The first day of June, when the weather is warming up, might seem like an odd time to write about homework — but there’s a surprising connection you might be able to use on the last day of school.

For years now, homework has been a hot topic in education. Some noble-minded educators consider it counterproductive — an unnecessary stressor that makes kids hate learning without boosting their understanding. Others — similarly noble-minded — believe that the no-homework movement does a terrible disservice to students, depriving of much-needed opportunities for skill consolidation.

As is often the case, both sides have valid points, and neither has a monopoly on the truth. Homework, when implemented wisely, is associated with a host of positive outcomes: it can improve understanding by providing additional opportunities for practice. It can help students improve time-management skills and can help parents gain a deeper understanding of what is being taught in class. On the other hand, homework can take time away from other important activities, and it can increase levels of anxiety. For younger students, it’s not associated with increased learning, and can actually reduce test scores.

But there’s a simple solution — one that makes homework more effective and which addresses all of the concerns around it. It might sound a little crazy at first, but teachers around the country have been using it to great effect for years. Here it is: Make homework optional.

Working Outside the Box

It’s as simple as it sounds. Provide students with opportunities to practice their learning, but instead of mandating completion, simply invite them to participate. This does a couple of things: first — and most importantly — it helps students understand the purpose of homework. It prevents them from seeing it as a punishment or a game; it helps them to envision that additional practice as an opportunity to deepen their understanding.

Relatedly, optional homework makes homework relevant. Because students are able to choose their tasks, they are free to select only those that matter to them. If they understand a concept well already, they don’t have to waste time on rote busywork. If they are struggling or confused, however, they have an opportunity to address that confusion by engaging in tasks that will address it directly.

Optional homework increases buy-in. Since students are free to choose, they take more ownership of the work that they do, as well as of the process of learning. This improves student metacognition; learners need to be more intentional about what they understand and what they don’t… where they need more practice, and where their mastery is secure.

And finally — and perhaps most importantly — optional homework helps teachers become more effective by requiring us to think about what our students will really respond to. It helps us think creatively — to consider ways in which we can make learning engaging enough that students will want to do it. When we focus our attention on that kind of engagement, it helps us to expand ourselves professionally.

Now, what does that have to do with the summer? 

Keep Curiosity Alive

Well, summer is a wonderful time for students. They can relax, enjoy time with their families, and explore the world with their friends. It can — and should — be enjoyable and rejuvenating. But a huge part of that rejuvenation should come from learning. Your students live in a great, big, wonderful world. There’s so much to discover and so much to understand. You can give them homework over the break — homework that they’re under no obligation to complete, but which will help them to live more richly and more fully.

When you give summer homework, you send a powerful message that learning isn’t something that school does to you — it’s an integral part of living a fully flourishing life. Next fall, some of your students might come back having completed none of the assignments, but others might have done one, or two, or three. And if they did it because of your optional homework assignment, you’ll have made the world just a little better place — and that’s what it’s all about.

Summer Homework Ideas:
  • Read a book you love.
  • Build an awesome fort. 
  • Launch something a long distance.
  • Create a Rube Goldberg machine.
  • Perform a random act of kindness.
  • Create your own board game or outdoor sport.
  • Find a creature you’ve never seen before.
  • Go outdoors to a place you’ve never been.
  • Create a recipe for a healthy and delicious summer snack.
  • Write a letter to someone incredible.
  • Create a craft you’re proud of.
  • Pick up litter in an area that needs it.
  • Meet someone new.
  • Invent your own incredible adventure.
We hope you are all staying healthy and safe during this difficult time. For more free educational resources, or ideas on how to promote healthy SEL, simply follow this link!