Then things changed for me in ways that forced me to rethink my choices. I moved from an affluent school district to a school district that served primarily low-income students. It was no longer a given that most of my students would complete their homework. Now, only about ⅓ of the students would routinely turn in homework and was tanking my students’ grades. My role within the school changed as well. I began taking on more leadership, which meant talking to other teachers about issues they were facing, including the homework conundrum. I began reading more research and questioning the routine of homework in the typical math classroom.
I saw Pedro Noguera speak at a conference, and he spoke about homework as an equity issue. His comments spoke to me, and pushed me to view homework through a new lens. Often, he said, teachers confuse hours on homework with rigor. We also make a number of assumptions when we assign homework.
Below are some of the reasons why we give homework. I boldly suggest that the suggestions below incorporate these ideas.
- It’s an extension of the lesson
- For practice
- To teach them responsibility
- To get them ready for high school
Ban it in elementary grades, scaffold it in middle school years
The research on elementary homework is clear - it is not beneficial beyond 30 minutes. Let’s give this time back to their youth. Learning outside of school can happen in other ways (as discussed below). In middle school / junior high, let’s scaffold it. Sixth graders can have one to two assignments a week. Seventh graders two to three, and eighth graders can have three to four assignments a week, and still be prepared for high school. No twelve-year-old needs to be hunched over a desk for three hours every evening.
Make homework more meaningful
If you are assigning elementary homework, give them assignments that ask them to engage with family members or the world around them and support basic fundamental skills. Ask them to read their favorite book, or have a family member read to them. They can play a card game with their family to support number sense. Watch the news and discuss what is happening with family members. These are the years to encourage a love of learning, not let hours of homework kill their enthusiasm for school.
For middle school, homework should be meaningful. Students need to understand how each assignment is going to help them master the skills they need to be successful. Get students involved in the creation of homework assignments. Feedback is an important piece of meaningful homework. Daily homework often lacks the quality feedback that improves learning. And the amount of time utilized towards going over homework could be better used towards the lesson, providing more practice time and less need for homework to be an extension. When assigned, homework should be directly aligned with a skill needed to master a concept, and should have a useful manner for providing quality feedback. If it doesn't do these two things, don't assign it.
Don’t grade it
If homework is a practice for students, then allow them to practice without the threat of a bad grade. Those of us who have dealt with “helicopter parents”, who hover over their children while they do their homework, or in extreme cases do the homework for their kids, this is often because of the stress over grades. On the opposite end, there are students whose home life is not conducive to completing homework. We should not punish students for what is outside of their control. This does not teach responsibility.
There are those that say that without grading it, students won’t do it. Tell your students to think of homework like a sports team. Practices don’t get counted in the record, but if you don’t practice you won’t be ready for the game, which does count. Homework is like practice, if students don’t do it they won’t be ready for the big game (i.e. the test). This is where the real responsibility comes in. Responsibility isn’t getting your daily to-do list done. I see teachers constantly that don’t get things done on-time. Responsibility is being accountable for something, and in this case the student needs to become accountable for their own learning.
I know some people will have strong reactions to some of this, and I understand that. But for those who are realizing that the traditional model of homework isn’t working for them, I hope they will consider some of these ideas.
Further reading about homework:
The Case for and Against Homework
Homework: High-Quality Learning, or Act of Compliance?
Does Homework Help?
Homework: Friend or Foe?
A Brief History of Homework in the United States