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Homework: Responsibility or compliance?

hwfavicon Respected teacher John Spencer tweeted this today about homework:

What do you think? What’s the role of homework, and what is it teaching, if anything? favicon

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  1. Michele

    Optional learning? I like his idea in concept, but what about the many students who don’t have the skills to be self-directed and opt in to learning? What about them? Huh?

  2. Laura H

    I’m not giving them homework to teach them responsibility. I’m giving them homework to teach them math.

    I’ve played with grading systems that grade them on this, not penalizing them for “noncompliance” if they demonstrate that they have learned the math. But I still disagree with his premise.

  3. Vanessa

    I was super pro-homework coming into (this, my first year of) teaching, but I’m starting to rethink it.

    I don’t disagree with the idea of homework. As Laura H noted, students need practice that there isn’t always time for in class, and independent work–where you start to internalize what you are learning–is an important part of that learning.

    I am starting to realize, though, that, in English at least, there is less point to giving them work to take home that would be more effective if done in the classroom–either with peers or with me to help them when they need it.

    This realization has made me much more conscious of what I am sending home and why. And that consciousness has, in turn, resulted in a lot less homework. Most of what we are doing is just better done in class.

    If their reading skills were higher, more reading could be done at home. But right now, I give my students independent reading at their own level to do outside of class, and we do most of the rest of our reading in class, along with meaning-making.

    As far as grading, I’ve been working this year with a split of 25% for “work habits” (like timeliness and completeness of assignments) and 75% for mastery of certain predetermined targets, and I’m pretty happy so far with the results.

  4. Mark Isero (@iserotope)

    Thank you for the discussion. Michele, I agree with you that “optional learning” and homework don’t seem to match up. Maybe “choice” is a possibility. Laura, I have a similar view as you; homework is needed because additional learning time is needed. Vanessa, you seem to be promoting a flipped classroom approach, which is intriguing, particularly because we both teach English. Also, I’d love to know more about how you set up and develop independent reading for homework (one of my passions).

    I think the two most important questions we can ask our colleagues, in order to get to meaty and substantial conversations about philosophy and purpose, are: (1) What do you think about homework? (2) How do you grade, and why? I look forward to continuing this conversation.

  5. Meg Griswold

    I have been asking myself that same question lately. My school is starting to ask itself questions like this as part of a larger discussion on student balance. Interstingly, I heard this story recently that France is proposing a legal ban on homework for the sake of equality. The New Yorker discusses story on it is here: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2012/12/17/121217taco_talk_menand

    That article argues that it is about what “people want schools to do”, not whether homework works or it doesn’t. The comparison of Finland (no homework) to South Korea (insane amounts of homework) is interesting because they both rank high.

    I think that we have to question everything, most especially the things we consider sacrosanct. The research I have been hearing about homework is there is a point when it doesn’t help any more. I think the number for high school students is 2 hours. After that, it is just taking up time, but not contributing to “success”.

    I was in a school like Michelle, where if I assigned reading homework, only about 10% would do it, for a variety of reasons. Now I am in an independent school and all of my students are very capable, and so it the inclination is to pile on the homework because “they can.” But is that leading to more learning or more busy work?

    The problem with English, as has already been said, is that the expectation is that most of the reading happens at home so that class time can be spent in discussion and writing, etc. I used to also assign vocab, grammar for homework. This year I stopped assigning it for homework and I started doing it during class. My students do all the work I assign and are hesitant to protest, which I think just leads to assigning more if you aren’t careful.

    I have even rethought how I assign writing. I used to have them write a thesis in class and ask them to show up the next day with almost a full first draft. They were stressed and they needed more guidance along the way. So now I break it into smaller pieces and we work a lot in class. Homework is to finish or extend what we started. Perhaps that is better, but maybe it is just the same old stuff dressed up new.

    • Mark Isero

      Great thinking, Meg. I’ve been following the French case (oh, those French!), and it’s interesting that many rich people there don’t want homework, while many working class people do. I agree with you that we should question everything — what and why we’re teaching, for what purpose we assign (or don’t assign) homework, and how and why we grade the way we do.

      You also make a great point that some students will take on additional homework “if you’re aren’t careful.” Your current ideas for writing homework sound strong, particularly if students have access to a computer and/or the Internet. This year, I’ve seen too many teachers spending class time letting their students type (not draft) their essays. That kind of work is probably best left for home.

      Maybe we’re talking about how to flip an English classroom? Reading and writing in class and then typing and independent reading at home? Or something else?

  6. Tony

    Quick thoughts –
    I think HW is a good thing in the context of a larger project wherein students benefit from doing the easier bits at home and the tougher work in class with support.
    I also agree that some students are overwhelmed by a HW load that is partially the result of teachers trying to find space to teach what they love with stuff they are mandated to teach for testing purposes (guess which ends up as HW?)
    My son is in 4th grade and gets, for his age, I think a lot of HW. Plus, it is always boring worksheets and is strictly test prep.
    Finally, I disagree with the John Spencer tweet about HW not teaching responsibility. Students who do their HW regularly develop good work habits, develop perseverance with stuff that is boring, and tend to see themselves as academically capable. Given how little young people have to be patient or self guided for much of anything what with the technology they enjoy – its probably good to have something to slog through.

  7. Vanessa

    I just found Carol Jago’s two cents on this:

    “I know what you are thinking. How will it ever be possible to have students read more [] when they won’t do homework? You have identified an issue we need as a society to address. I’m not talking here about busywork homework or fill-in-the-blanks or create a diorama projects. I’m talking about reading books. Common Core reading standard 10 calls for students to “read and comprehend literature … independently and proficiently.” If students are not reading independently, i.e. at home, on their own, turning pages or flipping screens, they will never read proficiently.
    . . .
    To reverse this trend we need to make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day. They need to be spaces where anyone who didn’t do the homework reading feels left out. ”

    From here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/10/what-english-classes-should-look-like-in-common-core-era/

    And so it makes me wonder if saying my students aren’t skilled enough to read at home alone is giving up too easily. What could I do to make reading at home more accessible, so that they are less likely to give up, so that a culture of homework and reading is fostered?

    I’ve been trying to use the ideas in What Readers Really Do (Barnhouse and Vinton, 2012) with my students, with a focus on monitoring comprehension (what do I know? what do I wonder?), sitting with uncertainty, and being aware of changing understanding as they read. I have a gut feeling that this could be harnessed to help them make it through more difficult texts on their own, but I’m certainly not there yet.

    I also feel like fostering that kind of mindset (pushing through the discomfort of being unsure) is more widely applicable (beyond English class) and could help foster the kind of culture that Jago is talking about. Maybe?

    One idea:

    Before a pre-assessment the other day, my students and I talked about this quote from Wendall Berry (which might be a poem misquoted I now realize):

    “When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”

    Which was really hard for them to understand, but we got at the idea through discussion, and then I kept referring back to it as they were testing (and complaining). What effect it had, I’m not sure, but, again… maybe?

    • Mark Isero

      Vanessa, thank you for the Carol Jago article. I’ve added it to Iserotope Extras!

      You’re right: Many teachers have given up on homework, and many teachers have given up on reading. What you’re doing this year — promoting independent reading for homework — sounds like a great way to build reading and homework completion simultaneously.

      In my mind, the problem is, as Tony notes, students do most homework when it’s part of a project. When I’ve focused on independent reading for homework, my students have deemed it optional because there wasn’t an “it” to do. On the other hand, when I’ve assigned something and had it due the same night (and then checked via text), the turn-in rate has gone up.

      Perhaps the real answer — and this is what Ms. Jago is saying, I think — is that teachers shouldn’t be and canot be afraid of reading. When you’re an art teacher and you assign a reading and your students ask, “Reading in art class?” the answer needs to be, “Of course.”

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and I’d love to hear more.

Please share your brilliant insights!