Friday, February 21, 2014

Homework and Responsibility

Ah...homework. Staple of childhood today...
Image by apdk [CC BY 2.0]
I'm thinking about homework in K-12 education again. I've had several exchanges via Twitter lately about the value homework, what it is for, how it is used in school today, and some of the problems.

One of the ideas that often seems to come up when discussing homework is that of "teaching responsibility." As in, "I assign homework to my students to help them learn to be responsible!"

Folks, despite great intentions, I think this is a pretty rotten purpose to assign homework. Often times, this kind of homework really only burdens the parents, and doesn't actually help develop responsibility in the kids anyway.

Way back in April, one of my Twitterfriends, Jon Smith (@theipodteacher) tweeted this gem:
Great point, there. Such a clear visual of the problem with "homework for responsibility."

I hope you are hearing me right; I'm not arguing that I don't want students to learn to be responsible. Of course I do--that's part of growing up and maturing! But the assumption that every student needs the same homework practice--and that doing this same practice will result in becoming "responsible"--doesn't seem to make much sense to me in this day and age.

You see, this makes doing the homework a mark of compliance, not responsibility.

I'm not suggesting that students don't need to be accountable for their work. They do. But I think part of the problem is actually this mindset, this attitude on the part of the teacher. The idea that "I am the teacher and I will make all the decisions" really promotes a compliance-oriented classroom practice, one in which the students are not really responsible for their own work and learning, but are only accountable for following the teacher's agenda. As I see it, compliance might be one aspect of responsibility, but I don't think we can equate the two. Compliance has the connotation of "I must do this because you've told me to do this" in response to an authority figure. True responsibility, on the other hand, has a connotation of personal efficacy, a sense of "I will do this because it is up to me to do this."

How shall we develop this personal efficacy? I think that if we really want students to "take responsibility," we need to give them opportunities to be responsible! If I, as the teacher, am always the one making the decisions, will they ever learn to "take responsibility?"

I think the best way to have students learn to be responsible is to give them reasonable choices, and then expect them to follow through. Do you see the difference here? By placing the burden of reasonable, developmentally-appropriate decision-making on the student, they have an authentic chance to practice being responsible.

So let's consider this, teachers. When you really reflect on it, is the homework you assign intended to foster compliance? Or do students have enough personal investment in their work to truly develop responsibility?


  1. I am not in the classroom anymore (4 years out), but when I was I taught 3rd and 4th grade. I gave homework for a variety of reasons, but the majority of the time the students had more than one day to complete, had choices on exactly what "activity" they wanted to complete to meet the expectation, and homework was always discussed and learned from when it was returned. I'm sure it fostered some responsibility, but the main goal was extended learning and choice... i.e investment in their own education.

    Parents were aware of the goals for all homework and I was always available for questions, etc. after school hours. To me, homework should meet many goals, and those goals should be clear to the students ahead of time. It all stems from the classroom environment and how a teacher interacts with his/her students on a daily basis. Students who have a nurturing environment where they feel respected tend to have a different view on homework, as opposed to those students who feel homework is given just to be given.

    1. Lisa, thanks so much for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts on this topic. I have been struggling with what to do with homework for some time now--even when I taught in K-12 schools. I think the homework you are describing sounds valuable, and I can imagine that is was beneficial for your students because the parents were involved and the students were invested, largely due to your influence as teacher!

      I should say that I'm not opposed to homework on principle! I'm definitely in favor of practice, and homework *can* be a great way to provide practice. I still would prefer that teachers work to differentiate homework, because not all kids need the same amount of practice. I think this is why some students (and parents too!) feel that it becomes homework for it's own sake.

      Thanks again for your insights!

  2. I agree on differentiating homework. Choices work well, as I did a lot of the time, but, yes, this is what frustrates parents and students alike. "I know how to do this already, why do I have to do it... again?" :)

  3. Great article. I agree that assigning homework to teach responsibility is ineffective. It's a better assessment of a parent's level of engagement. I'd love to see a post on when it is beneficial to assign homework.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I have ideas about what makes for good homework...maybe a post in the making.

  4. Hey Pal,

    Just a quick note to tell you that this a great read. The "homework teaches responsibility" argument has always rubbed me the wrong way -- and while I understand that homework can be useful, all too often it's not.

    I also dug the suggestion that compliance and responsibility aren't the same thing. What I wonder, though, is how many teachers really care about responsibility. I think compliance is still a very real desire for most teachers. That's a notion that needs to change if we are ever going to see practice change.

    Rock right on,

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Bill. I'm with you--I'm afraid that the number of teachers who really care about developing responsibility is much, much lower than the number of teachers who just want students to be compliant. I too see (some) value in (limited) homework; homework has it's time and place, just not every day and not in every class, in my humble opinion. Far too much of what is assigned for homework strikes me as busy work, rather than valuable practice.

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment!