Biz Stone's No-Homework Policy And The Rules Of Rule-Breaking

Twitter cofounder Biz Stone implemented a "no homework policy" for himself in high school and got away with it in spectacular fashion. Here's what it taught him about when and how to break the rules.

My earliest experience making my own rules came when I entered high school. In the first weeks of my freshman year, I tried to do everything right. I did exactly what I was told to do--and this included my homework. After lacrosse practice and my after-school job as a box boy at a local supermarket, I got home around 8:00 p.m. At this point, I was expected to eat dinner, do homework, and go to sleep so I could wake up and do it all over again.

I quickly discovered that trying to complete all the homework assigned to me meant staying up almost all night long every night. I couldn’t quit lacrosse--I’d created the team! And I needed my job in order to contribute to the family income. My mother’s jobs, when she could get them, were not enough to pay the bills. By high school, the house we lived in had an actual dirt floor downstairs and walls without plaster. Now I could honestly say that we were “dirt poor.” My mom and I did our best to improve the house on the weekends, but we always needed more money.

This whole homework thing clearly wasn’t going to work. I decided to take matters into my own hands and implement a “No‑Homework Policy.” My plan was simple. I would work as hard as possible to pay attention and be completely focused in each class, but I would not bring my books home, and I would not do any of the homework assigned to me. If the homework was intended to reinforce what was taught in class, I would be fine--because I would make sure to absorb it all during the school day.

The next day, one by one, I walked each of my teachers through my plan. The conversation went pretty much the same with all of them: First, I said hello and reintroduced myself. Then I explained that I’d been attempting to do all my homework for the past two weeks. (I may also have hinted that perhaps the teachers might communicate with one another more about how much work they were assigning to students.) I told them that doing the work took me until approximately 4:00 a.m. Regrettably, I was unable to sustain this. Then I introduced my No‑Homework Policy.

Some of the teachers laughed, but ultimately all of them told me in their own ways that if I really wanted to go ahead with this, I could, but it would affect my overall grade. I was willing to live with that.

From that point on, I didn’t do homework. I paid attention in class and strived to absorb the material. Ultimately, perhaps because I had been so up front and clear in my communication of the policy, my teachers did not end up penalizing me. In other words, my No‑Homework Policy didn’t have an impact on my overall grades. It was, for all intents and purposes, a rousing success.

The point of this story isn’t “cocky kid blows off homework and gets away with it,” though on the surface that’s exactly what happened. Homework is generally regarded as useful, and far be it from me to mount a one-man campaign against it. (Not right now, anyway. Talk to me when my kid is twelve.) But I had an idea for a different way to do things, one that worked better for me. There was no harm in proposing this to the school administration. The point of school, after all, isn’t to do homework. The point of school is to learn. As high school progressed, I focused on learning what inspired me, so I might get an A+ in genetics and a C in something easy. It was a mistake to assume that teachers--or anyone else, for that matter--automatically knew what was best for me.

If anything, opportunities like this are easier to recognize and implement in the workplace. Do you work best in a dimly lit room? Would you like to work on a side project that is more interesting to you? Rules are there to help us--to create a culture, to streamline productivity, and to promote success. But we’re not computers that need to be programmed. If you approach your bosses or colleagues with respect, and your goals are in alignment, there’s often room for a little customization and flexibility. And on the other side, those in positions of power shouldn’t force people to adhere to a plan for the sake of protocol. The solution, always, is to listen carefully--to your own needs and to those of the people around you.

Excerpted from the book Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone. Copyright 2014, Biz Stone. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user jkfid]

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6 Comments

  • You should be introduced to @rickwormeli. Schools are places where people who did well in school work; thus same processes, including grading practices are perpetuated. Independent practice and assignments that can only be done outside the classroom, as well as reading have value. Interestingly, most HS teachers will say they assign homework to prepare kids for college; not to help kids learn better.

  • Ellen O'Rourke

    Great communication skills there Biz! You are so right about homework. I wish there was none like they just instituted in France. The situation for each child or youth is different and having them do many hours of it if they aren't lucky to have a great home to work in or have a hobby or sport isn't fair. My child would be just doing extremely well without the homework aspect. There will be a talk by Marty Brounstein at Stanford - Hilleil Bldg. 7pm Monday night. He wrote a book about an average farmer and his wife who didn't obey any rules really and so saved about 24 Jews during the Holocaust. Marty's wife will be there. She was a baby that was saved. I wrote a screenplay for Marty for free and Producers want to make a movie but have no funds. Come check out the story of another rule breaker if you can. Marty has a YouTube video of a talk he did for Google also. Ellen

  • Will Luttrell

    Tried this in Calculus IV in college. Had a 98 test average (out of 100) over the course of the semester -- literally the highest grade in class -- and a zero homework grade. The TA in charge of the class gave me a D and I lost my scholarship.

    Notes: This was many years ago (1994?), and I was a different person then. For one, I'm sure that I was much more combative. Another factor was that I was attending a conservative state school with a pretty closed mind.

    In hindsight I don't regret it today. I have a great life and have managed to do very well as a tech entrepreneur despite (maybe even because) of the experience. I don't think school is the right answer for everyone, and there are plenty of opportunities to learn and become successful outside a classroom.

  • Harry Beckwith

    Excellent. I did this same thing. And came out fine, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford. Different routes for different runners.