It was one of those moments that any parent would recognize but it became something more significant to me as an educator—it was homework time in my house.
I was on homework duty with my kids one recent evening. I am not afraid to admit that sometimes homework can be a bit of a struggle in our home, particularly when kids (or parents!) are tired. This night, happily, a homework session conjured up a bit of magic.
With one kid at each end of a rectangular table, they went to work. Bella was studying the American Revolution—a subject right up my alley. We discussed the Quartering Act and the Intolerable Acts and I was happy she was learning one of my favorite topics. Max, a budding history buff, chimed in with useful information from his own knowledge. The three of us began to discuss the Revolution, why the colonists were upset and whether King George III was really that bad. (Admittedly, the musical Hamilton has not helped my kids feel generous toward his majesty.)
For me, it was fun in a parental and history-geek sort of way but then I got a closer look at what my daughter was doing on her iPad. She wasn’t just taking notes; rather, she was creating her own multimedia study guide as she was learning. Snippets of text from her online book were arranged in chronological order, embellished with historical images and maps from the Internet. She moved them around, rearranged them in a way that made sense to her, used the iPad tools to draw arrows and write commentary, and condensed her study down to a few engaging pages.
I love this assignment for many reasons but mostly because it was not merely the passive absorption of knowledge. Bella was actively curating information, prioritizing those things she deemed most important. I mentioned the importance of chronology in history, while she seemed to be working thematically. We know from research that these types of activities create deeper learning, engage multiple skills and, dare I say it, can be fun. Of course, such an assignment doesn’t replace good old-fashioned reading and writing and never will. Instead, it enhances them reading and writing, giving students some agency over their learning and allowing them to personalize their study approach.
At the other end of the table, Max was working on math. I had gotten an email from his teachers earlier explaining there were three different assignments, and each had a different goal and set of expectations. The homework was carefully chosen and was due a few days after it was assigned (giving lead time and acknowledging the complexity of student and family schedules today). One assignment was mandatory and covered essential skills. The next was required but a bit more difficult, and had a suggested time limit. The final assignment was billed as a real stretch and was completely optional. Once he slowed down enough to read the directions before diving in, things went more smoothly. After a few gentle reminders that accuracy is better than speed, he settled in, puzzled a bit and finished the job. He was proud of his work, his sister praised him and I learned more about grade-school pedagogy.
This was my definition of a good homework assignment. The basics were covered but there was ample room for exploration and a bit of struggle. We know the “sweet spot” of optimal learning is one that stretches students appropriately, with results that are attainable with effort and not unrealistically out of reach. In short, a “good” math assignment today is the opposite of my old math assignments: Do problems 1-20 and check your answers in the back of the book.
Homework can be a controversial topic. Some people believe more homework equals more rigor and, therefore, more learning. Some argue homework interferes with more important things like pleasure reading or family dinner. I fall somewhere in the middle. In this moment, these assignments felt just right—creative, appropriate, manageable and, most importantly, extending the learning of the classroom rather than just repeating it. As a parent, I was appreciative of the thought and care that had gone into both assignments. As an educator, I was proud that North Shore seemed to be “getting it right” on homework.
North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.