Reviewed by Michael McLaughlin
As Head of Middle School, I frequently speak with students about their coursework. It is exciting to hear about the labs they’ve completed in science, the novel they are reading – or writing! – in English, or the game-ified review activity that prepared them for their quiz in Mandarin.
Inevitably, the topic of homework will get every student talking: “What is for homework again?” “I have so much homework to do.” “Yes! No homework tonight.” And, of course, “I forgot my homework!”
In as much as students talk about homework, it is vital that educators dialogue about this topic as well. 12 Characteristics of Deliberate Homework by Erik Youngman is a resource designed to encourage educators to think and talk about homework with real intention.
Youngman posits that there are twelve characteristics that can make homework reasonable, meaningful, informative, and consistent.
These characteristics work best when approached through the prism of his ambitious acronym “DELIBERATE” — differentiate, explain, learn, implement, bolster, empower, reflect, ask, terminate, and entrust.
Youngman examines what homework can look like and provides practical and pragmatic strategies for educators to calibrate the purpose and structure of homework.
The Point of Homework
Homework is a vehicle that can enhance student academic outcomes. Homework provides an opportunity for students to build on individual strengths while also being supported in their areas of growth. As an extension of classroom learning, homework should reflect best practices in teaching. Independent practice exercises can deepen students’ understanding of a skill or pique their interest about a new topic.
Homework is also a part of the feedback loop for students, families, and teachers as students develop towards greater independence and mastery. Homework can empower student learners with confidence, curiosity, and a capacity to construct connections between their classroom learning and applications in the wider world. Ultimately, when done well, homework assignments can contribute towards igniting and sustaining a mindset of continuous learning.
What is “DELIBERATE” Homework?
Youngman defines “deliberate homework” as “intentionally planned purposeful school work completed outside of the classroom that is reasonable, meaningful, informative, and consistent.” The “DELIBERATE” homework framework presents 10 action items that teachers should consider when creating a homework assignment: differentiate, explain, learn, implement, bolster, empower, reflect, ask, terminate, and entrust.
Take, for example, the translation of a short story from Latin class and some of the questions that a teacher might think about before students ever jot the homework assignment into their agenda books:
Differentiate: How have I adapted to the learning needs of my students? Do the students have the grammatical and vocabulary background to translate the story accurately at home?
Explain: Have I made my expectations clear about the resources students can use or how they should submit their work?
12 Characteristics in Four Domains
Youngman identifies 12 characteristics that fall under four domains – reasonable, meaningful, informative, and consistent – which both individually and collectively have the capacity to improve the efficacy of homework tasks and our mindsets about homework.
The characteristics of completion time, appropriate complexity, and frequency fall under the umbrella of reasonableness. In this domain, educators are asked to consider the quality of the work and the resources – time, structure, and support – needed for students to complete homework and meet the learning target.
Making homework meaningful will help answer the perennial question students seem to ask: “Why does this matter?”. By being deliberate about purpose, learning targets, learning mindset, format, and sequence, educators can help students to see the relevancy of independent practice to their work as learners.
The characteristics of communication, critique, and grading criteria contribute to making homework informative. Rather than homework being a task for students to complete, these characteristics integrate homework into the feedback loop by providing a mechanism to monitor a student’s academic progress.
Finally, consistency in implementation binds Youngman’s entire approach together. This final characteristic invites educators to evaluate and refine the role of homework within their teaching practice.
Chapter Structure Designed with Reflection, Action, & Growth in Mind
Youngman’s consistent chapter structure allows educators to utilize this resource to monitor and modify their own practice. Each chapter begins with a definition of one of the 12 characteristics followed by a series of self-assessment questions. A narrative section provides a deeper dive into the characteristic by outlining what it is, why it matters, and how to implement the plan.
A series of primary questions is designed to guide a teacher’s reflection on individual homework assignments and a philosophy towards homework. A chapter implementation planner then coaches educators to identify topics to investigate, discuss, reflect on, and change. In this way, Youngman provides a roadmap that encourages teachers to put theory into practice.
Finally, a section of continuous improvement questions about each characteristic – using Youngman’s 10-component “deliberate” model – supports teachers in further elevating their approach to homework.
By offering up to 120 areas of questioning that a teacher can posit about various homework tasks, the book becomes a framework for growth rather than an intimidating checklist of 120 items that a teacher should consider for every piece of homework assigned.
Putting Theory into Practice
Youngman’s book is a helpful resource for novice and master teachers alike. The reflection questions could be used to chart an individual improvement plan or to provide a framework for a team of teachers to explore the design and implementation of homework in a small group.
The consistent structure of the book, examples of implementation, and actionable strategies support educators in fine tuning an important element of their craft. Indeed, as “homework” for educators, Youngman’s 12 Characteristics of Deliberate Homework promises to deliver on the very point of homework — inspiring a mindset of continual learning and growth.
Michael McLaughlin is the Head of Middle School at Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts. The 2019 recipient of the A+ Administrator Award from the New England League of Middle Schools, McLaughlin also facilitates workshops for the Salem State Collaborative Project and has appeared on “The Teacher As” podcast. McLaughlin is also on the advisory board of Buckingham Education Limited in the United Kingdom where he advises on virtual learning.