Homework and Project Based Learning

There’s been a bit of chatter on twitter about homework recently. My contribution is ALWAYS the same – homework is stupid. Why? Because I am a mum of two primary aged boys who get homework every school day. My eldest just gets on with it and does it (often he completes it at school as he finishes his class work quickly) but my youngest son is terrible with homework. He complains the WHOLE time about how useless and easy it is. Poor kid – he’s listened to Mum too much … he gets so frustrated by mindless tasks such as find-a-words and writing simple words in simple sentences. He’s a really clever kid working far above his age level in literacy and numeracy and since they’re the only two areas ever targeted in homework (anyone know why?), you can understand his frustration.

I avoid giving my students homework. In fact, I refuse to give students homework that is worksheet stupid – I’m not going to mark it anyway, so why set it? My son’s teacher is very good at marking homework – he must spend hours and hours marking it each week. I can’t think of anything worse!! So why don’t I set homework if I’m a high-school English teacher with an over-crowded syllabus document to work from? Because I feel that if a students is going to spend their ‘own’ time learning, than it should be about something they are actually interested in – like fixing cars, modding in Minecraft or mastering a new BMX route. Right?

But what if the students become passionate and interested in the work they’ve been ‘set’ in class? What if a project is SOO engaging that they can’t stop thinking about it … that they feel compelled to continue ‘working’ on it when they get home? That’s true engagement – surely. That’s the kind of projects I dream of creating – as i think all teachers should – where the project doesn’t just pique the interest of some kids (e.g. a film project engages the amateur film-maker in the class) but really generates a buzz amongst all kids – even the ones who struggle or who have refused to do homework their whole schooling career.

And guess what?! I am proud to say that I have been part of just such a project. OK, maybe I’m over-stating what it’s done … since I only have my own personal experience as a teacher and a mum to use as evidence of the project’s brilliance. Regardless, I want to share this experience with you.

A month ago I ran a hands-on PBL workshop at my school. With the support of Dean Groom and myself, a group of teachers spent a day dipping their toes into the murky PBL waters. The group consisted of high school teachers from two schools and a primary teacher. There was a massive range of knowledge, skills and experiences regarding project-learning. The discussions were what made the day brilliant – oh, and it was a 100% tech-free workshop. The only tech we had were pens and paper. It really freed the teachers from the tethers of tech-related issues or anxieties. I knew it was a successful workshop for all who attended because everyone was buzzing with ideas about possible projects and eager to get back to school and put the plans into action.

My favourite thing about the workshop was working with a teacher from my sons’ primary school – she had actually taught my youngest son when he wa sin Kindergarten. She’s now teaching Year 3 (my son is in Year 2) and I sat with her and helped her plan a three-week project about plants and information reports. Sounds boring – but oh my god, it is brilliant! I’m not going to tell you all about it now because Jenn has promised to write a guest blog post about it soon (yay!). What I will tell you is that the project does a few key things that all quality learning should – it engaged with the students’ prior knowledge, experience and interests, it draws on the world outside of the classroom and thus makes the work significant and relevant and it allows the children to use their imaginations to create something completely new. OK … so the REALLY best bit about this project (for me, anyway, haha) is that Jenn organised for my son in Year 2 to participate in the project! How cool is that? I’ll just say as an aside, my son is quite bright and has become a little disengaged in class … this is such an awesome form of enrichment. Another boy from his grade is doing the project too which just makes me so damn happy. Both boys get to attend ‘Year 3′ for a session each day.

So how does this relate to my original thesis about project-learning and homework? Well yesterday as my son waited in my staffroom after school he did some homework without being asked. In fact, it was homework that hadn’t even been set by a teacher! What do I mean? I mean he worked on ‘school work’ whilst he was at home – the traditional definition of homework, right? What did he do? You’ll have to look at the picture below … and wait for Jenn’s blog post to fully appreciate what it is. It is evidence that Jenn’s project has inspired and engaged my youngest son – so much so that he can’t stop thinking about his learning goals when he comes home from school. Awesome.

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3 thoughts on “Homework and Project Based Learning

  1. Know what you mean re: watching your own kids. First son just did what was asked… for years. Second son questioned everything, disengaged when completing worksheets and writing simple sentences… he got “extension” when I convinced his teacher to allow him to use his spelling words to write a story, or to research and present on something of interest using his words. My daughter? Bright as well, but C’s in Year 4 from a teacher who believed her comprehension and skills to be average as she only wrote simple responses to simple questions. When I explained that she was only doing what was asked, and perhaps she would do more if the restrictions were removed – well, she loved the freedom and creativity she then was allowed. Her Year 6 teachers, however, had a brilliant set-up for primary… a whole term list of a variety of engaging projects, with the only mandate – complete 2 tasks per week, from two different subject areas. She just blossomed. Choice, and removal of limits… we spend far too much time in the control mode, setting limits and not showing enough faith in our students. They will sail as far as we let them.

  2. Hi, I’m in Kelli’s English Curriculum studies class and we’ve been talking about the application of PBL. I really like the idea of letting children who are ahead of their class (and disengaging due to boredom) progress to a higher level. Not just a higher level of the same thing though, a level where they are encouraged to keep on climbing and think on their own. It’s encouraging to see that your son liked what he was learning in school enough to continue the learning at home.
    I hope that I can get my own students this engaged when I have my own class.

    • Hi Dannielle,
      Thanks so much for your comment!
      It really is a difficult balance between empowering students to ‘own’ and ‘direct’ there learning whilst at the same time ensuring that the required outcomes are covered. I do enjoy seeing students run with a project and challenge themselves to do things differently.
      I have to say, PBL is fantastic for differentiation – not in terms of students having different expectations, but having different levels of support to get there. :)

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