Achievement

There is no evidence that this is true. In Finland, students have higher achievement with little or no homework and shorter school hours. The more important factor is what students experience during the school day. Project-based learning, as one example, places the emphasis on what is done during the day. If students choose to do more after hours, that’s their choice. There also may sometimes be other good reasons to assign homework, but there should be no illusion that homework will help increase student achievement.

Myth #3: Class Size Does Not Matter

In an average high school, one teacher is responsible for 100-150 students on any given day. Students inevitably get lost in the shuffle. Research evidence strongly indicates that a decrease in the number of students has a qualitative pedagogical impact. When reductions occur in elementary classrooms, evidence has shown that the extra individualized attention and instruction appear to make it more likely for these students to graduate at higher rates from high school. Affluent families more frequently opt for districts or for private schools with smaller classes. It should come as no surprise that larger class sizes may disproportionally impact the children of the poor. Therefore, reducing class sizes will in fact result in more learning.

Myth #4: A Successful Program Works Everywhere

There is significant evidence against the idea that a program successful in one school or district should be imported elsewhere and expected to work well. Context is the key variable. Programs must be related to the makeup of the school district and/or the specific school. Approaches to education that are marketed for nationwide use may be excellent yet totally inappropriate for some districts. A program has to fit the specific needs of the schools and classrooms in the district, and a careful needs assessment coupled with a thorough examination should determine whether to adopt a program, not the success of the program elsewhere.

Myth #5: Zero-Tolerance Policies are Making Schools Safer

This strikes me as one of the most colossally wrong-headed and destructive of the myths. Berliner and Glass describe numerous examples of this policy being implemented destructively, including one in which two students were suspended because one shared her inhaler with a friend who was having an asthma attack. Most importantly, there is no evidence that zero tolerance policies decrease school violence. To the contrary, the authors note that «suspensions and expulsions have far-reaching implications for a student’s academics and can set them up for failure in their personal lives.» Zero tolerance policies have resulted in school officials routing record numbers of students through the juvenile justice system, students who are then more likely to also end up in an adult prison later on. And, not surprisingly, all of the unintended effects associated with zero-tolerance policies in schools are multiplied for non-whites.

The authors also give examples of some schools that are learning from this research. As one example, after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, teachers, parents, and administrators are focused on crisis preparedness and the politics of the gun debate, not on stricter policing of students.

Myth #6: Money Doesn’t Matter

It’s a popular argument that, while we’re spending more money than ever, test scores remain stagnant. This is a destructive myth widely shared by those who oppose better funding of our schools. Yet the research is clear. When school districts with sufficient resources are compared with those without, achievement outcomes are definitively higher in the wealthier districts. The authors note that it makes a significant difference in terms of student achievement when higher salaries are used to attract more experienced and better-educated teachers. Schools that serve the poor are more likely to retain well-paid teachers, despite the challenging circumstances they deal with each day. Since class size does matter, as we’ve seen, adequate funding makes it possible to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes. All of these assertions are strongly supported by research. Additionally, the authors cite Linda Darling-Hammond‘s report on new research from Finland, Singapore, and other countries that provides «striking evidence that spending more, and targeting that spending at students who come to school with the fewest resources, can have a dramatic positive impact on a nation’s overall educational outcomes.»

Of course, it is also possible that the school districts spending more money are located in communities in which socioeconomic factors and neighborhood quality play an important role.

Myth #7: College Admissions are Based on Academic Achievement and Test Scores

Berliner and Glass’ findings are disturbing. Many colleges and universities practice admissions by category. One example is athletics. The most significant variable at 30 of the most selective universities was discovered to be legacy (whether a family member previously attended the university). Wealthy parents who contribute development funds further increase the likelihood of admission. This doesn’t mean that universities don’t pay attention to student achievement in their admissions process. It does mean that there is preferential treatment in admissions that relegates academic accomplishments to a lower priority.

Myth #8: Merit Pay for Teachers Improves Student Performance

The full argument is that merit pay is a good way to increase teacher performance, because teachers should be evaluated on the basis of student performance, and rewarding or punishing schools for student performance will improve our nation’s schools. However, evidence suggests that competition between teachers is counterproductive and interferes with collaboration. Measuring teacher effectiveness is very difficult, and no simple measures effectively do this. There is no evidence that merit pay correlates with improved student achievement, but there is strong evidence that basing teacher salaries on student performance is counterproductive and ethically wrong — it frequently punishes teachers and schools for socioeconomic factors over which they have no control.

Every educator, especially administrators and policymakers, should read 50 Myths & Lies. Based on hard research evidence, this book makes it very clear that we need to do a better job of differentiating myth from reality when we make our educational decisions. All too often, decisions are based on myths and what are essentially lies, not on research evidence.

8 Myths That Undermine Educational Effectiveness | Edutopia.