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“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”

IB teachers are moving beyond traditional approaches to homework to maximize student potential and increase engagement, as they share with IB World in the second article in the series

While evidence suggests homework has no impact on student performance when it comes to elementary-school-aged children, research shows that it leads to greater academic achievement for students aged 11 and up.

But the traditional ‘memorize and regurgitate facts’ approach to homework has had its day. Many educators are wising up to the idea that this can have the opposite and unintended effect of disengaging students. Workloads have also been brought into question – excessive homework is recognized as a contributor to student stress and a “thief” of valuable family time.

IB World Schools are making a stand, and scrapping traditional homework in favour of student-led learning and exploration.

The ‘minimal-homework’ rule

Sturgis Charter Public School, in Massachusetts, US, developed a ‘minimal homework’ guideline for Standard Level (SL) IB Diploma Programme (DP) courses to address rising student stress levels.

Normally, SL subjects meet a minimum of 150 teaching hours, while Higher Level (HL) comprise of 240 hours. However, at Sturgis both courses are the same length of hours – SL has an extra 90 teaching hours. This allows students to complete work – that they would have done at home – in class with the support of their teacher.

Former Executive Director Eric Hieser, who was instrumental in the move to the ‘minimal SL homework’ idea, explains: “The more work teachers load on to students, the more stress students will feel and disengage from the learning process. It’s a way of trying to make a reasonable approach to the DP for all students.”

This strategy was instrumental in a grassroots movement in the US that aims to make the DP accessible to all students, including those with special needs. Sturgis calls this “IB for All”.

We developed a wide range of principles, guidelines, policies, procedures, and support systems​ in order to enable all students to realize success in the DP,” explains Hieser. 

“The ‘minimal homework for SL classes’ was one of many initiatives and approaches that resulted in student success, and in the school becoming quite popular with students and parents in southeastern Massachusetts.”

Hieser adds: “The school’s emphasis is on maximizing each student’s and encouraging all students to achieve the highest scores possible for them. All students can be successful, if they are given the appropriate time and support.

We have tried to build a culture of students believing that as long as they do their very best, then whatever DP score they get is fine. It’s been a successful approach. The vision is to lift everyone up.”

As for HL courses, Sturgis’ guidelines suggest that students should be spending between 30 minutes and an hour per night on homework. Educators provide the necessary support to ensure students are not overwhelmed.

Homework does prepare students for university, so it’s essential for students to learn healthy study skills during their school years, adds Hieser.

“The important part is developing life-long habits rather than remembering facts and figures. It’s about deeply understanding topics and learning skills, strategies and habits of mind, which are transferable across a whole range of disciplines.”

Let students choose their assignments

For schools that are not ready to abandon homework, give students the opportunity to choose their own homework assignments and marks, like an IB World School in France.

It is an effective way to increase engagement and promote independent learning, according to Russel Tarr, Head of History at the International School of Toulouse.

“By giving the class an open-ended opportunity to reflect on what they need and want to learn about, and then to choose the most effective way to demonstrate their learning, students are able to take more ownership of their studies and teachers are able to cover more material in a more diverse manner.”

Tarr’s approach is based on Ross M. McGill’s theory of Takeaway Homework, and Mark Creasy’s book Unhomework: How to get the most out of homework, without really setting it

The simplest way to get started with the “choose your own homework” approach is to allow students the freedom to choose their topic of study, but teachers should specify the outcome, advises Tarr. “This way, there is flexibility in terms of content, but the teacher will be able to measure some distinct skills through the work that is produced.”

Students need to be given a framework – that isn’t too constrictive – to help guide them towards the most appropriate tasks.

The process of feedback and assessment will also need to be reconsidered. After students at the International School of Toulouse have chosen their assignments, they design their own mark schemes.

Standardized mark schemes cannot be applied to what will likely be a clutch of widely different homework outcomes ranging from video projects and re-enactments to essays and flowcharts,” adds Tarr.

Students choose an outcome, based on IB Learner Profile attributes, and award marks for how well they have demonstrated these qualities. By deciding on what attributes they want to focus on from the outset, students develop different skills.

Teachers judge whether the marking is fair, and adjust if necessary.

Letting students select their own grades is a tactic that author and lecturer Alfie Kohn wants all schools to adopt. Similar to the case against traditional homework, Kohn argues that standardized grades are detrimental to learning. They lead to disengagement, complacency and, in extreme cases, stress, according to his research.

Shift to home learning

Jeffrey Lile, a DP Teacher at Pan-American School, in Costa Rica, agrees that homework can be turned into an enjoyable experience when students are given the opportunity to guide their own learning process. But, students need to feel motivated, he says.

“Learning requires reflective practice – which calls for strong intrinsic motivation. However, homework is rarely a reflective practice. Learners are hardly ever motivated other than attempting to get a grade or pass the class. The motivation that supports learning comes from alignment of an activity with personal values combined with the belief that they will succeed. This motivation flows from student choice.”

Homework should be replaced with home learning, believes Lile. This needs to be based on the natural process of exploration, and encourage learners to experiment with activities they value.

“The teacher’s role is to guide this practice and connect it to the curriculum,” he says. “Students should choose opportunities for home learning and not just work. They can be given the chance to be not just students, but well-rounded individuals.”

For example, if a student has an interest in bike-riding, then the mathematics teacher could assign a task that requires the student to keep track of their distance and time, and create a graph that will allow them to evaluate their progress. Or in a history class, for example, the student could research bicycles in the late 19th century.

“This allows students to experiment and explore their interests and, at the end of the learning experience, still have time to spend with family and friends, developing important social and emotional skills,” says Lile.

Replacing homework with home learning creates significant learning experiences that allow students to develop holistically and apply the curriculum to what they value.”

Students will require critical thinking skills in the future, which cannot be developed through a traditional approach to homework, according to research. Now is the time for educators to get creative, challenge students and re-think their approach to homework. This will create valuable, lifelong learning experiences for future generations. “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think,” as Albert Einstein said.

Read the the first part in the series on homework: Is homework an unnecessary burden?

Look out for the third and final article where parents share their thoughts on this topic.