The homework controversy: can it be resolved?

Tired boy has drained his brain.

The recent issue of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s, Ed., ran an article written by Lory Hough entitled, Are You Down With or Done With Homework?  Her article continues the conversation that has been going on for many years about the value of students doing hours of homework after spending 6-7 hours in school.  She writes a very comprehensive piece that pulls together the different arguments, illustrating the pros and cons of each side.  There is one quote she shares from Howard Gardner that sums up much of what we (educators) need to pay attention to when we reflect on the homework load we give students.

America and Americans lurch between too little homework in many of our schools to an excess of homework in our most competitive environments — Li’l Abner vs. Tiger Mother,” he says. “Neither approach makes sense. Homework should build on what happens in class, consolidating skills and helping students to answer new questions.

Towards the end of her article she shares some solutions from different schools.  What strikes me when I read these solutions is that we (educators) are looking for easy answers to this “not so difficult question.”  If not easy answers, then we are looking for different arguments to hide behind.  The truth be told, we did hours of homework when we went to school so why not give our students hours of homework now.  We did plenty of worksheets and problem sets when we were students, so why not give our students the same.  “If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for them.”  Isn’t that really the truth for why this conversation never ends.  All of the solutions Ms. Hough shares towards the end of her article represents schools that are trying to have it both ways.

looking for a way that allows teachers to cover everything they need while not overwhelming students.

One teacher gives online math assignments that act as labs and students have two or three days to complete them, including some in-class time.

At another school students have a 50-minute silent period during regular school hours where homework can be started, and where teachers pull individual or small groups of students aside for tutoring, often on that night’s homework.

After school homework clubs can help.

Some schools and districts have adapted time limits rather than nix homework completely, with the 10-minute per grade rule being the standard — 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 30 minutes for third-graders, and so on.

Other schools offer an extended day that allows teachers to cover more material in school, in turn requiring fewer take-home assignments. And for others, like Stephanie Brant’s elementary school in Maryland, more reading with a few targeted project assignments has been the answer.

Do these sound familiar?  I bet your school uses one of these techniques or has come up with one of its own.  My question is: “how do any of these solutions address the question of whether the homework we give students actually helps them deepen their understanding of the material we want them to learn?”  Do we actually know and care whether our homework accomplishes that goal?  My feeling is generally we don’t know or we might not really care.

In the September 2010 | Volume 681 Number 1 | edition of Educational Leadership, the whole journal was devoted to “meaningful work.”   Check out this article by Cathy Vatterott, Five Hallmarks of Good Homework, Pages 10-15.  She writes, “Homework shouldn’t be about rote learning. The best kind deepens student understanding and builds essential skills.”  So that should be the lens we use when thinking about the homework we assign students.  Does it deepen their understanding of what we want them to learn?  Does it take them to a new level of understanding?  Does it solidify their understanding by having them apply the concepts we teach in “meaningful” ways?

In the New York Times, October 23, 2011 edition there was an article about how private schools in New York were easing up on the homework load of their students.  “Less is More.”  If we don’t pile the homework on, students might have more time to reflect on what they are learning.  What if the homework we gave them actually was designed to have them reflect on the day, not just do more of the same?

Then Cathy Vatterott also wrote another nice piece in Educational Leadership that had a very useable flow chart (homework decision tree, see below) for how to determine whether to grade homework.  [Source: Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Saratoga Springs, New York. Used with permission as an online accompaniment to Vatterott, C. (2011). Making homework central to learning. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 60–64.]

In my 33 years of being an educator, I have always felt that homework must be a valuable exercise for students.  Homework should be meaningful work for it to be a valuable exercise.  As an extension of school, it should be work that students are interested in doing not just more of the same work they were doing in school.  What is the litmus test for good, high-quality homework?  For me, the following set of criteria (questions) should be met or addressed.

  1. does the work we assign students have meaning?
  2. does the work we assign students ask them to apply what they have learned, not just practice what they have learned?
  3. can the student complete the work in a reasonable amount of time given all the other responsibilities he or she may have?  We should seriously consider  that “less is more” helps the student prepare him or herself for tomorrow’s class.
  4. does the homework expect the student to reflect on what has been learned, not merely follow orders or directions?  Is there deeper understanding happening as a result of doing homework?

Students need time to relax, unwind, and attend to other interests.  Homework should not consume their life.  We should strive for a balance between time to learn and time to reflect on the learning.

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