Monday, October 4, 2010

The Great Homework Debate, does it ever end?

I was reading Brian Kuhn's (@bkuhn) blog post What Homework Should Be and he referenced an article in Education Leadership The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework and it got me thinking.  I then further explored that edition and had a great read going through it.  As a teacher, and then later as a principal, I have needed to ask myself what is the reason/purpose for assigning homework?  How many conversations, consequences and parent meetings have arisen because of homework?  How many times have I sat down with students having conversations about real-world, job-like training foundations as a reason for homework?  How many times have I sat down with parents at their wits-end because of the family struggles that resulted from homework?  Far too many before I woke up and thought about it.

I can think of 3 moments that gave me pause to consider what I was assigning and why I was assigning it.  The first came during a parent meeting because a child was struggling with work completion and I sat across the table from a former Canadian Football League Defensive Lineman (in other words, a man around 6'3" and 300 lbs with a very deep voice) asking me to explain my homework philosophy.  I muddled my way through making sure to add "sir" whenever I could.  As I was spewing my reasoning, I had difficulty believing it myself.

The second moment came from a conversation with a principal who was commenting on the practice of deducting marks from late assignments.  When we are assessing science or language arts assignments, where is the IRP Prescribed Learning Outcome (Integrated Resource Package, the name given to British Columbia's curricular guides) that outlines work completion as a goal of the Science curriculum or Language Arts curriculum?  Work habits and quality of the work may be linked, but at the end of the day, the work must be assessed based on its quality and not based on the day that it was handed in.  If the student is not handing in the work on time then work habits may be the issue and it is work habits that would reflect the tardiness of the work.  In the article Fair and Unbalanced the author examines her own personal struggles with trying to get assignments in and reflects on how her change in philosophy has helped.  I liked the quote of "The more teachers know about their students, the better they can tailor instruction and support for students' unique needs, the further they can push them to reach their potential. Paying attention to individual kids is a better strategy than making an inflexible rule. Better, but vastly more difficult".  It really summed up the point well.

The third moment came from a conversation about Math homework.  As we were in the process of shifting to a more problem-solving based from a more traditional repeated practice method, one of the presenters mentioned that maybe it was time to rethink math homework as well.  He basically asked how many times were we going to send a kid home to bash his head against the wall because he felt he was stupid because he could not do the work.  The kid would go home, try to do the homework, not get it, mark it in class and realize that he got it all wrong, or even better yet, have a classmate mark his homework and know that he got it all wrong.  If this happens a few times in a row, he is not going to bother doing his homework because it just becomes a waste of time.  Pedagogically it also reinforces incorrect understanding and the teacher will need to tear down the scaffolding that the child had based his math on and help him rebuild it.

This edition of Education Leadership on meaningful work, including a number on homework really hit home with me.  Another article, Homework Done Right, has a simple statement towards the beginning "When teachers carefully and purposefully consider the role of homework in furthering curriculum goals, they can turn a homework task into treasure."  Family interviews, observations around the community and searching for particular themes in the media are some of the examples that are given.  The article goes on to describe how the assignments can be an extension of the curriculum, and one that involves meaningful dialogue.

A principal at an elementary school in California (Homework Sent Packing) has banned all homework assignments.  She states "Research shows there is no correlation between homework and increased student achievement at the elementary level".  They have set a school goal of "Kindergarten through third grade students will need to read 30 minutes at least four nights a week. Fourth through sixth-graders will read 45 minutes."  They have focused their ideology that the teaching should be happening in the classroom as that is the teacher's responsibility.  There was a lot of food for thought in that article.

The last article, and perhaps the most telling, is one that examines the student's perspective.  Show Us What Homework's For breaks it down to a few very meaningful headers, and ideas that I believe really need to be considered when assigning anything that goes home.  They are:
1) Purpose.  Is this going to help them learn?  Is this going to help them get better?  Why do they have to do it?
2) Follow-Up.  There is nothing more frustrating for students when doing homework than knowing that it will be marked in class, if that, and that there is little or no feed-back.  Why "waste" hours doing something that the teacher apparently does not really care about see how there is no follow-up.  If they know that this will be used to help them then they are more likely to be motivated to do it.
3) No Grading
4) Better Use of Time.  Less is sometimes more.  Give them the opportunity to deepen their learning and understanding.
5) The 4 Rs (readiness, repetition, review, and revision).  Where does the homework assignment that you have just handed out fall?

All of these articles reflect the need to think about what we are giving students.  I think it is also an opportunity to reflect upon the role of schools?  Is our job to prepare the students for the "Real World" or is it to help them become confident learners, eager to continue furthering their knowledge in areas that they are passionate for?  There are basic skills that we do need to students realize in terms of literacy and numeracy. Are we working towards them becoming Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune Champions or passionate learners who are confident that they can change the world?

The next time that you are thinking about a homework assignment, think about whether or not you can convince a 300 lb man whose job it is to chase people down and tackle them.  If you are not sure of the validity of your assignments then perhaps it is time to rethink what kids are going home with to work on.


  1. Wow, this is a well thought-out and researched post. As I indicated in my own post, I can relate to your math example. My kids were head bangers through high school math... they somehow survived but only barely. Math homework was the most painful experience I can remember for them.

    I like that you made a value statement - if the teacher won't review it and provide valuable feedback, then what's the value of it for the student? Great point.

    Well done Remi.

  2. The Value statement to me was the most important one and the one that made me think the most. The kids pick up on that very quickly.

  3. We just finished parent conferences at my school and I was thinking about Kohn's "Homework Myth" throughout. The number of times I was asked about tutoring was staggering!

    I agree, that much of the homework that is given is not in the best interests of children. Children who "get it" at school don't need to continue proving this by doing the same work at home, and students who don't "get it" at school aren't likely to get it once they take it home and struggle through an assignment they don't understand.

    But the issue of tutoring, especially for young boys (because it was mostly the parents of boys who asked for my thoughts) surprised me.

    What is going on there? I have read "The Homework Myth" and I agree with so much of what Kohn has to say. I haven't read any research on tutoring, but I'm guessing Kohn's position would be the same for tutoring and homework.

    I would love to see schools creating policies about reducing homework, in favour of kids spending time in sports, arts and reading. Reading! As A resource teacher, every teacher I met with during conferences with parents, replied, "support reading at home every night, in any language" to the "how can I help?" question. But I'm not sure most parents were listening. So what to do next time? Maybe provide articles, discussing the importance of reading for pleasure?

    All this left me thinking, who is advocating for tutoring for young kids? Parents? Private tutoring agencies? Teachers?

    I was a great student in elementary school. I did well. I loved to read. I loved school and my teachers. And had my folks decided I needed more school time, I would have hated it. After school time was for reading what I wanted to, for getting on my bike, girl guides, soccer practice and swimming lessons, and afterschool ski trips with my dad, when my mom let us go.

    Now imagine I didn't like school, and didn't feel successful there. Or, like some of my students - I'm barely holding it together to sit at that desk for most of the day and am trying my best to listen, pay attention and work harder. I would get MORE school?! I'd want to move in to my tree fort and never come down.

  4. I agree about the tree fort, it made me think of when I was taking music lessons. I was supposed to practice 30 minutes a day. I would play for 5 minutes, find something else to do, get reminded to go back and play, I would practice for maybe another 10 minutes, wander off and be reminded that I needed to finish practicing, generally by this point I would have my practice time supervised practice for about another 10 minutes or so, argue that I had done my thirty minutes because I had started at whatever time and now it is whichever time. This is the picture that I would keep in mind as I was giving out homework. It was not a lot of fun for me, and I know it was not fun for my parents.

    I never gave out a lot of homework, but I would give projects which had to have some portion completed at home, but as a gr 8 teacher I would try to keep it to around 30 minutes, and as I got wiser I would actually try to not give much homework at all as could not see much value in it.

    Reading for pleasure is one of the activities that I miss doing the most, although I tend to binge read. I too try to convey its importance to parents by telling them to not force their choice of literature on the children. I remember being told to read some of the classics and stop reading Sci-Fi and I unfortunately chose Mobey Dick because I heard it was some kind of famous novel. Ouch, I think I read about the first 50 pages, about the middle 50 and the last 50 and got the general idea of the story. That novel almost turned me off of reading altogether.

    The big part for me was that my parents were readers and set the example. My parents would read at the park, at the beach, at night on the couch and so on. We would read a lot together, talk about what we were reading and had some great conversations. I still share books with my parents and they reciprocate.

    I think it needs to be modeled at home. I would tell parents to read at the same time, maybe even read the same book and share their thoughts on it with their students. There was a family of readers, but the child was struggling with comprehension so I suggested that they do a family book club which they adopted and had a great time with.

    As for the tutoring, it is a hard call. I got a tutor for math 11 and 12 and for chem 11 and 12. The interesting part was that I no longer had tutors once I got to university. For me personally I think a big part of it was very poor study habits because a lot of school came easily to me until grade 11 when suddenly I actually had to study for tests. I really cannot recall homework for the most part, I have to imagine that I either did not do much homework or I was able to do it quite quickly.

    I am not sure if tutoring is because we cannot adequately support the learning of students who are struggling, because we have not found a way to connect with those students, if the support at home was not great in the early developmental years or... It is an industry, and I am not sure who is pushing it more. It is a tough conversation to have, and probably one on to its own.

    Homework is a conversation that we need to have more often and really reflect on what we are assigning and why. What is the value, what is the purpose, what are the benefits?