photo of a child doing his homework (and not seeming to like it)Homework is considered to be part of the natural order of things in school.  But in the past twenty years or so there’s been an increasing amount of criticism about its function and use (see for example, Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing).  I too believe that homework is vastly overrated as a beneficial thing for students.  There’s this sense that somehow just general quantities of homework, of whatever kind, is supposed to be good for kids.  But to me the critical issue is:  what kind of homework are teachers giving to students?  All too often it’s the same dull boring stuff that they get when class is in session:  questions to answer from the textbook, worksheets to fill out, and the occasional essay or paper thrown in for good measure. As Kohn suggests, too much of a bad thing is not going to be helping anyone, especially kids.

Instead, I suggest we rethink homework.  If we agree that the function of schooling is to make our kids better thinkers, creators, and learners, and that homework is a time for giving kids a chance to develop these skills outside of school, then we can begin to see it in a different light.  Above all, homework should be interesting and fun to do, and should involve real learning experiences, not the drudgery that is far too common for so many schoolchildren.

I like using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as a framework for envisioning what creative homework assignments might look like.  His theory suggests that there are at least eight different intelligences that each child or teen possesses:  Word Smart, Number/Logic Smart, Picture Smart, Body Smart, Music Smart, People Smart, Self Smart, and Nature Smart.  I believe students should be given options in how they are to do homework assignments that cover the broad range of intelligences that are part of a student’s potential.  So, let’s say that the lesson during the school day is a unit on birds.  Here is how different homework options might be structured.

  1. Word Smart (this category includes some of your standard homework assignments  — and kids who are especially Word Smart may prefer these options):  writing book reports, giving oral presentations, writing compositions
  2. Number/Logic Smart:  collecting statistics about birds, or researching the question ”How does a bird fly?”
  3. Picture Smart:  gathering together (or creating) charts and/or maps of a bird’s migration patterns; creating a diagram showing a bird’s life cycle, making a media  presentation on the variety of birds in the student’s local area.
  4. Body Smart:  hiking to a bird’s natural habitat and writing down observations of bird behaviors, building a replica of a specific bird’s nest, or building a bird house and keeping track of how it’s used by birds.
  5. Music Smart:  collecting recordings online of different bird calls and then rehearsing and finally imitating them back in class.
  6. People Smart:  interviewing a local birdwatcher about his hobby.
  7. Self Smart: keeping a journal of watching birds in one’s backyard.
  8. Nature Smart: volunteering with a community organization designed to safeguard the welfare of the local bird population.

Note that these activities are meaningful, many of them have a positive impact on the welfare of birds, and they all help deepen a student’s understanding of birds and avian behaviors.  Students could choose one to do each week, or students could do one or more of the options and then share their findings or outcomes at a special ”bird unit” celebration at the end of the semester.

See how different this approach to homework is from filling out multiple choice answer sheets, or fill in the blank math problems, or other rote assignments.  One of the advantages of homework is that a student has some unstructured time to pursue one or more of these interesting options at home, and also has better access to the materials and/or environments with which to complete the options (e.g. access to nature).

Teachers need to stop assigning homework simply because they think it’s something they HAVE to do to be an effective teacher. And they should stop equating lots of assigned homework with lots of learning.  Instead, homework should be seen as an enrichment of the material covered in class.  Besides, with the richness and complexity of the assignments (e.g. building a bird house), it’s going to be much more difficult for students to claim that their dog ate their homework!

For more ideas on using multiple intelligences in school settings, see my book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th Edition

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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