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Is it time to ditch homework for good?


Our columnist grapples with the pros & cons of assigning homework

Homework is one of those topics that consistently baffles teachers. Every few years, new research comes out arguing the merits or pitfalls of assigning homework. Generally, I think that any teacher could make the case for or against assigning homework, depending on the circumstance.

I assign homework every night in my class, except for the weekends; that time is for family. I don’t assign much. I usually tell kids and parents that if you’re taking over 30 minutes to finish the assignment, pack it up and ask me for help the next day. But I am thinking of ditching homework altogether. Jo Boaler and other teachers have convinced me that homework can do more damage than good.

But what’s so bad about homework? I did lots of homework growing up. I’d like to think that there is a connection between hard work and results. The homework I completed in my youth probably has something to do with me being a hard worker. Besides, high school and college classes give lots of homework. If I don’t give my students homework in 7th grade, am I setting them up for failure in their future advanced courses?

My homework past
At the beginning of my career in Chicago, I taught 7th- and 8th-grade math in a system where students took a test and applied to get into selective high schools. I was the only teacher responsible for the math education of 180 students who were all trying to get into the best high school possible. Not only did I assign nightly homework, but I assigned a weekly review packet as well. I felt proud that I could motivate my students to complete the volume of work I assigned.

Here in Rhode Island, the first thing I noticed was that the students had much less work than I was used to assigning. But all of my students go to the same high school. I realized how crazy things had been in Chicago; it was not age appropriate for 12- to 14-year-olds to be competing to get into the best schools.

Rethinking homework
In my current push to start teaching more with video, playlists, and GoFormative, I began rethinking about the role of homework. But why change? I’m a successful teacher and I don’t get many complaints about the homework I assign. Why change what’s working?

I now know that homework can do a lot more damage than we realize. Reading Jo Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets, it dawned on me that the homework I assign creates a certain amount of stress on my students and their families. Now that I’m a parent, I get it. In a family with two working parents, time together is limited. On weekdays, most families only see each other a few hours a day after everyone gets home from school or work.

Additionally, students are alone when they are doing homework. Teachers like to think that parents will help their children if they are struggling on our assignments, but this is rarely the case. Even if children are lucky to have a parent around while doing homework, it is presumptuous of teachers to assume that all adults have a working knowledge of K-12 curriculum and content. Furthermore, helping teenagers with their homework has historically had mixed results. I’m sure we all have a story about fighting over homework with our parents or our children. I have my own flashbacks to some pretty horrendous fights with my mom when she was trying to help me understand algebra in 8th grade.

My solution
I am not sure I can just say goodbye to homework forever. I think that parents, administration, and my colleagues all expect it. So there has to be a compromise.

  • Blended learning products that provide “Buddy Practice” online are a good way to ensure that students can check their work while out of your purview. Whether you are using an online homework tool or something like GoFormative to digitize your assignments, students should be able to check their answers immediately if they are doing work at home. Waiting until the next day at the beginning of class to grade homework is not good academic feedback.
  • If you feel like your school and community will not support a “No Homework” policy, you could provide suggested practice every night. If you feel like a student needs more practice, the assignment becomes mandatory. This will also appease the parents who want their child doing homework every night.
  • Another compromise could be to allow students to finish any work not finished in class at home. This policy keeps my students on task during class while working through self-paced playlists because they do not want homework. As an added bonus, this strategy puts the students in control of their own learning. Depending on the grade you teach, putting students in control of their own learning might be a stretch. Consider a gradual-release model to guide your students to success.
  • Finally, why does homework have to be a subject specific assignment? Why not give a game or activity for homework? There are many great board and card games that allow students and parents to engage in math and reading in different ways. Assigning an activity or game will require guidance and resources for families, but it would be a great way to reduce stressful interactions with school work in the home.

[Editor’s Note: See previous Blending My Practice columns here.]

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