Fires in the Mind

Is homework “deliberate practice”?

Ideally, homework should be “deliberate practice,” targeting individual areas of need and pushing each student to a new place just within reach. But students tell me it rarely works that way.

The kids make their case in Chapter 8 of Fires in the Mind, part of which is adapted as “Show Us What Homework’s For” in the new September issue of Educational Leadership magazine. (If you can’t access the magazine article, you can download a free PDF of Chapter 8 on the Resources section of this blog.)

Cognitive researchers have specific criteria for the kind of practice that steadily makes people better at what they do. It would make sense if homework matched those criteria, but my research for “Fires in the Mind” shows that it usually doesn’t. For example:

  • Deliberate practice always has an express purpose, but students say they usually don’t know what its point is.
  • Deliberate practice is geared to the individual, but typically everyone gets the same homework tasks, no matter what they need to work on.
  • Deliberate practice involves attention and focus, but kids say they usually do their homework without thinking.
  • Deliberate practice requires repetition or rehearsal, but often kids tell me that they are repeating something just to get it over with, not to perfect and remember it.
  • Timing is important in deliberate practice, yet homework often takes more time than kids have for it.
  • Finally, although deliberate practice should lead to new skills, students say they don’t use it for anything after it’s done.

What would it take to turn homework into the kind of practice that would help students strengthen their skills and knowledge in academic subjects? Perhaps the most powerful steps in that direction would occur, I propose, when students think of homework as “getting good” at something–much like practice in athletics or the arts.

Let’s use this space to brainstorm some new ways to lift homework to a new level of deliberate practice. How are you already designing homework that accomplishes this? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the first three commenters who offer good examples here!


10 Responses to “Is homework “deliberate practice”?”

  1. David Wilcox says:

    Homework will always be a contentious issue for both parents and teachers (let alone students).
    The premise that homework is ‘deliberate practice’ is an important one. However I fear that teachers have not given adequate thought to the purpose of homework. Sometimes the ‘homework debate’ is not even on the radar. Homework is given because it has always been given, because the curriculum is overcrowded and we need the kids to complete more tasks, or because the expectation of the school is that homework is set.
    So, let’s get into the debate.
    There are proponents who believe any homework is wrong. I don’t agree with that polarised a view. But neither do I believe homework should be set for the sake of having the students do ‘something’ at home.
    I see homework as an extension of my evaluation of the students’ knowledge acquisition. The classroom is a supportive learning environment. It will be a place where students can seek immediate answers and encouragement in their learning. Home is likely to be different. And homework allows me to put the students in a place where they need to think more independently; to consolidate their learning. Yes, they might struggle. But, in some ways, that’s what I want to see. When I correct homework, I am looking to see where the gaps are and why any mistakes have occurred. I’m not setting them up for failure. I create an environment of understanding of the value of mistakes: a mistake is only bad if we do not learn from it.
    For me, the setting of homework is only half of the process. It is the correcting and subsequent teaching that completes the value of the exercise.
    I love the dot points in the article above. However, I’d encourage dialogue to take the issue of the purpose of homework even further…

  2. Malyn says:

    Homework can be deliberate practice.

    My rationale for homework as communicated to my grade 8 maths class and parents is this:

    Learning maths involves conceptual learning AND practice. It is like learning a new language with its own symbols, vocabulary, semantics and, I daresay, peculiarities.

    I speak two languages fluently and have tried to learn two more. I am not fluent in French and Spanish because I do not use these languages regularly. Regular engagement through diligent practice is needed to achieve fluency.

    Simply put, homework is work done at home to augment, enrich and reinforce learning in the classroom. Maths homework is crucial in developing fluency. Often, these are exercises on the textbook – refer to Topic Outlines. Sometimes, homework can be worksheets or online activities. Even if no homework is assigned, students are expected to at least go over notes from previous lessons. About 1-2 hours a week is deemed reasonable.

    Due to the school curriculum, we have fewer hours dedicated to maths. Quite often, maths teachers have to relegate practice time to homework.

    Not always but often, I differentiate assigned homework. I put up to 3 levels out there and encourage students to go 1 level higher than they think they can, or at least eyeball it. It takes a while for students to realize that homework is a good way to challenge themselves (getting to the zone of proximal development) but some students do get this insight with encouragement and support. I believe this is part of ‘getting good at getting good’.

    Among the other practices I build in to homework are self-correction and re-doing (or asking for help on) challenging questions. I also do random checks on homework and often tell the class, homework (as I assign them) is to help them learn and thus for their own good, and not mine. Random checks include checking for self-correction and re-doing. Rightly or wrongly, I have not put any consequences on those who don’t do homework – I figure missing out on a learning opportunity is consequence enough.

    Feedback from students and parents indicate that the homework I assign is reasonable and useful….most of the time. For now, that’s good enough for me.

    I hope this is useful.


  3. ABCDE says:

    “Good” homework is definitely “deliberate practice.” I’m fascinated by this post, because it is reconfirming my belief in the importance of homework. In my short career as a teacher, I’ve actually given little homework. This is because in my first year as a teacher, I often did not have the time to create homework assignments that I thought was valuable for my students to complete–that is, ones that involved deliberate practice.

    Now, though, homework is a regular part of the learning process for my students.

    I agree with all of the bullet points about what constitutes deliberate practice. Here are some suggestions that can help tailor homework assignments such that they encourage deliberate, rather than mindless, practice:

    Regarding purpose, I think the best way to help students is explicitly mention, either during class or at the beginning of a homework assignment, why we are learning what we are learning and what it can help you do. For example, I am teaching my high school students how to identify the main idea of paragraphs at the moment. I have told them that having that skill is necessary before we can move on to more sophisticated writing that is meant to summarize or critique a reading. They are invested in the process as a result, because they see, explicitly, the point.

    Regarding individualization, the best solution is to have multiple versions of a homework assignment. While some might think that customizing homework assignments would consume too much time, there are certainly some easy ways to do this. Sticking to the skill of identifying the main idea, all it takes is to choose two different passages for students to read, one at a lower level and another at a higher level.

    As for attention and focus, a good addition to homework assignments is a structured format. In my main idea assignment, I make sure that students have the framework within which they must work. What that looks like: rather than giving students a printed article of something and telling them to identify the main idea of each paragraph, I create boxes after every paragraph where I want them to write the main idea. This gives students a visual indicator of what they must do and helps them remember the goal of the assignment. A block of text without such indicators is more likely to lead to lost attention than one with signs that keep students alert and guide them along their path to learning.

    As for repetition, the best solution is to continue hammering home this message: “perfect practice makes perfect”. At the beginning of the year, I showed my students a Powerpoint slideshow that showed numerous athletes in action and asked questions about how they got good (“How did Arnold become so strong?” “How did Tiger Woods become so good at golf?” “How did Lebron get to where he is now?”). The key is not just practice, but perfect practice (as Dan Willingham would say). Once students believe in the importance of practice, they will not see homework as mindless. The best athletes never practice if they think they are sloppy. They make sure they have their technique down before they begin. And that’s how they become champions.

    As for timing, a solution that I have yet to implement, but might be worth trying is to give students a time limit for an assignment. I might give out an article and ask them to work on it for no more than 30 minutes. By seeing how far students get, I not only receive important data about how quickly my students are using their skills, but the students, particularly the struggling ones, then begin to see homework as a predictable commitment, rather than one that can keep them occupied hopelessly for hours on end–a scary and discouraging thought.

    Regarding leading to new skills, students should again see the purpose in what they do. If students know that the skill of identifying the main idea is necessary in order to do more complex written analysis, they will have that desire to practice to perfection.

    These are my suggestions.

    I’m trying my best to make homework a seamless extension of class time. I sometimes feel that there is not enough time in class for students to get the practice they need to get good at something. As long as the class time is focused on very strong modeling and guided practice, the homework time is ideal time for students to practice independently.

    One thing that I will be doing in my journalism class is giving an article of the week, similar to what Kelly Gallagher already does. If students are required to practice reading and reflecting on articles every week, hopefully that habit will embed itself in students’ brains, such that they do it regardless of whether whatever they’re reading is actually a homework assignment. In other words, after that transformation, everything they see and read will be seen as an opportunity for deliberate practice and they will be practicing deliberately and, consequently, learning, constantly.

    As the third good comment (IMHO), I hope I receive a copy of your book!

    A Blog Covering D.C. Education

  4. Raymond Martinez says:

    As a former science teacher and high school administrator I read the information below with much interest. The analogy of academic homework as “athletic practice” makes a lot of sense since students could then focus on specific deficiences as opposed to concepts they have mastered. The student insights on ideas for homework assignments were very meaningful. They are telling us that indeed they will do homework if it is relevant and engaging.

    When I taught Advanced Placement Biology and had 15-20 students in my class these approaches were realistic and I recall talking to colleagues with similarly sized classes who tried to “personalize” assignments to maximize the benefits for their students. The personalization becomes more difficult when dealing with classes of 25-35 students. I like the idea of breaking students into small groups, perhaps based on specific academic need in the subject, and have them work collaboratively on an assignment. This has the added benefit of reducing the competitiveness inherent in assigning grades to individual students and prepares them for the “real world” of workplace collaboration. This, I believe, is more routinely done in the elementary grades so us secondary folks could probably implement a page or two from their playbook.

    One of the real issues is of course resources and reducing class size to sustain such individualized protocols. Also, staff development training is sorely needed so teachers can see the obvious advantages of such approaches.
    Thanks for doing this good work and best of luck in spreading these ideas among our hard working colleagues.

    Ray Martinez, Director of Guidance Deer Park Schools Long Island NY (retired)

  5. George Williams says:

    My golf instructor taught me that becoming a better golfer means learning to practice better. A key component to practicing better is to have a clear objective in mind. Instead of mindlessly hitting golf balls, I now always set my purpose before practicing. Doing that simple thing made practice golf more effective and more fun. Your chapter on Deliberate Practice reminded me of this and made me consider how to apply it to homework. It is easy for teachers to assume that students know why particular homework is assigned. The few times I figured it out on my own made completing homework less of a chore and less of something to just get through. Your treatment helped me to make the connection between my positive experiences from learning to practice golf to assigning homework.

  6. Some of you might be interested in taking a listen to my recent interview of two high school students on the subject of homework (answering our question, “Is homework deliberate practice?”). It’s part of a series called Students 2.0, on Learn Central, and it’s powered by a webinar program called Elluminate. Please let me know if it interests you, and if there are other questions you’d like me to be interviewing students about in the series!

  7. AB says:

    Usually, in my pre calc class, the students get bookwork assignments as their homework. In their most recent assignment, the students need to be able to recognize the basic function from which the transformation evolved, represent the equation in graphical form, generate an equation from the graphical representation and verbally or written explanation of the transformation from the basic equation. The alternative below could all be completed as a part of the lesson.

    1. Think Pair Share: Explain the concept to a partner and draw the translation. The students said they have found it helpful to hear a peer explanation to clarify the teacher’s explanation. I think that it would be a good idea to have a specified amount of time to complete each transformation to avoid the temptation to discuss other things besides math.
    2. Exit ticket: The students turned in on question that they still had at the end of the class. This would provide good feedback on the student’s understanding of the material as well as give students a safe way to ask a question that they may not wanted to ask in front of their peers. My CT could start the next class by addressing the top three questions that students had. This would be a great way to review an idea from the previous day and a good lead in to the next day’s material which would undoubtedly will build upon this material.
    3. Movement: During the lesson, have the students stand up. They would hold their arms up to represent a basic function. When my CT showed a new translation, the students have 10 seconds to move into the position that represented the translation. This would break up the lecture and get students to think about that concept in less abstract terms.
    4. Video Lesson: Watch a 15 minute video from the Khan Academy or from the textbook about transformations prior to the start of this lesson. This is to introduce the students to the topic so that the lecture could proceed a little more quickly.
    5. Scavenger hunt: Game that requires the students to use the correct transformation to get from one point to another. It would be great to allow them to move throughout the school in this hunt. In the end, the student would be lead to a treasure of some type.

  8. Kaitlyn says:

    I am currently a student teacher and have just finished reading the *Fires in the Mind* book. I thought many of the ideas presented
    about motivation and mastery were intriguing and ones that I could
    emphasize in my classes. However, I did have a question regarding
    homework policies. In Chapter 8, “Is Homework Deliberate Practice?”, the importance of gearing homework to the individual is discussed. According to the students, “homework should match whatever they individually need to work on” (p. 119). However, it is frequently the case that each student in the class is assigned an identical homework set.

    I agree that the most effective practice would be to assign students
    problems based upon the areas they need the most work on, but I am left wondering how feasible this approach really is. With such a diverse range of students in each class, how can a teacher realistically diagnose problem areas for each student, create individual homework assignments to target these problem areas, and keep up with other duties?

    For example, in my student teaching placement, there are roughly 35
    students in each class I teach. The students come with a diverse range of interests and backgrounds, so it is overwhelming for me to think about creating homework assignments for each of them. However, I can definitely see the benefits of assigning individual homework assignments. On a recent quiz, my mentor teacher and I asked the students to respond to questions asking for their comments on various aspects of the class. Reading the responses, there is certainly frustration with certain students who think the current homework assignments are too easy, and frustration with other students who think the homework assignments are too difficult. Homework assignments geared toward each individual would help address this, but again, I am struggling with the feasibility of this. Do you have any

    I would appreciate any advice you could give!

  9. Josh says:

    Hi! I am a student teacher at the University of Michigan and we are currently reading “Fires in the Mind” in one of our classes. I found the chapter, “Is Homework Deliberate Practice” very interesting. I noticed through out this chapter and through out the entire book, the importance of relevance in having students practice a new skill, hobby, and even homework. My question is how can we teachers make academic subjects such as Physics and Biology relevant to a diverse classroom population. At my placement many of the classes I teach are very large (35 students) with wide variance in student interests and backgrounds. What are some suggestions to making homework assignments relevant to student interests?


  10. Kathleen says:

    I was at a very interesting conference for teachers in NYC on Saturday in which there was a workshop called “Home-Spun Science” by this veteran science teacher: “Daryl Taylor, NASA Astrophysics Educator Ambassador; 37-year veteran teacher of physics, astronomy, and math at the high school and college levels.”

    When I googled Taylor, I found a couple of great slide presentations one could download, as well as this URL:

    I thought that all his work was very relevant to student motivation and mastery in your field! How about contacting him directly for suggestions? He’s full of exciting ideas and his job is to spread them! Try him at — and please report in to the rest of us on what you find!

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