"Homework." Just saying the word, brings about lots of feelings, experiences, and opinions. For me, well...I have to admit I actually liked doing homework when I was young and a beginning student. It made me feel important when I started getting some homework. I felt successful when I completed it and knew what to do. Then there were the times when I was older and hated homework, because I had to stay up too late after I got home from games or practices or there were the times that I hated it because I had no idea what the teacher wanted me to do because the directions were unclear. Other times I was frustrated because I didn't know how to do some of the problems and had to get lots of extra help to complete it.
Then when I became a teacher, I felt homework was really important. There was so much content for the students to learn, homework became an important extension of our classroom learning. In retrospect, I buried my students with homework some weeks, especially the AP students. I believed, how else would we dive deep into all of world history in one year? We also weighted it heavily at 20% of the overall grade, so yes....you could do terribly on the tests, but pass the course by doing homework and the opposite was true where you could pass the tests, but possibly fail if you didn't do homework. I shudder right now to think of how wrong our thinking was on homework at the beginning of my teaching. Fortunately, with time and experience in education these views shifted.
Then I became a high school building administrator and our school committee at the time wanted us to review our district homework policies about time on homework and the purpose of homework. In our school councils with representatives from all stakeholder groups, we held onto our personal beliefs about homework and tried to come to consensus on what would work best at each of the schools. Much of the conversation drifted to the grading practices associated with homework, how students get bombarded with tests/projects all at once, as well as the amount of hours spent on weekends and breaks. We made some improvements in our homework practices through collaboration.
Then I became a parent. At first, I liked the homework that was sent home. It mostly focused on literacy and numeracy and my boys liked doing it. Much of the practicing was with web-based programs and they found those really fun and engaging. Time spent on homework was minimal, but they developed good habits, practiced their skills, and it allowed me time to interact with them at home on their learning. It provided me with confidence in the schools when I can see visible ways they are instructing our children and I'm able to interact with that learning with my boys.
Then they got older and the homework has started to look different. For example, now my son in 6th grade is getting graded on his homework by some of his teachers. One of his first assignments that came back he lost -3 points for every period he didn't put at the end of the sentence, although he got all of the content correct. He also has homework over the weekends for the first time. The shift in grading and increased amount over weekends has been a tough adjustment, often leading to tears and frustration. Although his favorite homework assignment was writing an opinion piece on something he was passionate about. He wrote an essay on why we should get rid of homework. :) ( I seriously don't make this up.)
My other son who is in 4th grade has spelling where it has the appearance of choice activities to practice his spelling, but in fact he has to do all of the activities at least once. One of the activities took him forever as he had to create a secret code of numbers or symbols to then write out all of his spelling words in the code. He did complete it, but with his head down and a perplexed question to me... "How is this supposed to help me with my spelling?" Yet, he likes doing other homework like choice reading about football, practicing fluency, or doing math problems.
According to John Hattie in excerpts from an interview, he gives some good advice about how to take a look at homework and see if it is making a difference or doing what we want it to do:
“Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. In high school it’s larger. (…) Which is why we need to get it right. Not why we need to get rid of it. It’s one of those lower hanging fruit that we should be looking in our primary schools to say, “Is it really making a difference?” If you try and get rid of homework in primary schools many parents judge the quality of the school by the presence of homework. So, don’t get rid of it. Treat the zero as saying, “It’s probably not making much of a difference but let’s improve it”. Certainly I think we get over obsessed with homework. Five to ten minutes has the same effect of one hour to two hours. The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects. The best thing you can do is to reinforce something you’ve already learnt.”
In summary...homework is complicated and it is viewed differently from what role you fill and the time and place you are in your life. For many it is viewed at the extremes of banning homework all together or not touching anything. For me....I really like Hattie's advice of how can we improve our current homework situation.
So where do we go from here?
Challenge and Questions
Reflect on your homework practices for the next week. Think about what you value about homework and does that match with what we value for learning for our students.
Think about the following questions:
1. Is the homework meaningful?
2. How long did it take my students to complete it? Going on what Hattie proposes....could homework time be reduced while still getting the same practice or outcome you intended?
3. Do my students have real choice in their homework?
4. Do you know if students have people at home who are able to help them?
5. Do you ever collaborate with other teachers on timing of big projects or tests so they do not all happen at the same time?
6. Do you grade homework or use it as formative feedback instead?
7. Is the homework clearly communicated to parents?
8. Put the parent hat on, would you want your son or daughter to come home with this homework?
9. How often do you ask students about their homework experience? What if they helped to identify what works and what doesn't?
10. Is our homework aligned to what we value in 21st century learning practices?
Here is a recent article that provides some strategies for improving homework.