“Why do we have to have homework?” This persistent question from a student in my class led to an experiment this year that had some unexpected outcomes. This student pointed out that some of the most effective schools in the world didn’t give homework to students in elementary school.
I told him that I was aware of that. I had read quite a bit about schools in Finland, where homework was almost non-existent. I had seen their schools profiled in “Where to Invade Next?” the Michael Moore documentary that came out in 2016. I mentioned to this particular student that I was pretty sure that the students who were benefitting from this free time were not spending their afternoons and evenings playing video games.
“I don’t play video games…much,” the student replied. I knew that he spent a lot of his free time in front of a screen.
After quite a bit of back and forth, we negotiated a challenge. I would eliminate homework on Wednesdays, but there was a catch. I wanted students to discuss the new arrangement with their families. I also wanted to make sure that the new “free” time would be used in a healthy way. This was our deal: students would get Wednesdays off, but they needed to make a plan for how they would use the time, and the time needed to be as free from electronics (and fuel consumption) as possible. I asked them to write a plan for their time and have their parents sign the plan. I wasn’t trying to take the fun out of the experience; I just wanted the afternoons to be as healthy as possible. The goal was for students to play, explore, relax, make choices, get outside, do something healthy for themselves and for the world.
Almost all of them responded with enthusiasm. They didn’t take this new freedom for granted, and they really had discussions with their parents. One family started a tradition of cooking together every Wednesday. Another went so far as to have Salad Dinners so that they didn’t use the oven or stove. Some students used the time to read or practice their musical instrument. Most just played in the neighborhood. Others started projects. “Every Wednesday I have to wait around for my brother’s Tae Kwon Do lesson to be over. I used to just play on my iPad the whole time, but this time my dad and I went out on the street and picked up a load of garbage. We decided we’d do that every week.”
Several students used their evenings to read with their parents and then go to sleep early. They said the extra sleep in the middle of the week was really helpful for them. I had emailed parents about the plan, so they were aware of the goals. I had mentioned that I didn’t think it should be an opportunity for sleepovers or anything to wear them out more than usual. At around this time, one of the families decided that the the electronics moratorium was so positive that they were going to expand it to the whole week (Monday through Friday). I worried that this might turn that student against this plan (“Now look what you’ve done!”), but the reaction was the opposite. The parents said that it was actually their son’s idea. He hadn’t been sure that he could do it, but the Wednesdays proved that he could. He spent most of his free afternoons reading or building with his previously-neglected Legos. This was a student who had seemed to have attention and listening issues. All of us noted that he became much more focused and interactive after these changes in his routine.
I’m eager to try this experiment again. It won’t be as organic as it was this past year. It will probably need to start with me, but maybe I’ll just wait for the first person to ask the perennial question.
I’ll have my answer ready this time.