How to Lighten the 20.2-Pound Backpack and Reimagine Traditional Homework

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My daughter’s school backpack weighs 20.2 pounds! She’s 12 years old and in seventh grade. This is not the beginning of a bad joke. Perhaps worse than this gargantuan backpack she has to carry around five days a week is the traditional homework it contains.

You may wonder how I know the exact weight of the backpack, stuffed with workbooks, textbooks, notebooks, and other school items. If you must know, I weighed the backpack. I actually placed this monster on a scale (I share the whole story at 2:00 of the podcast episode above).

This obscene event–lugging the behemoth from my car then weighing it–sparked some contemplation of my own. How can we lighten the load for my daughter and other burgeoning hunchbacks around the world? Why do we use workbooks to teach reading and math? In what world can Donald Trump be a presidential candidate? Why don’t we reimagine traditional homework? 

How to reimagine traditional homework

1 – Go digital and lighten the load: As I explain at the 6:30 mark of Hack Learning Podcast Episode 60, if teachers move most assignments to the digital world (Google Classroom or another ePortfolio), we can remove about 18 pounds from my daughter’s 20.2-pound backpack.

Students these days don’t need to worry about losing essays in a heavy downpour when walking home or being penalized for not returning a book on time to the library as all this effort and knowledge is carefully secured in the cloud. They can download a text to a home computer or even on a smartphone on the bus. They can tap away at homework while waiting in a queue at a bus stop or for parents to pick them up.” -Rose Scott, Brilliant or Insane

2 – Stop assigning nightly homework: In Hacking Homework, Starr Sackstein and Connie Hamilton break this traditional homework problem down to bare bones:

Stop giving homework every day. Give yourself permission to deviate from the expectation of nightly homework. Just because the math materials have a consumable workbook that parallels the unit, day by day, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Students attend school for 30-35 hours a week. This schedule means heavy cognitive work for children. Some educators have voiced the perspective that school is the student’s “job”. We believe 30-35 hours a week is enough for a child and adding even an hour a night approaches what’s considered overtime for adults.”

3 – De-emphasize grades: When we reward kids for completing homework with a grade or, worse, we punish them for not completing the task by giving them a zero, kids grow to hate learning outside of school. In Hacking Literacy, Gerard Dawson discusses assigning specific books for homework and punishing them with a grade, based on often misleading behaviors:

When grades are the goal, assessment backfires, resulting in students reading SparkNotes, watching the movie version, asking friends to summarize a book, or simply lying about reading. The last thing educators intend is to endorse lying and cheating, but an assessment system centered only on earning grades and extrinsic rewards encourages these behaviors.”

The problems with grading homework are endless, and the most obvious issue is one that continues to be elusive to many teachers. When students don’t do homework, we don’t know if they understand the material, and following this lack of understanding with zeroes punishes students well beyond the missed homework assignments.

The ocean of zeroes for missed homework often lead to failing grades and, in some cases, retention.

Can you imagine making a student repeat a grade because she didn’t do homework–quite possibly because she had other more important things to do?

What do you think?

It’s time to lighten the backpack, save our children from a lifetime of back pain, and reimagine learning outside of school. But how do we convince old-school educators, who continue to stand on education’s most wobbly crutches–worksheets, workbooks, and other rote memory activities?

Please share your thoughts in comments below, on Twitter at #HackingHomework and on our Facebook page.
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Author: Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is the Founder and CEO of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 150,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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