2019

On Homework

The past few years, this topic has undergone a barrage of scrutiny. From the arguments of it being absolutely necessary for a student’s development, to the ones reviewing the number of hours students spend at school each day, it’s a hotly contested issue. Then there’s the consideration of including it in an overall grade, or if it has a place there at all. It’s a pretty philosophical discussion, and one that should spark some reflection on practice.

At this point, I’ve gotten rid of homework in my language arts class for the past two years. And it is fantastic.

There are still times when my students have to complete a class assignment that they did not finish during our block, or times when they’ve had work to do at home because of restrictions during our day (lack of technology access, need for materials not at school, etc.). But for the most part, our class has no homework assignments that are handed to them with the expectation that they are completed independently, outside of school hours.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some instances where homework is warranted and necessary for students to develop an academic skill. There are times when it can be beneficial. However, I find that this is not true in a majority of situations. Most often, the work tends to be an extension of classwork that was already completed. Now, if a student was struggling and may need to practice further, that’s one thing. But for students who are already understanding, who have already done the work to demonstrate that skill, it just doesn’t seem to have a legitimate purpose. If it’s to keep things equal, I’ll default to the notion that our classrooms should absolutely be fair, but definitely not equal.

I often hear math teachers cite the need for homework because students need ‘practice’. I see that argument being valid, though I don’t understand the need for practice to involve repeating the same process 25 times with different numbers or types of problems.

On top of that, do we really need to hold kids ‘accountable’ by grading it? In my mind, if I cannot justify the homework assignment as advantageous for my students’ learning, then why are they even doing it? If I cannot explain to my students the purpose behind their completing it and my only course of action to get them to do it is to tell them it’s for a grade, then is it really a necessary learning activity? My guess is no.

Grading homework, especially if it is included in the overall quarter/semester/term grade, is equivalent to scoring scrimmage practices that ultimately affect the record or seed of a sports team. Homework, like practices, is an opportunity for students to work on and develop their skills. It should be a place that is low-stakes, furthering the notion that it’s okay not to know something right away. It’s okay not to understand, as long as you are trying to learn and seeking out help. When we grade it and that grade negatively impacts a student, a few different things can happen. First, the students who don’t understand the content see no value in doing it. It will only hurt them if they try and fail, shutting them down to the class, to you, and to putting forth the effort to learn. Second, the students who do get it are spending gobs of time on something they already know, just to get points. And we all know how I feel about points.

This does not mean that I don’t think homework should be assessed. It absolutely should. Students cannot learn from their mistakes if they don’t know what those mistakes are. However, the feedback should be focused on growth and should give students direction for how to move forward and learn. It should not be used to penalize them once they master the skill. Their overall grade should communicate what they know now, not how many difficult attempts they had along the way. Students should not be in situations where they have showed their proficiency, but their academic grade (you know, the thing that’s supposed to communicate how well they understand the content) should NOT suffer because they didn’t understand it during practice.

Often when I say this I hear the argument that one test or assessment should not determine a student’s overall grade. We shouldn’t use one data point to show proficiency or mastery. What about the students who struggle with test-taking? Totally agree. Students are not defined by one data point. But there’s a much easier fix than including practice in an overall proficiency grade. Allow them to reassess on the skill. As many times as they need to. Without penalty. If you truly want students to focus on learning, you truly want them to feel less anxious about assessment, you truly want to gather multiple points of data to demonstrate proficiency… Let. Them. Retake. The Assessment.

Additionally, threatening zeroes or constant consequences for the student who is always turning work in late is not going to help change the behavior and replace it with the right one. The only kids those threats work on are the ones who won’t ever have a late assignment. Instead of punishing, we have to focus on developing the skill. Talking with them about time management, explaining the importance of the work they are doing, involving families for additional support. We have to teach it. Of course there are times in my adult life that I have to take work home to finish it (#teacherlife), and I have to structure my time so I can successfully get done everything I need to. But our students are kids. They still need to learn that they will have work to do outside of school, that it is their responsibility to do it, and we need to teach the skill rather than consequencing them for not having developed it… yet.

Homework has a place in education. But the antiquated practices that are still lingering must be revisited. We need to reflect on why we assign homework, what its purpose is, and who it’s truly for. We need to take a look at our practices and procedures surrounding it, reconsider our why, and ensure that we are working for the good of our kids and their development. The reason for homework is shifting, its role is being redefined, and that is going to require some change. Wherever you stand on the issue, whichever camp you are in, this change is intimidating. Reflection on a deeply held belief or philosophy is always tough. But doing it it will make you better. It will affect your students. It will change you.

So do your homework, and make sure you get it done. Your students are depending on you.

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