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Why Homework?

Why Homework?

By |April 25th, 2016|Ed Talks, Math|

I like a teacher who gives you something
to take home to think about
besides homework.

—Lily Tomlin

I had an opportunity to speak with parents, students, teachers and administrators on the topic of homework. Based on research I had been reading I waboy blowing school bubbless curious to hear their perspective on the topic. Were they in consensus about the role homework plays in a student’s education? These were the most frequent comments: “Homework teaches discipline, independence, responsibility.” “Homework provides independent practice.” “There is not enough time in class so homework is a means to get some reading done ahead of time.” “The hour of homework at our house is ugly.” As you can imagine, our discussion was lively and thoughts about homework included a wide variety of responses.

For at least fifty years, research around homework has been inconclusive. Educators such as Alfie Kohn, Jo Boalar and Sal Kahn argue that homework is not in the best interest of students. However, in most of the schools and districts that I have visited, administrators support teachers assigning homework and parents continue to expect teachers to give their students homework.

Many teachers have only positive intentions when assigning homework and employ a myriad of strategies to encourage students to complete their homework. Teachers accept late work, contact parents when homework is not turned in and provide incentives for completed homework. Regardless, there are some students who just choose not to do homework.

I spoke to students specifically about their math homework. They shared with me that they complete an average of 15 – 25 homework problems each evening. Elementary school students typically have homework practice involving operations with fractions, decimals and whole numbers. Students in high school spend a lot of time solving for x, factoring and finding the missing side lengths or angle measures of triangles. The homework is fairly procedural. I was speaking with one 5th grade student who stated, “My teacher always says the homework assignment is easy and should take twenty minutes. How come it takes me an hour to complete the homework?”

Teachers did report that their students felt stressed about homework. Many required help with their homework while other students complained the homework was not engaging and that most of their assignments were a repeat of what they had done in class.

Jo Boalar, a math professor at Stanford University wrote the book: Mathematical Mindset, and on page 108 she states, “In addition to the inequities created by homework, the stress it causes (Conner, Pope, & Galloway, 2009: Galloway & Pope, 2007), the loss of family time, and the null or negative impact on achievement (PISA, 2015), the quality of math homework is often low, at best. In all the years in which my eldest daughter was in elementary school, I rarely saw any homework that helped her understanding of mathematics, but I saw a lot of homework that caused her considerable stress.

Boalar does state that if homework must be given, it should encourage students to be reflective of the mathematics they learned that day at school.

A former administrator stated, “I think homework widens the gap for disadvantaged kids who have no support person at home…a lot of homework is just busy work. It is super stressful for families. When are the kids supposed to play? Homework is not fair. I am opposed to homework.”

A middle school teacher told me, “At the middle school level, I believe in giving a little homework for most of the reasons you listed above. However, over the years I have definitely limited the amount and type of homework I give. I find that a few conceptual problems that really make the kids think do the most good. Even if the students do not get the problems correct they have spent time thinking about the concept and a way to approach the problem.”

An elementary school teacher commented, “Honestly, I give homework because parents demand it. I don't believe in it. The Common Core State Standards support a developmental progression of learning. Parents sometimes question the strategies that students use to solve problems, for example: division. Parents question why they are not using the long division algorithm in 4th and 5th grade. They often show their students the way they learned to do it: the right way to do it.

My compromise has been to only assign one page of homework a week. It has four boxes labeled from Monday to Thursday, with questions that serve as review. The goal is to assign problems that my students can do independently. It seems to satisfy both parents and students as it isn't a lot of homework, it builds in flexibility (students can do it all at once or a little each night) and parents still feel that their kids have homework. Only rarely do parents complain to me that it's not enough. That's when I want to show them articles about the harm that homework can do!”

A first year high school teacher learned that sending students home with a practice assignment is only effective if she has formatively assessed students in class. “I have changed homework to class work. I want students to get practice, but I am afraid students who are unsure of a concept or skill will become more confused while working the practice questions incorrectly at home. So after an activity or lesson, I assign a couple of problems for class work if I feel students did not get enough practice during the day.”

And another high school teacher states: “I would argue the main reason we give homework is because we don’t have enough time in class. I hope most of us can now agree that the traditional view of homework is detrimental to students and, as a result, counterproductive to us for many reasons such as: The kids that complete the homework didn’t need the extra practice and the kids that needed the practice were not able to do the homework. I don’t want students to practice doing math wrong.”

What is clear to me now, after reflecting on what I have read and gleaned from conversations with all stakeholders involved, including students, is that homework must be meaningful, impact student learning, developmentally appropriate and engaging to students if it is to be completed.

Consider the following questions:

For a fifth grade student working with fractions, the homework assignment might ask, “Write a contextual problem for 3/4 + 1/2. Solve the equation using a strategy that makes sense to you and be ready to explain it to your partner tomorrow in class.”

An Algebra 2 student might be prompted with four triangles that have various side lengths and angle measures. The student’s assignment could read, “Decide which method of solving triangles would be best for each triangle and solve one of the triangles. Be ready to defend your choices and your work tomorrow in class.”

The questions each have purpose and are tied to a grade level standard. Both questions push at deeper understanding of a mathematical concept. I believe they are more engaging than straight procedural questions, but students would be a better judge. The inequity question still needs to be addressed, in other words, how will I support the students who require homework help?

Perhaps before assigning homework, particularly in mathematics, we as educators should ask ourselves a few questions.

  1. What is the purpose, the mathematical goal of the assignment?
  2. Is the length of the assignment or the number of questions posed appropriate?
  3. Is the assignment engaging or based on interests of students?
  4. Do students have the supports they need to complete the homework? Do students have time and transportation to attend after school homework club?
  5. Will there be an efficient and timely discussion or review of the homework?
  6. Will the homework, which is a formative assessment, be graded?
  7. Will students who were absent or unable to complete the assignment be provided with the time or help needed to complete the assignment?

We need to tackle the homework question. Every school must have a respectful discussion about this controversial issue and develop a school policy towards homework. We owe this to our students, parents and community.