Fix-It: Seven Ways to Fix Homework

On a Monday night, my son stopped reading to his sister when he realized that he needed to do a packet. He looked at the list of numbers, and said, "I have to write the numbers from one to one hundred. There are five rows with three numbers filled in and two rows with one. So, if I take away seventeen, I need to write eighty-three numbers."

This demonstrates the problem I see with most homework. It is often low-level learning with tons of repetition. So, in thinking about "fixing" homework, I would like to think about switching to optional home learning (rather than homework) instead.

  1. Provide after-school tutoring for students who are behind on skills. The biggest argument I see for homework is that students who are behind need additional time to practice skills. However, simply requiring students to do more practice is meaningless without instant feedback. 
  2. Turn homework into an extracurricular activity. Make homework optional. Some parents want their children to have homework. Allow them to opt-in if they choose. Many teachers advocate for meaningful homework. If it's truly meaningful, why not make it optional and see what happens? I have students who blog, create movie reviews, interview people for documentaries and do surveys with data analysis because they find it interesting. 
  3. Share your passion for learning outside of school. I tell my students that I love writing, that I blog regularly and that I read often on my own. 
  4. Create optional events that encourage learning outside of school hours. It could be a math game night, a science fair, a community service project, a visit to the art museum or a large group tour of a university. 
  5. Provide resources to help students who want to learn on their own. After having students create blogs in class, I now have students who have created their own independent blogs out of class. After letting students choose novels and articles for silent reading, I have students that now take the reading home for fun. 
  6. Honor home learning. In other words, allow students to build bridges between what they are learning on their own and what they are doing in class. This is sort-of the opposite of traditional homework, in that students bring the world into the classroom instead of classwork into their world. So, when students are learning functional text, let them create instructions for things that they are doing at home. Let them write persuasive texts on topics that they are learning about independently outside of school. 
  7. Empower parents with the skills to push for authentic learning at home. Teach them mental math games that they can play with their children during the lulls in a car ride or in a long line. Explain the value in counting money, reading aloud, drawing pictures or making stuff. 
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. While I agree with your points here, I think the sticking point with me is the nature of the assignment being done. Being an English teacher, I have a fair amount of homework that needs to be done in the form of reading. There is immediate feedback on that because there are discussions (often student-led) and even then, knowledge is assessed through a paper or project that is also homework.

    I honestly consider this "meaningful" homework because of the way it ties directly into what we are doing in class each day. So for me it's more the nature and stated purpose of the assignment that needs to be looked at before it needs to be "fixed."

  2. As a parent, I appreciate this! I have gotten to the point where I am simply returning packets of homework to the teachers myself and telling them "sorry but we need family time." When my 2nd grader began having 60 minutes of homework each evening...I realized that something was wrong with education. Looking through his packet...it's all standardized test prep; almost word for word what is one those stupid tests. I now refuse to have my child participate in the testing and I refuse to allow their educations to revolve around them. We work on art, physical heath and music in the afternoons...not more fill in the bubble practice. I refuse to do reading logs...it was making my little readers into pencil pushers. We read for fun as a family; we read to discuss as a family and we read ...well just to read. For now my wishes are being respected; but I realize at some upper grade level I will probably begin to get the push back...that's when we will look at homeschooling.

    We are an obese nation...we don't need teenagers who sit all day in school and then sit all evening doing homework.

    1. Maybe you should just homeschool your children now. You obviously lack an understanding and appreciation for your children's teachers. If you feel you can do a better job at home then do so.

    2. Anonymous: you missed the point. They ARE doing the job of parenting and teaching. The family deserves to have us get out of their lives...just as we expect the parent to stay out of our personal lives.

    3. As a teacher, I disagree Anonymous! In Broward County, students shouldn't have more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level. That means a second grader shouldn't have more than 20 minutes of MEANINGFUL homework. Fill in the bubble worksheets to prep for a test are NOT meaningful.

      I no longer to reading logs. Kids would forge them, parents forget to sign them, etc. They are expected to read. Either the parents are going to enforce it or they aren't. Signing off on a sheet isn't going to make a difference.

      Keep it up Jean! Some teachers can't see the forest through the trees when it comes to homework versus family time.

  3. This is a good article, one worth reading. I am in general agreement with Mr. Spencer although I think we need to think through point 1, after school help carefully and make sure it is truly helpful, and we should reconsider and expand point 7 about empowering parents. Empowering parents and teaching them things like mental math are not the same concepts. Empowering without teaching is a very important concept for homework reform. I address this more on my blog today, http://homeworktrap.blogspot.com.

  4. I like number 5. I like that it gives teachers an opportunity to offer their professional advice and guidance and help with learning outside the classroom, but it recognizes that it's not the teacher's job to tell families what to do once the student leaves the school building.

    1. Thing is, though ... if you give homework such a bad name in the way that it has been given a bad name, then you do the opposite of what you intend when you crow about learning going beyond the classroom. Students begin to see that school happens in a vacuum and that their job as a student ends when they leave because the teacher's job is not to tell families what to do once the student leaves the building. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

  5. I agree. Homework is often a huge imposition on students and their families. Many students are already involved in a range of extra-curricular activities and they also have commitments within their home environments. Homework for the sake of homework is too common and leads to low-level 'busy work' being assigned.
    For homework to be meaningful, it needs to connect to the classroom and be a genuine benefit to the students. I would prefer for my students to play, explore, read, engage with news and current affairs, and spend time with family. Over time I've found that remedial homework is rarely beneficial as the students who need it most are the one's with limited support in the home in the first place.

  6. As an algebra teacher, looking at all the additional topics to be added with Common Core, I don't see how students will get the individual practice they need to master a concept without doing some of that work at home, unless we extend the school day by the same amount of time as we expect this work to take. I'm pretty sure if you ask kids whether they'd like to stay at school an additional hour to practice or do it at home, all of a sudden homework isn't going to look so bad.

    1. So really bad policy means children shouldn't get to experience a childhood?

    2. Perhaps the problem lies in our education system. We should probally just add an extra year to accomplish all these new added core requirements. Would a grade 13 be so bad? Is it the students who need less school time or Teachers? Is the Homework valuable and where is the accountability to prove that it is? Do all teachers work together to create a fair and respectful system that works for kids, parents and other teachers? Do you know the schedule of each of your students? If you expect an hour of extra "Algebra practice" what do the other teachers in Science, Social, LA and all the electives require? Do you know and understand the elements of how important it is for our kids to have a balanced life in which that can work,socialize, sleep, excersize, pursue thier own interests, have down time and to feel love and respect and to laugh. I think that as a whole our society needs to address the question of what is the purpose of EDUCATION...and why is it failing our kids. Oh yeah and don't forget that cooking, cleaning, socializing, reading, working, family time and extra curricular activities are EDUCATION as well! If the essential purpose of Education is to enhance understanding to master "concepts" through practise homework then I hope that you as a teacher are on call 24/7 to your students when they have questions because they just don't understand what they are doing!!! THIS IS NOT A SIMPLE PROBLEM and I commend those who realize this and try to do something about it other than just piling more work onto our kids.

  7. These are all great ideas on how to fix homework. Tutoring is an awesome program for students to be in to get extra help. It is also a great place to get help with their homework. I was a nanny and that was one of my jobs. I had to make the information make sense to them and then I would help them complete their homework. It was very rewarding when they would understand their homework when we would complete it. I think your best point was to share your passion for learning outside of the classroom. I think it is very important for students to find a passion outside of the classroom that they like to do. I love to read so,of course, I would love for my children to love reading as much as I do. I know this is not going to be a complete success; so that is why I feel like my students should find their own passion in something they enjoy. I really enjoyed these tips on fixing homework. It opened my eyes on when I have my own classroom and I assign homework to my students.

  8. Another great post, John! I teach 3rd-4th grade and I really struggle with HW. I do not like to give it, but parents expect it and (at least for now) most of my students like it! The idea of optional HW is a TERRIFIC idea! Also the idea of letting them choose what they do is interesting too--for example, I gave out a multiplication in&out box practice worksheet for HW to practice fluency. One boy, who is not strong in this area, brought back the worksheet covered with repeated addition on the back. He showed me that since he didn't know the answers, he decided to solve them this way. I was floored! He not only did a ton of work (more than the worksheet encouraged), but he also used a strategy that will help him in the future!
    I am going to try out some of these HW ideas and see if something works for me and my students!


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