The Homework Debate. Again.

Homework-1By Tom White

It seems like every few years we go through this. Parents and teachers who hate homework tell us how bad it is. And teachers that don’t hate it keep assigning it. Students, of course, mostly don’t like it and mostly do it anyway. Mostly.

So which is it? A waste of time that keeps kids from enjoying their childhood and keeps families from doing Fun Activities together? Or an essential extension of the school day, providing practice and reinforcement of the skills and knowledge students learned during their time at school.

It’s probably both. Or either, depending on what the homework actually consists of.

First of all, let’s look at some research. Or better yet, let’s let Mr. Education Himself, Robert Marzano look at some research and tell us what it says. Fortunately, he and Debra Pickering came out with an article published by ASCD in which they do just that. The bottom line, the money quote, if you will is this:

“Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead they should improve its instructional quality.”

That stands to reason. In fact, you could probably replace “homework” in that quote with anything we do at school and it would make just as much sense.

So how does a teacher go about “improving the instructional quality” of homework? I can only answer that by telling what I do.

My homework consists of a single sheet of paper. On the front, at the top, I have a list of announcements, upcoming events and such, so that parents know what ‘s coming. Then I have three questions, one from each major lesson that day. The question starts with a declarative sentence, summarizing the content; then there’s a question that they should be able to answer, based on the content of the lesson. For example: “Today learned how to classify triangles based on their angles. Explain the difference between an acute triangle and an obtuse triangle. Use a diagram if you’d like.”

Below these three questions is a simple reading log, as well as a list of spelling words that they have to copy onto the back side of the paper, which also has sixteen basic math problems. Altogether, this homework paper takes my fourth graders about 20 minutes, plus 20 minutes of reading time, leaving plenty of time for that hypothetical family game of Parcheesi.

Parents overwhelmingly love this. They know what was taught at school and they know how well their child learned it. They also have three concrete activities they can do to support their child: make sure they read, practice their spelling words and check their basic math skills.

I love it, too. I pass it out in the morning as a way to introduce the day’s activities. The kids do it after school, as a way to review the day’s activities. And then we go over their completed paper the next morning as way to review yesterday’s learning and get ready for today’s. And it only takes about ten minutes of time to edit and revise one day’s homework paper to create the next. And as a bonus, I don’t feel the need to send home any weekly or monthly newsletters. The homework paper tells parents everything they need to know about what we’re doing at school.

I think this is what Marzano has in mind. I think it has “instructional quality.” I cringe when I see teachers assigning “homework packets” that are totally divorced from what their class is doing in school. I cringe because I’ve seen them come home to my own house, where it’s clear that it’s just homework for the sake of homework, without any higher purpose.

Homework or no homework?

Homework. But only if it’s relevant.

4 thoughts on “The Homework Debate. Again.

  1. Pingback: The Homework Debate. Again. #edchat #edreform Stor… | EducatorAl's Tweets

  2. Mark Gardner

    As a parent of three elementary school kids, I appreciate your homework strategy. I wish there were a gentle way I could recommend this to their future teachers! My younger two bring home leveled short reading we do together and sign off on the envelope–I’m good with that, and it reminds us to read together because even though I’d like to think we’d be doing that anyway, the homework is a good reminder. Besides that, the packets that come home… they’re not particularly connected to what is being taught in class (according to my kids, at least).

    As high school English teacher I have struggled with homework… and the place I’ve landed is similar to where you are: it has to matter and the kid has to believe it matters. I try to minimize how much homework I require, and I always tell my students that if it is important enough for me to ask them to put in extra time, it is important enough to me that I’ll end up putting in extra time (away from family) to read and respond to their work. That commitment has served me well and I don’t have to spend time chasing down homework. I do try to limit the homework to either production OR consumption, not both… either they are writing/creating something based on what we did/read in class OR they are reading/watching something to build up the day’s lesson and prepare for tomorrow’s. I try to avoid having them do both. (Seems to work.)

  3. Jan Kragen

    I’ve made a concerted effort over the years to cut back and back and back on homework, so I give more and more time in class to assignment completion. Now I see how big a difference there is between individual students and the amount of time they take to do the same work!

    For example, most of my students finish the math assignment at school every day. Some have math homework every day because they finish only half at school. They are in leveled math classes, so it’s not a question of ability to do the math. It’s a question of focus and the motivation to get done quickly and the deep desire not have homework. And maybe a little competition. (“I got done!”)

    Then I have activities for the students who are done early, generally still math. I try to make those additional activities highly motivating. Of course, that can distract the kids who are still finishing the day’s work, which makes them take longer.

  4. Jasmine Lawrence

    Dear Tom White,

    To Give Homework, or to not to Give Homework, that is the question.

    I like how your homework is simple and effective and I have to agree, it relates to what the students have done in class.

    As a Middle School Social Studies teacher, I struggle with the amount of homework to give. Should I give homework everyday or three times a week? Are projects included in homework? Over long breaks, such as spring break, should I give a packet?

    In the beginning of the school year, I did give homework, and as time went on, I would forget to collect homework, I would be too tired to grade it and students realized that I no longer put so much emphasis on homework. So for the next school year, I have to remember that homework has to be a relevant! Not just to give homework for homework’s sake!

    The main idea“Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead they should improve its instructional quality.”

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