I just finished reading an excellent book, Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools.  While it doesn’t contain a lot of new ideas for me, it is still a great read that has ideas for me to reinforce in my classroom and a few things to try. It’s an important book, I believe, for anyone who teaches in an urban setting (though it is universally applicable).

One of the chapters is about homework.  This is a contentious issue in urban schools. Many of my students go home to an empty house with no supervision, many have loud, chaotic homes that are not conducive to studying. I, personally, have never given homework since I am a ‘specials’ teacher. When I was an intern in a 1st grade classroom I remember giving homework from the workbook that matched whatever lesson in our literacy program we had done that day in class.  Many times the parent did the homework. Many times it just wasn’t done and I honestly can’t remember why I was assigning it aside from the fact that it was required by administration.

I love reading posts at Joe Bower‘s blog about Abolishing Homework, but I’ve been having some positive thoughts about homework today. Some of my thoughts have been reinforced through conversations on Twitter with Chad Lehman and David Andrade.

Here are some thoughts:

1) Homework isn’t inherently bad. Worksheets and busy work are.
2) For many urban students, homework helps teach study habits and helps build skills for learning outside of school.
3) Bad homework IS pointless. It should challenge but not frustrate. It should require some thinking and, if possible, connect with students’ lives outside of school. Its purpose should be to build anticipation or get students thinking about a lesson the next day.
4) Homework may not be as important for upper/middle class students, but not giving homework to students who don’t have someone at home teaching them how to learn outside of school can do more harm than hurt.

Feel free to agree or disagree, but let me know your thoughts.

17 Thoughts on “The Homework Conundrum”

  • I'll have to take a look at that book. A teacher requested I add it to our professional library at school and it arrived about a month ago. As a teacher and parent, I'm struggling with the homework my kids come home with and my personal views of what homework should be. I'll be curious to see how my thoughts on the homework my kids have as they grow up.

    I think homework can give parents an idea of what their child can or can't do. It can often be an eye opener- in a good way or bad.

  • Interesting. As I don't have children, I never even thought of the parent aspect! Great point. Often, parents don't know what their child is 'supposed' to be able to do until it comes home.

  • Love this topic. I am not a fan of homework other than time spent with family reading and playing. I taught high school prior to admin at elementary and when I went away from homework, I found the kids were more engaged and really appreciated it… their lives are terribly busy.

    I could go on and on… but I think Chad's comment about parent idea of what they can and can't do only applies to parents that can actually do the work. Many of the parents in my school are unable to do some of the child's work because of the level or because of the way things are taught/learned (ie. the new way of teaching spelling and math).

    I wrote a post on this not too long ago that sums up the discussion my school had around homework. Please check out "Homework Why's and Homework Wise" at http://mrwejr.edublogs.org/2010/10/13/homework-wh

    Basically to sum… school subjects should be taught at school, if a student has learned the material, why are they doing it for homework; if they have not learned the material, who do we expect to teach it? If we are sending them home with things to memorize we have so many other issues.

    The transition to no homework was a challenge for parents of my students. In the end, the just want to know how their child is doing – that is where effective communication is the key… effective communication is not homework. From being both a teacher that gave homework to a teacher that did not give homework (other than reading and playing with family) – the impact was minimal (and zero in elem school); so why then, would I give HW if I did not see the benefit?

    Great post – I look forward to reading the comments.

  • Okay, I'm going to admit something – I like homework. Well, certain kinds of homework…

    My 9yo son is having difficulties with reading and writing. His school is amazing and they are supporting him in such wonderful, non-judgmental ways. And as his mom, I desperately want to help! So between his classroom teacher and the special ed teachers that work with him, they've been able to make suggestions that allow me to support his learning and keep him feeling good about his progress. Sometimes it's just some tips for reading with him. They've suggested some workbooks or an app for our iTouch. And sometimes it's helping him prepare a non-written alternative to a socials studies assignment (such as video taping his presentation). I am so grateful to his teachers for supporting me in supporting him!

    The other kind of homework I love is the kind that builds relationship, connects me to the classroom discussions and increases parent engagement. How to do all that?? The first time I heard about it was from Marc Brackett (who specialized in social-emotional learning at Yale) – who talked about a school that was using his curriculum re: teaching vocabulary around emotions. The homework they regularly gave the students was "go home and ask someone about a time they felt ______" (fill in blank with emotion word of the week – such as "frustrated")

    It's non-threatening for most families, because you don't have to know current pedagogies – you have to know how to tell a story. It let's parents know what's being discussed in class. It connects me to my child through stories of my own life, so builds our relationship. It inevitably builds trust in the school/teacher because I feel a part of my child's education. And that can only have positive consequences for school communities!!

    The thing that both examples have in common is that they both equip me to support/extend the learning that's happening in school – in appropriate, family centered ways (so I'm not trying to be a teacher, I just get to be a parent!). And both have positive effects on learning, kids, families, schools and/or communities.

    So maybe what we really need to do is change our definition of homework, instead of throwing out the idea entirely…

  • I agree with Heidi, changing our definition of homework is probably the key. More often than not my students simply copy another students assignment and simply don't get anything out of it.

    I think project based learning helps make homework relevant because you're helping the student get past the idea that their project ends when they leave your class; the learning can be continuous .

    By taking the project out of the classroom the chance that the family will be engaged increases as well.

  • I teach middle school math. I work very hard with my students in class and I do give them homework every night. A max of 15 questions that directly related to what we just studied in class. I want them to practice the steps to equations or evaluating fractions. The school day just doesn't have enough time in it. From what I've seen, and I've taught in an innercity and a lower-middle class school, there are times, when used appropriately, that homework will give students an onus of responsibility. It doesn't have to be much, but it does have to relate both class and the students' real world. I also rarely grade it if its correct, but if the students have tried to do the work, and it's only 7% of their grade, so they can do no homework, and still get an A in the class

  • Loved the article. As always very much appreciate your thinking. Lets go deeper.
    Words are powerful and are use to support systems and concepts.
    If the current model of education is designed along "20th century factory thinking, then
    then the actions and tasks we do at school is "work" . But now being in the 21st century and the age of imagination, should not new thinking about actions and tasks and the words used to describe these conditions change? Strarbuck's coffee sizes? LOL

  • I agree that homework as mere "busy work" is pointless, but there's still something in getting children into the habits of being responsible for some of their learning in their own time. Personally, I prefer to give them tasks or give them a question to find the answer to – at least then, they need to decide how they're going to go about finding the answer.

  • I'm going to argue that your "practice" questions are a waste of time. If the kid got the lesson during class and did practice during class, doing more practice at home isn't going to do much for their understanding. They are better off revisiting the lesson in video form, applying the ideas to a bigger problem, creating their own ideas from the math you've taught, but repetitive practice is a waste for them.

    For the students who did not get the lesson, they desperately need feedback, nearly immediate feedback, on the work they do at home. You can't provide that feedback until at least the next day, and at best you can do it with the whole class. Many of your students will struggle with their practice, feel horrible that they can't do it, and get turned off of math. If you want to keep them "in the game", you need to find ways to excite them about what they are doing.

    Stop the repetitive homework practice. Find something more productive for your students to do at home if you must, but you are causing harm to your weakest students.

  • I'm really not convinced by the argument that homework teaches kids to be "responsible" for managing their time or for their own learning.

    1. Who helps the kid make sure they get their homework done? They get all of these various people in their lives who "make sure" that it gets done. How many parent-teacher conferences have you had where a student isn't doing well, they aren't doing their homework, and the parent says "okay, well I'll make SURE they get their homework done."

    2. If you've taught 12th grade students before, you'll know that the students who struggled to complete homework in 8th grade still struggle to complete it in 12th grade. They are going to struggle. Completing someone else's work (ie the homework assigned by teachers) doesn't teach responsibility, doing your OWN work teaches responsibility. Do you feel like you've become a more responsible and conscientious adult because you finally finished that stupid report your administrator gave you (which they were required by some bureaucrat to force you to do)? Or do you just resent them the whole time and wish it was over?

    3. Time management is learned by having a task you want to complete, one that takes many sessions to finish, and finding ways to complete the task before whatever deadline the task is due. Individual homework assignments each night are like serial sitcoms, they build no sustainable practice, and do not require partitioning the task into chunks. If your task cannot be "chunked", it is not going to help students learn the valuable skill of breaking a task into smaller pieces.

    4. What feedback do students get about not doing their homework? Is it mostly useful "oh you should do this, or this would help you get it done" or is it mostly negative feedback to reinforce the idea that the students are "bad people" for not completing that assignment they were given. Surely we recognize that negative feedback is not a terribly good way to motivate people to succeed?

  • Agree with most of the points, particularly #1 and 3. In real time, most of the sentiments about homework is negative but this is where the type of homework should be addressed. I really like your statement that "homework should connect with student's lives outside the classroom." I think that is the key reason to have work OUTSIDE of the classroom! This type of homework can support the classroom learning by showing applications. It is unfortunate that homework is really just busy work that has been used to keep students in their rows and quiet in crowded classrooms. However I will say that in some areas like mathematics or science (i.e. Writing Chemical Formulas) the practice that worksheets provide has proven useful. At the end of it all, mundane and tasks are school and engaging activity is learning. Can't remember where I heard that but it seems fitting at the moment!

  • I'm not sure if I would classify homework and practice questions as a 'waste of time'. After all, even a natural athlete needs time to practice her/his craft and to hone his/her abilities. Honestly, I think the value of homework and practice depends on how the homework is understood and treated by the teacher.

    Often times I think in subjects like math, a child can accurately follow a process in class to solve something like a multi-step equation. But there can be a learning experience for the child to perform the same task independently after some time (other classes, lunch/recess, after-school activities, etc.) has elapsed. Practice outside of the normal schoolroom, with its inherent prompts through visual cues on the Word Wall or assistance from fellow classmates during cooperative learning, can provide students with an opportunity to clarify their thinking, to recall and employ strategies suggested by the teacher and/or classmates, and, in essence, to 'gel' the experience.

    So … if we do choose to give homework, how do we make it a valuable experience? The practice should be carefully selected and/or crafted. It should reflect and extend what was taught in class. If the practice is intended to reinforce a process or critical thinking skill, then that should be modeled in examples that are included with the homework. Note that these examples also can be a helpful tool for the parents who are working with their children on the practice.

    But, how do we help children who may have parents who may not be able to or unwilling to help with homework? The teacher can model how the child can help her/himself. What questions can s/he ask to help get unstuck? What strategies can the child employ to help him/herself? Not only does this modeling help the student with the immediate practice but they are skills that can be transferred to other contexts, such as standardized tests or even the great game of real-life.

    As a middle school math teacher, I frequently hear from students after we correct homework (takes about 3 minutes out of our 59 class minute time), 'oh, now I see what I did wrong. I was stuck and I did xxx but I see (from the homework with steps shown out on the Elmo) that I should have done yyy.' As a teacher, I love hearing that 'a ha' as I walk around the room and see children conferring with one another about what they did and why. And, when I'm waved over by a student who wants to show me something for which s/he had an incorrect answer but now understands how to arrive at the correct solution, my immediate question back to the student is to reinforce — 'tell me why' … why you made the choice you did, why/how would you do things differently, what you learned, and then, show me how you would do it now … This reflective understanding of what went wrong and why can be very valuable to the child. What a teachable moment!

  • While I agree that the feedback kids get from their peers is valuable, what I've read of the research on learning is that the timeliness of the feedback impacts what students remember later, either the mistake or the correction. The closer to a mistake you receive the feedback, the more likely it is you will remember the feedback rather than the mistake.

    Have you noticed that the child who gets their homework wrong, and then receives feedback the next day, often makes the same mistakes on the end of unit test?

    I'm fine with practice, we agree on that, I just think there are more productive types of homework students can do, if we assign homework at all.

  • So what new word(s) do you propose? Learning extension? Extended learning time? Anticipatory learning? (should 'homework' be in preparation for the next day's lesson)

    Love the idea of renaming it.

  • I agree that there is always an adult that 'makes sure' it gets done, but isn't this the same as what happens in school? We don't give an assignment or start a project and then sit back and watch a kid work on it. We guide them, set deadlines, conference with them about their progress. In short, we make sure it gets done.

    If homework (or maybe 'extended learning time?") is something that relates to a child's life, includes choices and includes student input then there is a built-in intrinsic motivation to complete any project, assignment or 'work' they are given.

    As for time management, if work done at home is simply a question to ponder for the next day's lesson then it doesn't need to require many sessions for completion.

    In the book, the author states that homework should not be graded and students should not be penalized for not doing it. Rather, homework should get a student thinking about the topic ahead and pique their curiosity. He recommends having students make a guess at something tied to the lesson. The next day they will want to be engaged to find out if their guess was correct. No grading, no feedback, just building engagement with the topic.

    Thanks, David, for all of your thoughtful replies. You've got me really thinking!

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