As a relative newcomer to educational blogging, I keep a list of topics that I would like to write about at some point in time. The list is a positive one, including things like “celebrating teachers’ successes”. I’m afraid when I hear the H-word, I don’t feel positive at all – but I do feel passionate about this topic, so I’m going to do it…I’m really going to write about homework.
I was never a big fan of assigning homework when I was a classroom teacher. There always seemed to be too many inequities for it to serve any real instructional purpose. Some of my students did not go home to an environment that fostered learning. Some of my students were involved in valuable extracurricular activities in the evenings. Some of my students had parents that contributed just a little bit too much, so I was never able to ascertain the child’s true understanding of the concepts. Admittedly, I was also a bit of control freak. If I was teaching the students one multiplication strategy, I did not want other well-meaning adults to muddy the instructional waters with algorithms that were beyond the students’ conceptual understandings. So, for me, homework was usually to read a self-selected book, and perhaps review a few basic math facts. On rare occasions, it might be a scavenger hunt, such as to find as many examples of inclined planes or three-dimensional figures as they could within their home.
Now that I am the parent of school-age children, I have discovered that not all teachers feel the same about homework as I do. I have also discovered that these teachers do not at all wish to be enlightened by my views. They truly seem to believe that their homework assignments are meaningful and appropriate, and that they will teach my children not only the prescribed curriculum, but also life skills such as responsibility.
Despite the fact that there is little evidence to support these long-standing practices, and despite plenty of research to the contrary, homework is still a reality for students today. So for those teachers who must persist in this nightly ritual, please at least adhere to a few guidelines.
- Please ensure that assignments are aligned to at least some content-area standard. Some teachers like to assign homework to support daily instruction and some teachers like to use homework to review previously taught concepts. I can accept either of these approaches, but I insist that assignments be specifically linked to learning goals. I know my state’s standards well, and I know that there are NO standards that ask students to write words backwards or draw perfect square boxes for crossword puzzles. If an adult were ever asked to do either of these tasks, he/she would laugh out loud and refuse, but for some reason these activities are deemed valuable for our students by some teachers.
- Homework must be at the correct level of difficulty. This means a given assignment may not be appropriate for every student (hmmm…isn’t that already true during the school day?). If a teacher does not have evidence that a student can accurately complete an assignment independently, that assignment should not be sent home. There is clear research that incorrect rehearsal is counterproductive to the learning process.
- Every homework assignment should not be graded. As a teacher, can you imagine being evaluated every time you practiced a new teaching technique? Homework was designed to be independent practice. Peer conferencing, feedback, and opportunities for revision (also known as learning) are perfect matches for completed (or even attempted) homework assignments.
- Students should be given the opportunity and flexibility to schedule their homework completion. Many teachers (and administrators and parents) argue that homework is necessary to teach skills such as responsibility. To a very small extent, I don’t disagree, but if that is to be the case, let’s actually teach them something. Time/project management is a skill that can be modeled and taught. When I go to work on a Monday, in general, I know that certain tasks will need to be completed by the end of the week. If I know I have several meetings on one day, I plan to work on my projects more another day. If I am going to be out of town for a day, I know I will need to do extra work another day to keep up. Students and families do have lives outside of school. When students never know what assignments will be issued for any given day, what do they do if they have doctors’ appointments, extracurricular activities, and/or other family obligations on a day when every one of their teachers’ has assigned an hour (or more) of homework? If students have at least a weekly schedule for assignments, they can learn how to prioritize and manage work around the busy lives that we all lead.
- Homework should be designed to encourage further learning, or cultivate curiosity. Carefully crafted assignments can lead students to research without being asked. They can raise questions in students’ minds that can spark meaningful class discussion. They can help students and teachers identify and nurture individual talents. Too often, our students’ homework assignments are dull, repetitive, and require very low levels of thinking. Homework assignments need to be considered deeply and planned purposefully.
I don’t think homework will disappear completely before my children have completed school. Perhaps considering the points I have described above, there is one question that can allow a homework assignment to meet all of my criteria. “What might my students learn as a result of this assignment?” If there is a chance the assignment could reinforce a content standard and lead a student to want to learn more, this teacher mom might smile a little more when she hears the H- word.