34

Homework Why’s and Homework-Wise

stressed student

“…the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling”

Alfie Kohn


I remember my days  in school when the bell would ring and the teacher would blurt out the homework for the next day.  This work did very little to increase my learning and it often left me arguing with my mother, who happened to be a teacher, at the kitchen table about how to do the work correctly.

Lately I have seen a few blogs, newspaper articles, and journal articles (see below for links) questioning the purpose and practice of homework: Why do some teachers give homework and others do not? Why is homework given as a blanket assignment in which each child is given the same homework? What is effective homework? How much homework?

These questions, along with many others, led our staff (K-6) to discuss this topic at our last staff meeting.  Here is a summary of our dialogue on the issue of homework:

  1. The teaching and learning of the specific outcomes should happen at school – with students, teachers, and staff to support. According to the research by Kohn, “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”  Students should not be sent home with homework that relies on parents, family members or tutors to provide instruction.  If the student is not learning this at school, who do we expect to teach it? We also need to keep in mind that not all students have someone that can help them at home – how does homework benefit these students?
  2. Homework should be meaningful, relevant, and engaging.  Students need to feel like they will benefit from the learning and feel they have ownership of the assignment.  Student input about assignments can lead to a view that this is their learning, rather than the teacher’s assigned work to be done. Provide CHOICE; there are many ways that students can practice and/or demonstrate learning.
  3. Homework should be differentiated. We all agreed that the time per day rules/policies (ie. 20 minutes/day for grade 2, 30 min/day for grade 3, etc) do very little to support the individual students.  A learning activity that takes one student 10 minutes may take another student 30 minutes.  Each student requires learning that is catered to their needs – homework should be differentiated just as it is done during school.
  4. Homework should be flexible. Family time and play time are so important for students at any age!  If a child is involved in activities on certain days and only has a small amount of time with the family that day, maybe homework can be given on a different day.  Again, the learning activities need to keep the individual student in mind and we must respect students’ time. Is homework even necessary that day/week?
  5. Homework should not be part of the grade. Although grades are a topic for another post, one of the worst things we can do to a students is grade them on their learning at home (or worse, give them zeros for not completing homework).  Reflect on how much parent involvement there is and how this impacts the homework and learning.  Is a student going home to an environment that supports homework or is the student leaving school to look after his/her younger siblings or go to a part-time job to help support their family?  Homework must be designed to support learning; the assessment OF learning needs to take place in class when the teacher is there to support.
  6. Reflect on the purpose of homework. If the students understands the learning outcomes, why do they need to spend more time on material they already understand; if the student does not understand the learning outcomes, how do we expect them to learn it at home?  Is the homework “busy work” (ie. worksheets with 40 math questions, argh!) or is it going to actually enhance their learning?  Is the particular assignment the BEST way to help the student learn? Is it necessary? Is this homework more important than being active and spending time with the family?

In addition, we often hear teachers and parents say that homework helps students to understand that in order to get ahead in the “real world”, you must do more and take responsibility for more.  If we are relying on homework as the main way to teach responsibility, we are in trouble.  Again, if a student goes home and has a parent that ensures their homework gets done, is the homework teaching them responsibility? What about the responsibility to spend time with and help friends and family or serve a purpose in the community? I agree that students should be responsible for their learning but in order to do this, we have to give them responsibility through voice and ownership; this can happen throughout the day and not just with homework.

So what can we, as parents and educators, do about the idea of homework? I think Kohn sums it up nicely,

It strikes me as curious on the face of it that children are given additional assignments to be completed at home after they’ve spent most of the day in school – and even more curious that almost everyone takes this fact for granted.  Even those who witness the unpleasant effects of homework on children and families rarely question it.

I believe it is time that we all begin to question it.

Research/Links:

Homework Lady C. Vatterott
Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples A. Kohn
The Truth About Homework A. Kohn
Rethinking Homework A. Kohn
Homework is killing our kids’ joy in education J. Ferry
More Teachers Flexing Around Homework E. Anderssen

Rethinking Homework J. Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? R. Collins
What Homework Should Be B. Kuhn
The Destructive Forces of Homework J. Bower
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework C. Vatterott
Show Us What Homework’s For K. Cushman
Homework Done Right J. Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework S. Bennett/N. Kalish

Homework Lady –  by Cathy Vatterott
Homework is killing our kids’ joy in education – by John Ferry (Vancouver Province Newspaper)
More Teachers Flexing Around Homework – by Erin Anderssen (Globe and Mail)
Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples – by Alfie Kohn
The Truth About Homework – by Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Homework – by Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Homework – by John Spencer
The Great Homework Debate: Does It Ever End? – by Remi Collins
What Homework Should Be – by Brian Kuhn
The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework – by Cathy Vatterott (Educational Leadership Journal)
Show Us What Homework’s For – by Kathleen Cushman (Educational Leadership Journal)
Homework Done Right – by Janet Alleman, et al.
The Case Against Homework – by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish

11

10 Skills for “Doing” School

I think it was Mark Twain who wrote, “I never let schooling get in the way of my education”.  Unfortunately, Twain had a point; there are skills that you need to do well in order to “do” school well in the current system of education.  If a student is unable to polish up on these skills it becomes difficult to achieve success in today’s schools.

Here is my list of the 10 skills (in no particular order) that students need to work on in order to become good at “schooling”.

  1. Stay in your desk – do not get up to talk to anyone, go to the bathroom, or get a drink unless you ask.
  2. Put your hand up to speak – do not call out.
  3. Do what you are told; comply – do not question what is said or how things are done; do not be different.
  4. Do your own work – do not collaborate as we need to know what you know not what your partner knows.
  5. Memorize – do not apply learned knowledge beyond what is needed for the test.
  6. Do your homework – and do all of it, even if you understand it – or worse, you do not understand it.
  7. Line up and walk down the halls quietly – order is important, other people are watching how you act.
  8. Stay on task – do not focus on thoughts other than what is being taught, or until the bell rings.
  9. Excel at numeracy and literacy – do not worry about the arts, PE, or the trades as they are not important.
  10. Strive for rewards – stickers, percentages, letter grades, awards are all important.

Alright, so you can hopefully read the sarcasm in the above list.  I have to admit that as a teacher, I have unfortunately overemphasized these skills many times throughout my career (and still catch myself doing so).  The aforementioned skills will help students to do well in school; if they hone all of these skills, they most likely will get good grades and make their teachers and parents happy.  What being successful at these school skills will not ensure is that the student is educated and will prosper beyond formal schooling; in life outside of formal schooling, there are more important, deeper learning qualities such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving as well as character skills such as love, care, compassion, and empathy that will help students to truly flourish in life.

Unfortunately, we have all been raised in a system that places emphasis on these skills so we all think this is the norm.  We are also in a system that has high class sizes, low teacher support, and a broad and demanding curricula that forces many teachers to have to maintain control and order of their classes just to survive the day.  There are, however,  teachers and educators that are trying to change the system; they are trying to create a system that places more emphasis on student learning and education and less emphasis on schooling.  It is important that we start hearing the success stories of these educators – teachers that are spending less time on rewards, grades, memorization, tests, and control and more time on student engagement and learning.

What it comes down to is determining how we define the purpose of school. David Coulter, at the University of British Columbia, speaks of how schools should be there to help students create their path to lead a good and worthwhile life; how the “good and worthwhile life” is defined is up to each individual.  If we define education this way, we need to question if the skills that are emphasized in the current system encourages students to develop their own path toward a worthwhile life.

The biggest frustration for me is that schooling and learning are not the same things – a student who struggles with the skills needed for school often begins to believe that they are unsuccessful learners.  We need to start focusing on the individual strengths and interests of our students and start putting learning, rather than schooling, at the centre.  By doing this we will hopefully move toward an education system in which schooling, learning, and educating are all synonyms – a system where “doing” school has a much deeper meaning for our students.

For some quality work on this topic, please read the writings of educators/authors David Coulter, Guy Claxton, Sir Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower.