By 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.