We Have Some Work To Do On Homework…

Mathematics homework
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is my fourth post on subject of homework. The original post was prompted by reading some conversations on the topic that were taking place online and also some growing frustration with some of the homework I witnessed being assigned to my own kids.  In addition, John Spencer had written a few thought-provoking posts on the topic and followed up with the creation of an open Facebook called Teachers and Parents Against Homework.

Since my initial post went up on this blog a week ago, there have been a number of comments written.  I have also received feedback from a number of people both in person and via e-mail on their interest in pursuing this topic further.  One parent’s comment (see below) sums things up well.
I am happy to bring forward this matter to the School Committee and formulate a plan so that we can discuss our homework practices in Burlington and see if there is a need to set focused guidelines on the assigning of homework.  While I know that this work will be difficult due to the fact that so many people have strong opinions on the matter, I feel the task will be mad easier if we utilize the resources that are available from others who have had these discussions before us. 
As a perfect lead in to a discussion of this in our school community, I want to share a great post on the topic that was written by Chris Wejr, a Principal in Agassiz, British Columbia.  The post titled Homework Why’s and Homework-Wise provides a summary of the discussion that took place at his school in October 2010 as well as links to a number of great resources on the topic of homework. Thanks to Chris for allowing me to share the post below in its entirety.
“…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 Alfie 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:
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
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Healthy Homework Guidelines (Video)

The video above starts with Alfie Kohn stating, “Homework may be the greatest single extinguisher of children’s curiosity that we have yet invented.

Whether you agree or not with this powerful statement, the video above from Reel Link Films, the producers of Race To Nowhere, is worth checking out in reference to the discussion on the assigning of homework.  The video discusses the Healthy Homework Guidelines that have been developed.  Check them out below.

1. HOMEWORK SHOULD ADVANCE A SPIRIT OF LEARNING 

Educators at all grade levels should assign homework only when:  

  • Such assignments demonstrably advance a spirit of learning, curiosity and inquiry among students. 
  • Such assignments demonstrably provide a unique learning opportunity or experience that cannot be had within the confines of the school setting or school day.  
  • Such assignments are not intended to enhance rote skill rehearsal or mastery. Rehearsal and repetition assignments should be completed within the confines of the school day, if they are required at all. 
  • Such assignments are not intended as a disciplinary or punitive measure, nor as a means of fostering competition among or assessment of students.

2. HOMEWORK SHOULD BE STUDENT-DIRECTED 

Educators at all grade levels, but particularly in elementary and middle grades, should limit take-home assignments to:  

  • At-home reading chosen by the student. 
  • Project-based work chosen by the student. 
  • Experiential learning that integrates the student’s existing interests and family commitments.  
  • Work that can be completed without the assistance of a sibling, caregiver or parent.

3. HOMEWORK SHOULD PROMOTE A BALANCED SCHEDULE 

Educators at all grade levels should avoid assigning or requiring homework:  

  • On non-school nights, including weekends, school holidays, or winter or summer breaks. 
  • On the nights of major or all-school events, concerts, or sports activities. 
  • When a child is sick or absent from school.
  • When it conflicts with a child’s parental, family, religious or community obligations. 
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How Necessary Is Homework? Join the Conversation

Photo via http://survivorpediatrics.wordpress.com/

John Spencer has started a conversation around homework on his blog Education Rethink.  He has written a post titled A Week Without Homework Challenge  where he is asking educators and parents to rethink the assigning of homework for one week.  He has also started an open Facebook Page where parents and teachers can have a running dialogue on this topic.

Here’s an excerpt from his post:

I’ve written before about my belief that homework is far more destructive than constructive. I don’t think it increases learning, adds to motivation or develops a strong work ethic. For a long time, I assigned homework out of a sense that I was “supposed to.” I never questioned it as a practice. After getting rid of it, I remained quiet on the topic. After watching my sons lose necessary playtime and learning time to do extra-duty schoolwork (mostly packets), I grew more vocal.

I have to say after watching my own kids do homework during the first few weeks of school I share John’s sentiments. As I watched my 7th grade daughter try over and over to get all of the countries in Europe plugged into the right spots on an interactive map and a achieve a success rate of 85-percent, my frustration continued to grow.  It was past her bedtime as she tried to achieve the success rate her teacher had required for the sixth or seventh time.

As I sat watching her grow more frustrated with her assignment, I was sure that I would be equally unsuccessful had I been asked to complete the same task. Despite my success as a student at the high school and college level and the attainment of an advanced degree, I feel like my inability to recall the exact location of each of the countries in Europe has not had a negative impact on me.  Therefore, I am left to wonder what my daughter could have been doing with this timeframe of more than an hour that would have been a more meaningful learning experience.  The possibilities are certainly endless…

We have had very limited conversations about this topic in Burlington since the showing of Race to Nowhere last year.  In fact the Race to Nowhere team has written a letter for the National PTA asking the group to challenge schools to rethink the assigning of homework.  I know this is an issue that needs to be discussed more in the district where my children go to school and I think it would be beneficial to have a similar discussion here.

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