Practice like you want to play: Slowing the homework over-correction

Hello again, Ed Cases! I hope you’ll pardon the blog darkness for the past couple months. I pulled the shades a while to focus on some family things, to do some study for my next book (more on that soon, as I think I’m in the middle of a complete crisis  — er , course-change), and to just generally re-charge.

So…anything interesting happening lately?


I’m easing back into blog-tivity today, though, because people? We really have to talk about this damn homework thing.

We appear to be making one of our classic over-corrections on the homework issue, and you know what educational over-corrections create for our kids’ progress (and, hence, our enterprise’s success and respect).

The ‘homework good-homework bad’ debate is certainly not new. It’s irritated my craw, anyway, for a decade or more, jammed there in the first decade of the 2000s by that accuracy- and evidence-unbothered honeyguide of educationAlfie Kohn.

It’s then popped up a number of times for me in the intervening years, as I’ve worked with quite a few schools/teachers wrestling with their homework expectations and operations. And in pretty well all those cases, the educators involved had been moved to work up responses to parents who, having recently read some piece by Kohn or Sara Bennett (one of Kohn’s homework-haters-in-arms), were pretty well convinced that homework policies were silently killing their kids.

Aside: Though I should be used to it by now, I’m still amazed by how many smart humans get so much from the world’s long line of Kohns, Tony Wagners, Sir Ken Robinsons, et al. I’m sure I’ll rant about it further in another day’s post.

In the meantime, enjoy this perfect takedown of Sir Ken by researchED founder Tom Bennett. If you’re frustrated like I am about the impacts these figures have on the education enterprise, Tom’s review should give some comfort — comfort that, however bad and widespread the trust in these types may seem at times, at least not everyone buys into the dumb-assery. (Added bonus: It’s about as funny as a review of an education title can get.)

So in all, little more than an irritant. ‘No big deal,’ I’ve said time and again in these situations. ‘Go back to your values, go back to what you know about the world beyond schooling’s expectations, examine the quality and purpose of the homework itself (because yes, the homework can be of bad quality, and that’s indeed not good),’ etc., etc., before moving on to bigger issues.

This year, though, thanks to some teachers’ homework epiphanies (i.e.,’I won’t be assigning any because I heard that the research says all homework is a bad idea‘), various social-media-accelerated broadcasts of epiphany-driven homework moratoriumsRace to Nowhwere being screened by fretful-parent groups from coast to coast, and on and on, the homework-pitchforkers are out in force.

And, as happens with all our over-corrections, the pitchforkers are calling for new paradigms and extreme actions to sweep through all of education, all without much sound, objective, or measured reasoning about why. I’ve read the same research these folks have (or that they say they have, anyway), and there are certainly worthwhile points to take away. Agreed, for instance: we should be paying closer attention to the amount of homework for homework’s sake in primary grades. Also, the various points about homework’s instructional utility and rationale in higher grades are very much worth noting and casting forward into educators’ decision-making. Throwing all homework out, though, and because it’s somehow damaging? Seems a bit much.

(Interesting coincidence: while I was writing this today, Barry Garelick mentioned me in a tweet to share still another anti-homework screed from the ‘Teach For Tomorrow’ blog. If you read it, you’ll see just what I mean: a call for readers to pledge against giving homework, justified by no specific evidence. References to ‘what research says’ are included, but no actual links or citations are provided. It’s almost like the evidence the writer’d seen wasn’t all that convincing, conclusive, or fully confirming of his chosen stance, but that he was just dead-set on proselytizing. Weird.)

Rather than just rail against the developing over-correction, I decided to get some up-close experience with it a couple weeks back. I responded to a tweet by Jessica Lahey (a teacher/author who’s shared her thoughtful parental and educational positions on the homework question for a number of years) that shared the anti-homework takes and strategies of Kohn-alike Mark Barnes, and this response eventually led to a couple-days-long exchange between me and Mr Barnes.

Barnes is a teacher who, as quoted by Lahey, believes in project-based learning and lots of student choice and independence. He doesn’t offer much proof outside of, ‘It worked! Kids loved it!’, but he’s clearly a true believer. He’s taken these ideas into his leadership of Hack Learning, a ‘simple answers’ type ed-resource organization that likes to offer solutions without worrying so much about all the boring theory or research-verification. The Hack Learning website, as a matter of fact, touts its book series (a lengthy list of titles purporting to ‘hack’ pretty much everything educational: the Common Core, assessment, converting writers’ workshops [ugh] into makerspaces [double ugh], and many more) like this: ‘Unlike your typical education text, Hack Learning books are light on research and statistics and heavy on practical advice…’

In short, Hack Learning offers that it can make education better with clever, simple, and innovative methods, much like these readily internet-available ‘life hacks’ can provide shortcuts around various life annoyances:

Yes, actuallyAnd they appear to have quite a following. Sigh. (While I was looking through it all, I found myself hoping against hope that no parallel ‘Hack Medicine’ demand/market existed out there for physicians.)

Back to Barnes’ and my exchange, it stretched over a couple of days and was, I appreciated, respectful throughout. I tried to make points about collegiate expectations to him several times, but he didn’t go for it. Rather, he just kept maintaining (and oddly, I should say) that secondary school is way harder than post-secondary, and that we have to work harder to make it more exciting or something. He seemed almost unaware of both how poorly our system’s kids do in the post-K-12 academic environment and how they tend to rate their own readiness for it (see below).

Ultimately, though, I learned that we’re simply too far apart on schooling’s mission to ever come together on the homework issue. I don’t believe kids’ happiness should be K-12 schooling’s first priority/objective (

), and Barnes believes that kids’ happiness is schooling’s number-one job:

And when that’s the deal, people like Barnes aren’t really worth arguing with on an issue like homework. Constantly seeking to make kids happy first, and with their own personal joy (not to mention brand identity — which, for businesspeople like Barnes, is very important) dictating matters, well…let’s just say that their devotion to the magical and/or financial is not one I’ve found I’m very good at penetrating.

(I do wish, though, that people like Barnes — and, again, people like Alfie Kohn, Sir Ken Robinson, etc., etc., would truck in starting up trampoline parks or candy stores or arts programs, and not in ‘assisting’ education. They make the tough stuff of positively preparing young people so much more difficult.)

Though I couldn’t really slow the homework over-correction by getting through to Hack Learning’s Mark Barnes, I’ll finish with a few thoughts I hope we all can consider regarding the homework debate. Feel free, if they resonate, to sprinkle them into the ongoing conversation as appropriate. Perhaps thinking about homework as such will help slow the currently developing over-correction.

  1. As adults, we’ve been in the world beyond K-12 a while. As such, we know what it will demand/expect in terms of habits, obligations, skills, knowledge, and responsibilities.
  2. Though successfully teaching subject matter is important, an equally crucial responsibility of education is getting  young people prepared for the work- and habits-types expectations they’ll face in the world we adults know but students yet don’t.
  3. To ensure that the expectations young people face after K-12 do not overwhelm, it makes good sense where possible to provide similar expectations as preparation toward future independent expectation-management.
  4. As regards collegiate study (an experience not all students will opt into but that educators should prepare all students to be able to succeed within), all education professionals know first-hand that significant study time outside of class meetings is a routine expectation.
  5. Kids are remarkably willing to buy points 1-4 and engage to challenging homework tasks if the homework is instructionally useful and framed in terms of what they value. Assuming that they will not or cannot motivate themselves to engage with tasks they don’t find somehow thrilling underestimates — and does a disservice to — students’ abilities and their aspirations.
  6. Designing preparatory approaches that do not align with the future expectations — which, again, we adults have experienced first-hand — is, as my book put it a couple years ago, upside-down.

To compress the points above into one sentence, I’ll borrow a phrase coaches often throw around their athletic fields: ‘You have to practice like you want to play.’ Or, taken a bit further and expressed more directly, see the featured image on this blog post (from an ad campaign by PowerHandz, an athletic training device): ‘Think practice is hard? Try losing.’

More important than its role in the content-learning process, homework expectations and policies create practice opportunities for students to succeed in college and/or their non-academic lives, where considerable out-of-class/beyond-work-hours time will be expected to be spent in order to achieve success. Using the secondary school ‘practice field’ to build appreciations for the value of earnest practice — yes, using directives and structures, because kids are kids — helps students toward forming habits they’ll need in the higher-demand environment of collegiate study and other post-K-12 settings.

Though honeyguides like Barnes and Alfie Kohn prefer to deal in personal obeservation and lived experience, our system’s statistical outputs seem to suggest that the last thing we should be seeking is how to lighten students’ loads in secondary grades. For in post-secondary settings, far too many students, statistically and by their own report, are ‘losing’ as a result of their poor ‘practice’. majority of the kids we send to college don’t ever leave with a degree, for example (a percentage that’s held fairly steady for far longer than it should), and many of those kids, when surveyed, admit to feeling waylaid by the post-K-12 realities.

While self-appointed Guardians of Childhood Sanctity like Kohn and Barnes make many within the education enterprise question homework’s various values and necessities, we should always be careful to use viewpoints like those above to (1) ask of them a few more questions and (2) challenge them with fuller pictures before over-correcting. If their messages are swallowed whole and made wide practice, we may attempt the impossible or magical, like, say, attempting to make challenging reading more engaging by assigning less-challenging reading. And when we over-correct like this, we risk making choices that ultimately will not prepare our kids for success beyond their time with us.


7 thoughts on “Practice like you want to play: Slowing the homework over-correction

  1. Great piece. Regarding the advice of “practice like you want to play”: when I was in the Michigan Marching Band, we were told repeatedly the phrase used by Vince Lombardi, at that time regarded as the sage and role model for all who wanted to be the best that “You don’t practice one way during the week and play differently on Sunday.” Of course it was modified to “Saturday” because that’s when college football was and when the Band played. The phrase stuck with me.

    I give homework. I would like to assign it over the weekend but the school I teach in has a policy of “no homework over the weekend”.

    I also notice that in the tweet exchange between you and Barnes he says “I think we both want the same things.” I hear variations on that theme when I argue with people on the reform-math side of things: “I think we’re both saying the same thing.” No. We’re not; really.

    Keep it up! Looking forward to your next book.

  2. If you don’t mind a military reference, Army Field Manual 25-100

    “We train the way we intend to fight because our historical experiences amply show the direct correlation between realistic training and success on the battlefield. The Army has an obligation to the American people to ensure its sons and daughters go into battle with the best chance of success and survival. This is an obligation that only outstanding and realistic training
    conducted to the most exacting standards can fulfill. The highest quality training is, therefore, essential at all levels.”

    1. I absolutely don’t mind. Perfectly apt here, thanks David. I especially like the ‘…has an obligation to the American people to ensure its sons and daughters go into battle with the best chance of success and survival’ piece. So many times, it feels like education seeks to create conditions that look nothing like the future ‘battle’. (That’s a key point of my book, by the way: that many of our preferred practices are ‘upside-down’ with regard to the realities of mainstream institutions and human learning.) Thanks again for that passage!

      1. You’re welcome! I read your book and enjoyed it tremendously–it’s sitting next to Daisy Christodoulou and David Didau right now on my prof dev shelf…

  3. I am all in favor of age/level-appropriate homework that helps kids prepare for class and/or reinforce what was taught therein – as opposed to busywork or, worse, content-light/free artsy, time-sink projects (including those purporting to be science, history etc). Group projects are even worse.
    That said, I am adamantly opposed to allowing, let alone encouraging, overweighting homework, such that homework (done by whom?) grades significantly differ from in-class quizzes, tests, essays etc and unduly influence the final grade given. In a (real) honors algebra 2 class, my DS received a B+, because he had not done all of the homework (what was done was all correct), even though he had no quiz or test grade below 95 and their average was 97. In the same class, a classmate received an A, despite having one C, several Ds and a couple of Fs on quizzes and tests, because her homework was all done and correct. That, to me, is fraud and malpractice. Some kids can learn the material with less practice and should not be penalized for doing only what they need. (Same with calc BC at a different school, but 5 on AP exam)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s