Thursday, June 30, 2016

An Analogy to Help Teachers Understand Homework

I have been thinking and thinking about homework over the past few months--why teachers give it (many reasons), whether it truly advances learning (debatable), what the scholarly research says about it (it's complicated), and what parents can do to partner with schools on this issue (reply hazy, try again). (If you are interested in reading my past posts on this topic, feel free to read through this list of posts tagged "homework.")

I was recently struck with what I think might be a helpful analogy for teachers who are themselves perhaps wrestling with what to do about assigning homework. Here it is...

Imagine, teacher, that your administrator hands down an expectation that you are going to write detailed lesson plans for every single thing you teach. You are expected to do this every single day, and must submit them by 7:30 a.m. every day. If you are late, or if your work is incomplete, you will have to give up your lunch hour as a consequence. Every once in awhile, you get a stack of your lesson plans back from your administrator with "10/10" or "B+" or "78%" written on the top of them, but with no other comments, written or verbally submitted.

How would you feel about this situation?
  • Would you be excited to get started on this work every day?
  • Would you be methodical and thoughtful about your planning?
  • Would you be thankful that your administrator has your unique needs as a professional educator in mind?
  • Would you be joyful to have the opportunity to demonstrate your creativity and innovation on a daily basis?
  • Would you be grateful for the thoughtful scoring of your work? 
  • Would this improve the quality of your teaching?
I suspect not.

I suspect...but am not would not look on this assignment with joyful enthusiasm.
  • I suspect--but am not certain--that you might start to get a little resentful that your administrator is horning in on your time with what feels like "busy work."
  • I suspect--but am not certain--that you might begin to rush through the planning, just to get it done, rather than to do excellent work.
  • I suspect--but am not certain--that you might begin to wonder why you have to write these plans, whether you are the first year teacher overwhelmed with all the challenges of teaching, or the 20-year veteran who knows the curriculum inside out.
  • I suspect--but am not certain--that you might begin to reduce creativity in your teaching, perhaps because it's just too much work.
  • I suspect--but am not certain--that you might feel frustrated at the lack of authentic feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your work.
  • I suspect--but am not certain--that you might think this busywork would actually get in the way of good teaching, and have little-to-no impact on improving the quality of your teaching.
Now, teachers...I challenge you to think about the work you assign to your students in this light. 

Note, of course, this is certainly an analogy: you are a professional educator, with a sense of calling to your office, and an ambition to do well as you serve your students. Right?

And your students...they're just kids. Right?

So that must mean it's okay...
  • to give them busy work. 
  • to harangue them for sloppy work. 
  • to assign the same one-size-fits-all work for all students.
  • to wonder why they don't spend more effort and creativity on the tasks you assign. 
  • to not expect them to do any more than look at the score and then promptly forget about it.
  • to accept that creating a quality learning experience is not really the goal of homework, but rather completion and compliance is.


  1. Dave - I cannot STAND to do busy work anymore. It makes me sick! This is a STELLAR analogy, and I'm so glad you put it out there for teachers to ponder! BAM!

    1. Thanks for the affirmation, Joy! Hope it stirs some valuable discussion among groups of teachers. :-)

  2. That's a great analogy, I never thought about it like that before. Thank you for writing and sharing.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Shelley. I hope it's the sort of thing that gets groups of teachers talking together about their homework practices. Why are we doing what we are doing? Are we just assigning the work out of some vague sense that "homework is important for learning?" Because the analogue is "planning is important for teaching," but the *kind* of planning matters, right? If we're going to assign homework, I think it better be GOOD homework. :-)

    2. I actually have always thought this way. I am a second-career teacher; I think that helped. While other teachers seemed to automatically assume that homework was a given, I didn't.

      I immediately viewed homework through exactly this analogy because when I was an engineer, I worked on what I needed to work on to accomplish my team's goals. Obviously, there was a bit of odious paperwork, but it usually made sense, so I did it.

      When I became a teacher, I realized that a lot of the things my principal was asking me to do were unnecessary for me. Asking around, I became aware that I was required to do them because some teacher sometime in the past did need to do them and didn't, so it became required for us all. I hated doing that stuff. No way was I going to treat my students like that.

    3. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Dave. I'm glad I'm not alone in this. Not all homework is beneficial for learning. Not all school policies are beneficial for teachers either... :-)

  3. Dave, as you asked, I tried to push back against this post, but I can't. I whole-heartedly agree with your thoughts on homework and have felt this way for a few years (coincidentally(?) after having four of my own kids in school).

    The one "argument" I hear for avoiding genuine reflection on the issue is one you covered: "[Y]ou are a professional educator, with a sense of calling to your office, and an ambition to do well as you serve your students. Right? And your students...they're just kids. Right?" The followup questions you ask are tough to ignore and rationalize away.

    My latest analogy is class as athletic practice. Come to class and hustle, work hard. Leave class and...well, be master of your own time. Does the basketball team get homework? Not likely. Of course, many players (both individually and with teammates) choose to participate in basketball related activities outside of practice. Some play pick up; others sneak in a few extra free throws in the driveway before supper; still others work seriously on their strength and conditioning. None of this "homework" is assigned, but it comes as no surprise that the most improved and the best players are often (not always) the ones who practice outside of practice.

    Thanks for articulating this helpful analogy.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, my friend! I agree with you about the need for practice--the athletic analogy is helpful--because most kids *do* need practice, especially for skill-based learning. But, as you indicate, the ones who are most successful on the basketball court are often the ones who choose to do the practice of their own volition. Which makes me wonder: how do we help students see the need and value of choosing practice for skills they need to continue to develop? Compliance-oriented homework-for-all seems unlikely to do so. I'm sure some teachers will argue that differentiating homework, or (sacrilege!) making homework optional--and renaming it "practice"--might be better approaches?

  4. I like the way you set up the argument. It is not homework that is bad; it is poorly designed homework that is bad. There is a place for homework; it just has to be appropriately designed homework. Let me provide an example. One math teacher I know does not assign homework. He provides class time to work through problems and then moves on to the next concept. Students have the freedom to do the questions in the textbook, but they are never assigned. As a result, the students do well on the quizzes the next morning but have no real idea how to work through the problems a week later. A lack of practice has hurt them. Now, that does not mean that every student needs to do #1-19 odd (or whatever) but having some questions (choose 3 questions from sections 1 through 4 or some equivalent) would probably help all students. That, then, is not busywork but actual practice.

    In my own classroom (English) the only homework I ever assign is memory work (based on our current unit). The section the student memorizes is related to a major theme in what we are studying and becomes a part of the resources the student can draw on during an essay or other larger writing assignment.

    In that sense I agree with you; busywork is not appropriate, but few thought-out assignments to do at home are still appropriate.

    1. Your last sentence gets to the heart of it for me: if we're going to assign homework, we MUST have it thought-out well (and be able to articulate the value of doing it outside of school hours, I think.) Thanks for taking the time to comment, my friend!

  5. WHAT IF... Homework Looked Like This?