10 Questions We Should Ask Ourselves About Homework

1253551691_frustratedHomeworkKid_xlargeEarlier this week a good friend was messaging me on Facebook for help as her son struggled with his homework.  It was nearing 10:00 at night and he was melting down. I could totally relate to her, it was exactly one year to the day that I posted in my  blog about a similar experience with end of year overload and homework. I see this being repeated in homes everywhere and it makes me sad.  In our sincere effort to help our students with extra practice we are turning them off to learning and often poisoning their homelives.

As we wind up a school year, I think it is important to reflect on practice and see what works well, and what we may want to revise for the next year.  I’d like to offer some questions about homework to help teachers make some thoughtful decisions about why they should or shouldn’t be sending work home with students.

1. What is the learning target for this work?  This differs from the activity the student is doing (ex. read pages 55-67 and answer the questions) What are the specific strategies, skills, or knowledge the students will acquire as a result of doing this activity? Do students know the learning target or are they just trying to complete a task?  Their approach to homework will be contingent upon this question.

2. What is your success criteria for this work?  In other words, how will you know they have acquired the skill or knowledge? A completed paper is not reliable evidence since  you do not know who did the work or how it was done. Will there be an opportunity in class to demonstrate their understanding?  How do we truly measure success.  Is it engagement and learning or merely compliance?

3. How can you know who did the work? This relates to the previous question.  There will be a range of students who have no help or well-intentioned “bad help”, while some have parents, friends, or siblings doing the work, (and a wide-range in between).  How reliable is the information you get from this work?  How much weight are we giving assignments that students may or may not be doing themselves?

4. How long will this homework take? Many of us have no idea, but we should.  Some students can knock off assignments on the bus ride home, while others labor for hours.  Students have been in school for six or more hours.  Many are often ‘fried’ by the time they leave school. Some have jobs, or sports, or family commitments that make it extremely difficult to fit it all in.  We should know how long students work on assignments outside of their school day. We are aware of how much work WE do outside of the school day!

5. How does this homework impact the lives of my students? Homework sets up a dynamic in families that is rarely positive.  Parents and children are often at odds about how to do the work, and are frustrated with each other quite easily. Parents may want to help, but do not understand the approach or concepts.  Children often don’t want their parents to be surrogate teachers-they just want them to be mom or dad. Family lives are impacted by the amount of time taken away from them with homework.  Quality time together is frequently compromised because students have work that must be completed. Students are often caught in the middle when the family has plans other than working on school assignments and they stress about pleasing their teacher and their parents.  When we (educators) think homework should come first we are basically telling parents how to run their lives and manage their time.  We don’t want someone to tell us how to manage the time in our classrooms, we should be extending the same courtesy to parents  with regards to their family time. Families have different priorities -including quality of life.  We need to honor this and encourage a well-balanced life for our students. They are only kids for a short time!

6. Does homework really foster time management? I hear this argument for homework proposed frequently.  “Students need to learn to manage their time and complete work.”  This assumes the child controls time factors in their home-they usually don’t.  If assignments take hours to complete they really don’t have any time to “manage” they only have time to work. If this was an occasional task that argument may have more teeth, but if every night the student is struggling to finish their extended day work, this isn’t about management. Parents are the time managers of home life.  We can help students manage their time in school, but should not be setting these expectations for home.

7. How will I handle unfinished or incomplete homework? This is often a huge issue.  The consequence is often a loss of recess.  For some students this means they had no “free time” the previous night trying to finish work and they lose “free time” during their day.  They have no break from the stress of school and begin resenting and resisting learning as a defense mechanism.  Some students don’t care-they refuse to do homework and no amount of consequences will change that.  This sets up a perpetual cycle of punishment that does not shape behavior.  The teacher more likely feels the effect of the punishment in frustration and loss of time during the school day.  Another consequence is often a ZERO for a grade.  So the grade then becomes a reflection of compliance and not learning.  Anytime we give homework, there will be students who do not or cannot complete it.  We need to give some serious thought as to how to handle this in order to achieve our purpose, which leads me to…

8. What is the purpose of this homework? Why does every student need to do a given assignment (or assignments)?  If they don’t know how to do something, why would sending it home be helpful? If they couldn’t “get it” in the most supportive environment possible, how will they “get it” in an environment of unpredictable variables and conditions?  If they already know how to do it and can easily complete it, why did they need to spend time on it? I do not mean to be flip when I say, “Why do they have to do this?” This relates to questions 1 and 2 directly, but to all other questions as well?  Is it worth the time it takes for me to copy it, assign it and grade it?  Is it worth the students time to do something he/she can already do, or struggle with something they cannot do?

9. Will this homework increase student achievement? Homework has been around a very, very long time and yet there is no consistent evidence  to support that it positively impacts student achievement.  While some studies cite a moderate increase (one or two points) in standardized test scores for high school students (mostly in math or science) and no increase in elementary schools, does the one or two hours of work each night justify one or two points on a test? This does not mean that students will never benefit from extra target practice that is designed to meet their needs, but a blanket homework policy of one-size-fits-all is not a silver bullet for student achievement.

10 Are there more effective alternatives that can meet my purpose? Asking ourselves, “How can I best help my students meet the learning target?” Should be the first thing we do.  What happens in our school day with us is often the most effective approach.  The time we take in class to grade or go over homework might better be used for small-group instruction to reteach, reinforce, or practice with those students who need it.  Teachers in upper grades are  experimenting with a Flipped Classroom approach in which students watch lectures or read through materials and then do the “homework” in class with the teachers’ guidance.  Can I narrow my focus or lessen the number of problems to meet my goals?  Can students demonstrate understanding or mastery in a variety of ways other than homework assignments?

I know I will take some heat on this debate, but I don’t mind because my top priority is student learning.  I want students to LOVE learning and make it a life-long habit.  I have seen too many instances where homework does NOT achieve this.  I do not see homework as an “All or Nothing” debate-we need to keep all tools available in our toolbox.  I want us to use it judiciously, mindfully, and purposefully, but if we do not ask ourselves these questions and honestly answer them, I do not believe we are.

I welcome your thoughts, your questions.   Here are some resources on the “Homework Debate”

Center for Public Education

Washington Post

Educational Research Newsletter and Webinar

What’s On My Book Radar?

hattie-big-skyI don’t know why it has taken me so long to read this incredible book!  Kirby Larson is an amazing author, whose historical fiction is compelling and well-researched.  Both of my choices of books this week opened my eyes to the history of our country-this focus on the life of a homesteader was riveting.  I hadn’t considered homesteading during this time period (WWI) and loved how she wove the war, prejudice, technology, and human relationships into a beautiful story.  I just got Hattie Ever After from my library to follow her journey!

26childrens-1-master180I was stunned when I read this historical account of African American servicemen during WWII.  I knew there must have been racism and segregation since this was long before the civil rights movement, but this story made it vividly clear. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this episode of history  before, but I think this is a “must read” for middle and high school students.  The irony of serving a country that does not respect you must have been agonizing for these men.  It’s a part of history that we must acknowledge and honor.

What’s on YOUR book radar?

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