Saturday, September 8, 2012

Homework Stinks #4 - My Verdict

Really! My dog ate my homework.
( “Homework Evidence” Threadless t-shirt by Glenn Jones.)

In the first three (IIIIII) posts in this "Homework Stinks" series, I've tried to cover the major elements of homework and discuss the issues that impact home partners, teachers, and most importantly, students. I appreciate all of the support and encouragement that I have received through Twitter and comments on the posts during this series. Once I started the project, I almost immediately realized that it was probably more than I wanted to take on. However, I felt that I could add something to the long running, and often heated conversations that a great number of teachers have each year. Thanks for sticking with me.

I have read more about this topic than any other issue that affects my kids, and to be perfectly honest, I still don't have definitive advice on homework practices. I want to do what is best for my kids and I think that after reading close to 60 journal articles, innumerable blog posts, and having countless conversations with peers, the only thing I can say definitively is that I am closer to that goal than when I started. This blog series has allowed me to think deeply about the subject and challenged me to think differently, which is simultaneously exciting and confidence shaking. 

Student's Personal Time
I have my students in a facilitated work environment for 6-ish hours a day. Is is okay for me to claim more of their time? Am I using every minute of time that I have with my students effectively? Do I use homework as a 'catch-up' for the time I mismanaged? Is homework assigned to help or is its issuance simply a habit.

One educator that I respect wrote that he gives homework because he believes that learning should continue throughout the day, but that homework is not optional. The teacher tried to buffer their requirement by letting the students choose what  proof of their learning they could submit, but it was still required by the teacher. You can't say that you are respectful of your student's time away from your classroom, but still command their time away when they are away from your four walls. Sure, learning and the love of learning is something that should be nurtured, but I think requiring a student to prove they're learning outside of the classroom smacks of hypocrisy and arrogance. If I can't get a student excited about learning to the point where they want to share with me and our classmates, then that's on me, not a seven or twelve year old. I'm not going to be the one who prevents a kid from letting the figurative apple fall on their head, because they were inside doing a useless worksheet.

My Verdict for students: Pursue what's important to you, that's what's important to me.

District or Building Homework Requirements
Despite the shortsighted philosophies behind the ridiculous policies that require or mandate homework, teachers still have to do what is required of them. Fortunately, I do not live under such a dreadful leaking umbrella of mandated homework. There are many examples of how innovative teachers have effectively dealt with homework requirements, such as homework menus, creativity journals, multi-media, podcasting, and blogging. Do what you have to do, but do it with an understanding that for most students, homework is an unneeded burden that does not contribute to learning. Let your sphere of influence know that issuing homework because 'we've always done it that way' is nonsense. In a vigorous classroom debate I wouldn't accept that type answer from my students and I won't let administrators rest on their power and nameplate when they issue such a lazy leadership directives.

My Verdict: I'll comply, but I'll be creative and do what I believe is best for my kids. I don't think homework issuance can be a proxy for rigor and should not be used to create an illusion of learning. I'll let the learning exhibits that my kids produce impress the onlookers.

Research indicates that grading homework is an unwise practice, as it decreases student motivation and effort. Think about a homework grade from the student's perspective. You just learned a new skill, maybe you 'got it', maybe you didn't. You're sent home to practice, maybe you have support and have a productive work environment established. Maybe you are asked to learn in chaos. You do the assignment, turn it in, get it back and you receive a poor grade. What did you learn and what are you going to remember?

My Verdict: I think grading homework is destructive to student motivation and its negative impact hurts students who need the most encouragement the most. "Score the game, not the practice" -Tom Schimmer

Successful Homework
A significant of amount of research has shown that homework can improve student achievement. The issue for me, as an elementary classroom teacher is, can I consistently provide the conditions needed for homework to be meaningful? Some of those elements I can control, or have a direct influence on, but many of the things required for homework success are beyond my control.
  1. There has to be a classroom culture where assignments are valued by both the teacher and students. If the teacher does not view assignments as valuable learning exercises, by not assessing, commenting, or returning promptly, the exercises quickly become more about compliance than learning.
  2. Value alignment of parents, teacher, and students towards homework contribute to positive student efforts, emotion, and learning. When all of the partners agree on the value of the assignment and its completion, students learning and achievement increase, but when everyone is not on the same page, success is diminished. Parental alignment is especially difficult to achieve.
  3. The type, quality, variety, and difficulty of homework assignments have to strike a 'sweet spot' with the students. If assignments are too easy/difficult, are of one type (drill and practice for example), or are of low quality (mindless worksheets), student effort, motivation, and emotion plummet. Regardless of  whether these conditions are met, homework issued later in the year receive progressively less effort from most students.
  4. Most of the reasons (70%) for issuing homework is adult centered. For homework to be meaningful and effective, it should be focused on how the exercise can enhance student learning.
  5. Homework assignments should be  address the different learning needs of the students. Rarely will every student need to practice the same skill in the same way at the same time.  
  6. Students should receive prompt feedback on their homework assignments in order to effectively contribute to student learning. Assignments that are assessed & handed back beyond a two day window from the assignment's completion is fairly close to useless.
  7. The student should have a designated, clutter and distraction free homework area, that allows the student to become as self-regulating as possible. However, younger students are not developmentally ready to ignore distractions for extended periods of time and even with an ideal environment, cannot successfully focus on a singular task.
Even with all of these elements in place, student learning gains are modest, especially in elementary aged children. The amount of elements required for homework that contributes to student learning are significant. Also, homework is largely a solitary effort and is in contrast with almost everything we do collaboratively in our classroom. Most of my students don't have the technology or financial resources to even attempt collaborative efforts or constructing quality projects away from school.

My Verdict for homework practices: I think my time would be better spent on planning and executing engaging lesson plans that take advantage of the classroom setting where a number of the above elements are naturally in place. I'd like to assign work that is collaborative, meaningful, valuable, while allowing students to choose how they can demonstrate what they have learned. There are simply too many things required for homework to be successful and I cannot ensure that all of those things can be in place for every child. I don't think that homework can consistently meet the learning goals I have for my kids. I'm not a fan of saying never, but I hope that my students will never say "Homework Stinks".

Thanks for reading. Probably the last thing I have to say about homework, unless you would like to keep the conversation going by leaving a thoughtful comment. I'd actually love it.

Feel free to visit my Delicious bookmarks on homework. The collection is not comprehensive, but the articles/blogs I've collected here supported and challenged my thinking. You might find something that does the same for you.

I've updated my Homework Stinks reference page on this this blog. There has been a LOT of recent research on the issue. I encourage you to visit the ERIC database and explore what researchers are finding. Use their hard work to do what is best for 'YourKids'.

Here are some additional resources. 

  Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher


  1. Eric,
    I know this series was a lot of work and I so appreciate you having it all in one place. I have favorited it to keep for reference. One problem I hear about not giving lots of homework is that we are not preparing them for the next year. But if I'm preparing them for the next year, then who is working on the current year? Plus why should I be structuring my learning environment on other teacher's viewpoint if it does not fit my own? I do want my children to be successful in the next grade but I do not think homework does this. It's what I do in the hours I have them. What do you say about this argument?

  2. Thanks so very much for sticking with it. I think this series violated a lot of blogging don'ts (posts too long,too much time in between, etc), but it is an important topic and I'm glad you liked it.

    I hear those same criticisms from next year's teachers and I understand that they might have very different expectations for their students. I think we should ask them if their homework assignments meet all of the elements required for successful student learning. If I'm being criticized for not readying them for worksheets, then I'll take that bullet. "Who is working on the current year?" is a terrific question. My learning environment changes each year, depending on the makeup of the class, I would ask next year's teacher's if they are as flexible.

    I teach 6th grade skills not 7th, 8th, or High School. I feel that high quality assignments, that require my kids to think deeper or demonstrate their learning in a way they choose, is actually the best preparation for their coming years.

  3. I agree. Where will that type of thinking stop when they graduate college with their diploma? I think if we do a really outstanding job with the curriculum in our own grade level and engage students in their own learning, the "preparedness" will take care of itself.

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