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In the fall of 2015, the Wade King Staff began an inquiry into homework, wanting to learn more about how to align our work with best practices for student learning. The article below was shared with families in our January 2016 newsletter, and describes our shift from traditional homework towards a more open-ended encouragement of home learning. In addition to this overview article, you may be interested in viewing our Home Learning Menu– a list of ideas for enriching learning to do at home. You may also read Our Staff Inquiry into Homework led to New Learning, which gives further detail and a list of resources related to our staff inquiry and our shift to home learning.

From Homework to Home Learning

Last year we shared that the Wade King teaching staff was beginning an inquiry into homework. Together we explored the status of homework at different grade levels, considered the input that many of you shared with us through our survey, and explored several decades of research on elementary school homework. We were in good company with this inquiry; teacher leaders and administrators throughout Bellingham’s elementary schools are exploring the same questions. Through this process, we have come to some common agreements about what we value, and what is proven effective, when it comes to learning at home.

In brief, we learned that there is no evidence that assigning homework leads to improved learning for elementary aged students.  We also learned that our homework practices (which have been heavy on math and spelling skills practice, with expectations for reading minutes and some inquiry) have caused conflict and frustration for many families, and have not regularly provided a differentiated approach for students learning at different levels.  (Please visit our website to read what we learned through our exploration of research and your survey input.) Homework packets, and one-size-fits-all expectations with due dates, simply don’t meet the needs of many learners, and don’t lead to improved learning for our students.

Amidst this new learning about traditional homework practices in elementary schools, it remains true that our staff values the many ways learning takes place outside of the walls of our classrooms, and we place great importance on keeping families informed about what children are learning in school. With all of this in mind, we are ready to embark on a new approach to homework – an approach that moves away from one-size-fits-all expectations and due dates, towards an encouragement of a wide range of ways that children learn at home.  This shift, from homework to home learning, aims to achieve the following goals:

  • Communicate learning between school and home
  • Encourage inquiry and learning in areas of children’s interest in all of the areas that are addressed in the outcomes of the Bellingham Promise  (Read all of the outcomes and the Promise in full here)
  • Encourage lifelong learning habits in developmentally appropriate ways
  • Provide opportunities to extend the classroom inquiry at home when opportunities arise

You can expect to hear from your child’s teacher this month about the shape this will take in your child’s classroom. At some grade levels, you will see a continuation of home learning practices that have been going on throughout the year, with encouragement to support independent reading at home, and communication about in-class learning that can lead to good family conversations and at-home inquiry at your discretion. For others, you will see a change, as we move away from weekly homework packets with due dates, towards a more open approach that invites children and families to learn at home in ways that are student and family directed.  At all grade levels, you will see invitations to do some home learning that prepares for or continues an in-class inquiry. These will be done when they are timely, and connected to the learning. You will also see encouragement to support home learning in ways that are most meaningful to your child and family, such as through the Home Learning Menu found on our website. Whether your child learns through music lessons, participation in organized sports, family outings to parks or museums, unstructured outside play, or all of the above, we firmly believe that open-ended learning is what helps elementary aged students to develop a passion and become life-learners.

There are a few key questions that I want to address regarding this shift in homework practices:

Don’t kids need to practice arithmetic and spelling skills?

Indeed, practicing a skill at the appropriate level, with support and prompt feedback, can help students solidify understanding. However research has not shown that homework is not the most effective approach for this practice at elementary school. Teachers regularly provide opportunities for students to practice developing skills during the school day, and to apply those skills to new situations in meaningful ways, leading to learning that goes beyond memorization of a skill. When done in the classroom, the teacher is better able to differentiate, and to provide the prompt support and feedback that makes this practice most effective.

Doesn’t research tell us that kids should be reading at home every night?

Absolutely, the time a child spends reading books at his/her independent reading level matters! Reading regularly is part of a literate life, and provides avenues to endless learning and discovery. We will continue to encourage regular reading outside of school, and teachers will communicate to families what can be expected of readers at different developmental levels. But like skills-based homework, one size does not fit all when it comes to reading. We will communicate options that you can consider as you support your developing readers so that you as parents can determine how best to encourage reading at home.

How will our children be prepared for middle school if they don’t do homework now?

This is a common concern that came up in our survey.  Our learning about homework, however, tells us that home learning aligned to children’s interests, and occasional home learning connected to school inquiry, is a more appropriate approach for elementary aged children.  In addition to this, as we explore homework practices across our school district, elementary principals and teachers have been assured by middle school administrators that they will take responsibility for  teaching students about the nature and scope of middle school homework. They expect that we will strive to develop children who exemplify the outcomes in the Bellingham Promise, but don’t expect that we will assign homework.

How will our children develop study habits if teachers don’t assign homework?

Because homework is not proven to improve student achievement, we are encouraging children and families to develop life-long learning habits in other ways. This certainly represents a shift, and we believe it is a shift that is aligned to our core beliefs through our I.B. Primary Years Program and the Bellingham Promise.  Take a look at our Home Learning Menu, and consider ways that regularly incorporating some of these ideas may develop good at-home learning habits that are best suited to your child and family.

After carefully exploring the information you shared with us in our survey, we expect that some of you will read this update to our home learning practices with some relief, and perhaps excitement at the possibilities that open up with this approach. Some will find that it honors the learning (through music lessons, clubs, organized sports, after school programs, etc.) that is already a part of your child’s routine. Others of you may have further questions.

I hope that you will take this opportunity to talk with your children about learning at home, explore our Home Learning Menu together, and set up the time, space and routines to support the learning that will be most meaningful to your family!