The Homework War: What Is It Good For?

The Homework War:  What Is It Good For?
With the start of the new school year just a few days away, I anticipate that many progressive, cutting-edge schools will show parents and students clips from the film “Race to Nowhere”.  For those of you unfamiliar with the content (check out RacetoNowhere.com) , it’s a documentary that laments the incredible pressure kids today face, which then often leads to classroom cheating, apathy in learning, or self-destruction.   Ironically, almost every school that I know showed the movie last year had kids at that very moment who were stressing out over loads of homework, ambiguous assignments, and seemingly endless projects.
Which leads me to my acronym of NIMS, “Not in My School”?  No school ever thinks it gives their students too much homework, frivolous homework, or homework that isn’t “higher order thinking” material.

Sure, whatever.
So let’s talk about homework.
According to the research presented by Race to Nowhere, here are some trends:

1.  Reading for fun declines significantly after age eight.  Why?  Too much homework.

2.  Homework doesn’t seem to increase academic achievement.   In fact, students in countries that had the least amount of homework generally scored HIGHER than students in countries that had large amounts of homework.

3.  The amount of homework assigned to kids from 6 to 9 almost tripled between 1981 and 1997. Assigned homework increased from about 44 minutes a week to more than 2 hours a week. Homework for kids aged 9 to 11 increased from about 2 hours and 50 minutes to more than 3 and a-half hours per week.  This seems low, based on what I see with the families I coach.  The typical high schooler I know is doing 4-5 hours of homework, 7 days per week.  Ridiculous.

4.  Most teachers receive zero/nada/absolutely no training in research about homework.   So whatever the teacher believes about homework is the student’s responsibility, even if the assignment is bogus.  How many teachers know their stuff is bogus, and if they did, would admit it???  NIMS.

5.  When homework impacts a student’s grade dramatically, it is easier for the student to fall behind and fail.

Okay, so most homework is pretty useless, but I recognize that most teachers will still give homework to their students.

For those of you teachers who “like” or are required to give homework (as I was), here are some points to ponder:

1.  Do not take a late assignment without penalties.  This is the worst “accommodation” I have ever seen implemented in the schools.  Yes, emergencies come up and situations arise that sometimes necessitate accepting work the date, but it should NEVER be the NORM.  What kind of false expectation are you setting that kid up for in real life?  No job is going to continuously allow an employee to turn proposals, analyses, and reports in after the “drop” date.  It would be MUCH better to help the student set and keep target dates and anticipating and knocking through glitches.  And any late work should have at least a nominal penalty, even if it’s just one point.

2.  Homework should be graded based on completion, NOT accuracy.  If the student completes the assignment in full, or shows an attempt to answer the assignments, that kid gets full credit.  PERIOD.  You should review the homework during the next day’s lesson in class.  DO NOT COLLECT and grade.  Your students need to learn error-analysis and make corrections so that they can build upon the lesson.  If you don’t need to review the assignment during the next class, it was really just busy work, and you should have never given the assignment in the first place.

When I taught modern languages, kids and sometimes parents occasionally said they “didn’t understand the assignment”.  Once I explained to them that the student could simply write “I do not understand” in every blank, the excuses faded.  And guess what, those very kids, when compelled to write something in the blank, actually answered the questions.  I was stressing work ethic, not necessarily content mastery.  I expected kids to make mistakes and form questions to bring with them to class.

3.  Have kids write the homework questions.  It’s much more difficult and active learning when you have to create a question, rather than passively answer the teacher’s questions.  I frequently had kids write 2 math problems and provide the solutions.  Sometimes I would use this in the next day’s lesson; other times I would use their questions as the test questions.  The students loved this because psychologically, it was an “easy” homework (it wasn’t, LOL) AND they had buy in from each other in the class.

Okay, I’m jumping off my soapbox.  I challenge you all—teachers, researchers, parents, administrators, and students—to monitor the value of your child’s homework situation and take action!

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