Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fixing Homework

Photo courtesy tracy the astonishing
CC BY-SA 2.0
Okay, here goes...

Generally speaking, I think much of the homework assigned in K-12 education is counter-productive.

There. I said it.

And this is coming from a guy who used to assign quite a lot of homework for his middle school students. But the longer I taught, the less homework I assigned. To the point where I rarely assigned homework at all anymore.

I feel like I need to qualify my reasoning for saying homework is counter-productive. Here goes:

It seems to me that most (not all, but most) of the things teachers assign for homework is either busy work (why bother doing that?) or project-based work that often needs adult-assistance (which is fine for the kids with super-involved, on-the-ball parents...but that's not the case for many kids.) And then the way we teachers grade homework... I don't think it does what we think it does for kids: if they don't see the value in the practicing, or if it's too dull, or too hard, or too easy, or too much, they are going grow to dread and resent the practice...making it into a fight to get them to do it at all.

I know, I're going to argue that homework helps build character, that it teaches responsibility...

If you'll indulge me, a response from my Twitterfriend, Jon Smith (@theipodteacher):

"I hate homework given to teach kids 'responsibility.' 
Give them an egg to take home and bring back. Same result."

Think on that, my fellow educators...

I've been doing some reading and research into this topic, and I recognize my own bias here: as I said at the beginning, I think a lot of the homework assigned is often counter-productive. One of my biggest hang-ups is that teachers already dictate how students spend their hours in school, and it doesn't seem right that they dictate how kids spend their time outside of school, especially when the homework looks like busy-work or requires parents need to play teacher or task-master. That said, I'm coming around to the idea that some homework may have value.

For example, I found this piece: "The Case For and Against Homework" by Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering. It seems to give a pretty balanced view of the pros and cons of homework. (Marzano is a big name in education research--whether you agree with his outcomes or not, it's worth giving his words some weight.) Marzano and Pickering offer research-based guidelines for teachers in designing appropriate homework for students: (Direct quotes from the piece in italics...)
  • Assign purposeful homework. Legitimate purposes for homework include introducing new content, practicing a skill or process that students can do independently but not fluently, elaborating on information that has been addressed in class to deepen students' knowledge, and providing opportunities for students to explore topics of their own interest. 
  • Design homework to maximize the chances that students will complete it. For example, ensure that homework is at the appropriate level of difficulty. Students should be able to complete homework assignments independently with relatively high success rates, but they should still find the assignments challenging enough to be interesting. 
  • Involve parents in appropriate ways (for example, as a sounding board to help students summarize what they learned from the homework) without requiring parents to act as teachers or to police students' homework completion. 
  • Carefully monitor the amount of homework assigned so that it is appropriate to students' age levels and does not take too much time away from other home activities.
Now, as I look at this, I'm afraid some teachers are going to misconstrue what the authors are saying to try and shoehorn whatever they are already doing for homework into these guidelines. Imagine this assignment for an example: the odd numbered problems from #1-35 on page 225 of their math book--not the evens, because the answers are in the back of the book! (Lest you think I'm pulling this sort of problem out of thin air, I'm absolutely pointing the finger at myself here. When I taught middle school math a dozen years ago, that's exactly the kind of assignment I gave.)

At first glance, this assignment sounds like "practicing a skill or process that students can do independently but not fluently," right? But I wonder about this. Some kids will be able to do that assignment independently; others probably will not. Does that make it good homework if some can do it? Also, if we take this assignment in light of their second point ("ensuring the appropriate level of difficulty") and the fourth point ("not take too much time from other home activities") it might not be a great assignment for all students. Some students may struggle with the assignment (and require reteaching from a parent.) Others may be able to work independently, but these 17 problems might take them a very, very long time.

It might not be so easy to create homework that actually meets these criteria after all!

How about reading assignments? Does reading a passage and answering comprehension questions fit these criteria? I'm not so sure this is the the sort of engaging assignment Marzano and Pickering have in mind. Maybe if we eliminated the "comprehension questions" (I cynically call these assignments "skim-til-you-find-it" questions)...or eliminated the textbook entirely for something more engaging? I'm vamping here...not sure what that would look like entirely.

Or how about a flipped-classroom model? If the students are watching a video lecture at home to prepare for an in-class activity tomorrow? How would this fit? This might have some merit...

What do you think, fellow teachers? Fellow parents? Students? Does this make sense?


  1. I agree that "busy" work homework isn't valuable--fil-in-the blank reading assignments are not profitable, for example. But homework CAN require mastery of things that are dull and repetitive--but necessary. So does everything else in life, as a building block to something else.

    Homework can be very helpful in not only developing skills but encouraging (and expecting) students to dig deeper on their own.

    Writing needs to be a skill done outside of class time and ideal for homework. Good ANALYTICAL writing must be perfected and developed through such assignments; then evaluation and rewriting. Trying to only do this "in class" means that students do not learn how to write formally- and the time that takes

    Research: research assignments that require students to go to public library, access adult non-fiction books, etc. are necessary.

    GRADING these assignments is the hard part. SO FEW teachers require analytical writing, grammar, etc. any more precisely because it is time intensive to grade and give feedback. Grading "objective" information like fill-in-the-blank is easier.

    Skill development through practice (writing could go here, too) is necessary---but put here math or any other skill that improves through repetition and practice.

    Rather than less homework--I'd be all for MORE homework and shorter class days at school for upper-elementary/Junior High level.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Paul! Totally agree about fill-in-the-blank assignments...what's the point? And I actually like a lot of what you're suggesting here for homework: authentic research, reading, and high level writing are key skills for students to practice! (And I'm all for practice.)

    I agree with you about skill development through practice too (math, etc.) but I think teachers in general need to do a better job of differentiating this based on student needs. Requiring the same 10 (20? 50?) math exercises of all students isn't necessarily helpful--probably harmful. If the kids already know how to do this skill fluently, 10 problems might be too many. If they don't know how to do them, 10 problems might not be enough for practice (though more might be too daunting all in one sitting?) This puts a burden on the teachers to know what their students know, and understand what they understand. Not an easy task, for sure!

    1. You're right about differentiation--but how to do that accurately? I remember when I was a kid in first grade--we had something called SRA's (you probably don't remember) was colored coded for different reading levels. I was a fast reader--so I could read something totally different than other students--and I progressed farther (it was also competitive with other faster students---I remember that--but I also learned a ton b/c I could go at my own pace while still in the classroom).

      I'm sure it is now looked down upon as old-fashioned...but it is something akin to what you're talking about. Sometimes going backwards and modifying isn't all that bad.

    2. I remember SRA! I loved it too. :-)

      And I think you're right: SRA--for all it's old-school glory--was targeted for individuals and gave practice tailored to each student's level of need.

      The biggest problem with this idea is finding the time for teachers to do this kind of individualization. There are only so many hours in a day!

  3. I have faded from the homework camp...used to have it to help grades....
    We need to start calling it practice or finish work, and not everyone needs the same. I am trying to get my students to understand they need to do some work outside of our class time, finish this, post that to portfolio, tweak that project, try a couple more examples and show me. Maybe not every night, but several nights a week. Spend 10-20 minutes moving forward or at least reviewing recent ideas (tutorial videos on class website).

    The only part that would be graded is if it is a summative project that they are doing part outside of class time, but they have a chance to redo if it is not up to spec.

    1. Love these ideas, Paul. Definitely sounds like more authentic work for the students. I *do* like the idea of practice, and homework can be useful for small doses, and focused on what students need, not just "because it's good for kids to have homework"...