the homework question

“I think people confuse homework with rigor,” said Donna Taylor, the Brooklyn School’s principal, who views homework for children under 11 as primarily benefiting parents by helping them feel connected to the classroom.

In Homework Revolt, More Schools Districts Cutting Back –

As a teacher, it’s hard to know how much homework is enough homework. The wheels in my head started turning with this article because it’s something that is a new question with every new class I teach. Every year, every class section gets a different amount of homework. And even within classes sometimes individual students get a different amount of homework.

The simplest explanation for even giving homework is that it is practice.

In a perfect world, that’s a great way to ensure that students do exactly what you showed them to do over and over again until they memorize whatever the given concept is and are able to do it on their own.

In reality, there are very few students who grasp a concept on the first introduction to it. And there are even fewer students who can replicate that concept (whether it is solving a math problem or writing a sentence) on their own. And repeatedly.

My theory on homework?

It’s deeply rooted in the construction of the curricula. It has to do with the day’s lesson plan, with the longer unit plan and with the course goals as a whole. That’s a lot to take in at one given moment. And it took me a couple of years of practice to be able to do it without hours of thought beforehand.

The two most basic purposes of formal education are to teach and assess. The teaching part, mainly the construction of the lesson, is mostly the responsibility of the teacher. Yes, it does help to have willing students. And it does help to have students a grade level. But both of those things can be overcome with appropriately constructed lessons.

The part where I think educators don’t always agree is in the assessment. Yes, the students have to perform in some manner: on a test, in a written essay, in a presentation. But the assessment has to be crafted carefully. It has to be presented in a way that students don’t even know they’re being assessed so that the moment that assessment is much more formalized, it’s second nature. It would seem that this type of teaching could take way longer than teachers are willing to invest in for a single lesson, but it really doesn’t.

That’s where the homework question is easily answered. Homework should be assigned and created as both a product of informal assessment and as a means of additional assessment. That is to say if the class (or a student, for that matter) has mastered something in class and has proven her mastery, all is needed is a simple review. In that case, homework can be as easy as “remember this topic so well that you can write it down when you walk in tomorrow.” The student doesn’t need to take pen to paper for hours. Simply remember. And they do. They’ll think about it over dinner at volleyball practice or as they drift off to sleep. And when they walk in the next day, most will be able to tell you what you taught the day before.  In the instances where a topic is too much for the students to master in one setting, homework should be a gentle scaffold. Ten to fifteen minutes of review of the day’s work and left off in a place that the lesson can be easily continued.

In both scenarios, the quick review of the homework the next day is an additional assessment and shapes the lesson for the day–along with the homework for the next night.

The problem is not the homework itself. The problem lies in what the homework is used for. If it serves any purpose other than continual assessment, then I have to agree it is just a waste of time. It serves no one–teacher or student–to give homework assignments that are simply collected and thrown on a desk or in a basket for later grading.

So, yes homework is necessary. But it doesn’t need to be hours. It needs to be a well-crafted tool that is used by both teacher and student equally to complete the educational experience.