The thing no one talks about

our grand parents did it

our parents did it(although I really cannot picture that)

we did it

God knows teenagers do it


homework
…..ahhhh yes….
homework…homework…homework.

of course, what else could I have been talking about?

Ahhhhh homeworkIt’s tradition. A right of passage. Teachers assign it, students hate it, but do it…or more than likely–not. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it will always be.

Really? Is that it? Is that why we do homework, because we always have? Simply because it’s tradition?

Ok, if you are entrenched in the status quo, I beg you — STOP READING NOW. Otherwise, the following 10 minutes of your life is going to have you pissed off, insulted, and defensive. (and hopefully reconsidering your ideas on homework)

Do we ever ask ourselves what is the actual goal of homework? I mean, really, what is the goal? And you cannot say to learn math and science and history and language, because that is what your class is about, so in that spirit everything you do falls under that umbrella. Is homework really necessary in your class to accomplish what you want? How do you know?

Is your class lecture-heavy, so the homework is where they actually get to try it out and think about it? I might suggest flip your classroom. Let the kids see(or hear) your lecture(read a section, or whatever) at home the night before, then do problems–make connections-infer conclusions-synthesize ideas in class. That lets you see who is doing it and getting it, common mistakes and misunderstandings, lets you show(discuss) harder concepts on the board. Just in time learning at it’s best.

Is this what you look like at 11:00pm?Do you assign 20 problems at the back of the chapter for homework. Why? does it really take 20 to get it? 5 won’t do? How about 5 together in class, then 1 or 2 at home? After all, you are going to see them again in 24 hours.

There are some cliche “strategies” (also impractical) that some have followed, but let’s look at those as well. (ugh)

Let’s say that we agree that 30 minute a night for a high school class is legitimate. And lets assume all of the classes are rigorous(and yes we have to include that some teachers and parents define a class as rigorous by the amount of homework assigned. ugh again. and gag). So, for a typical student, they will have 3 solid hours of homework per night. So, let’s do the “math” for one night. Students spend 8 hours going to classes, meetings, assemblies, and other school activities. Then many spend 2 hours in rehearsals or sports practice. An hour to get home. No idea where a part time job fits into this or maybe reading a favorite book for fun or God forbid–thinking about their future. That takes us to an 11 hour total workday.

Is this what you want dinner time to look like?

Is this what you want dinner time to look like?

Some say that having dinner together is important, so we get an hour break for that, maybe time enough to shower or just sit for a moment. Then 3 hours of homework. And if this is a rigorous school, we can assume that the homework is itself something which requires intense focus and concentration, so it should be the kind of homework which cannot tolerate distraction.

So, from 7:00pm-10:00pm – they do homework. Are you ok if I put in there a 5 minute break in between subject areas? Ok, that takes us to 10:30. Let’s hope Gramma did not call which would add 30 minutes to this. Or Let’s hope Dad did not want to hear about soccer practice and hear the new song you’ve been working on, because there is no time for that. Let’s hope there is no boyfriend or girlfriend that they’d like to talk on the phone or FB chat with. So, a typical high school could then ideally get to bed by 11:00…which gives them 7 hours of sleep. Interestingly enough, some recommend students get 8-10 hours of sleep per night in order to be at their best the following day. Hmmmmm.

Homework should not just be a repeat of what you did in the classroom

Homework should not just be a repeat of what you did in the classroom

Where in that schedule is the time for a student to stay after practice to shoot extra baskets, or talk with the coach? Maybe checkout the new audio equipment for the upcoming stage production? Where in that schedule is the chance to work on the bigger outside-of-class assignments, such as research papers, science fair, or other major projects as part of regular class.

Where is the time to read the first chapter of their favorite author’s new book? Where is the time to just sit back and let it soak in. It does not exist. In the scenario I describe above, there is no room for extra. And we all know the “extra” ends of being a major part of any schedule. That extra is what Jim Collins says is the difference between good and great.

How many teachers out there have the students come into class and talk about the fun they had doing their homework? Has that ever happened? I HOPE I am wrong about that. I hope you are fuming right now because you DO have kids come in who really were engaged with your assignment.

Students can interview people for homework

Students can interview people for homework

So, we are back to the original reason you give homework, or even a higher question, why are you a teacher? To help them memorize formulas, dates, code syntax, and vocabulary and “get through class”? Or to help them see your discipline in a light they have not before. To turn them on to science. To help them LOVE math. To let them see why you are such a history buff. Help them create something in code. To read for enjoyment. Write their first real poem. To But, are all of your assignments “academic”? Are they all rote? Where is the chance to connect to the real world? When do they reflect on real world events occurring on the news that night? Have they found an online article that talks about something cool related to your subject area? Did you have them watch that TV special that talks about? Have they ever seen a TED talk? There are TED talks in every area, with amazing speakers and presenters. Have they ever had a CHAT assignment? Have they ever read a short story outside of English class? Have they ever written a short story outside of English class? Have they ever taught their parents something? Have they ever been required to take some pictures with their phone as part of a homework assignment to show your subject area in real life. Have they brought in real examples of geometry all around them. How often do they bring in real election results of other countries and talk about them. Heck, do the kids create an online election system as part of class? Have they ever responded to a famous BLOGGER in your subject area? Do they go see speakers at libraries, colleges, and societies around town? Do they go see professional sporting events, concerts, and plays?
Maybe time out of class could be spent preparing for this?

Maybe time out of class could be spent preparing for this?

How about visiting the zoo, the dump, the ocean for homework? Do they interview professionals in industry, activists, or politicians? Do they interact via SKYPE with students in other countries? There are teachers in other countries begging to connect with other international classrooms. Are your students preparing for their TEDClub presentations?

If you ever go into the lab or library in the morning, what you have is many of your students doing the homework they should have done the night before. At this point, any value the homework might have offered is officially gone.

One option to address this: have homework due by midnight on the due date. Wait. Whaaaaaat? That’s crazy. And always give them 2 days to do it. Woah. Stop that. And let them do it in class if they want. If it’s important, that should be ok. And don’t give them same type of homework twice in the same quarter; each one should be a different style..keeping it fresh and interesting.

Homework can be used for collaborative work. put them in groups and in a shared document in google docs. they can work together. Stronger kids can lead the way. weaker kids can contribute as well. Set expectations high and keep them to the standard. A bit of peer pressure can be used for students who do not contribute. Groups can be reassigned as needed by teacher. This kind of exercise can be done in math, language, history, computer science, art, even physical education.

Depending on what the goal for homework is also has a tremendous impact on how you grade, when you grade, why you grade, how often you grade. And if you spend 10 minutes going around the room checking homework, is that really the best way to spend 1/5 of class time?

How about define homework as a necessary and valuable part of class. Include as criteria for the “A” in class as “always attempting homework”. But, make sure your homework is in fact valuable. If every kid does the homework without much effort, then I’ll argue there was not much value. If every kid could not do it, I’ll also argue there may not have been much value. If your “brighter” kids did it easily, and your weaker kids did not, what does that show you?

Homework is one of the truly “unknowns” of the educational system in the US. Everyone gives it. No on talks about it. No one plans it. Students hate it; and many don’t do it and certainly don’t get out of it what we want. But, we do not discuss it as grade-level teams. So, we really have no idea what a typical evening looks like for kids. Even within departments, we use homework very differently and really have no idea what each other are doing or WHY. Some teachers give homework just because. Some give it to communicate that their course is rigorous. Some give it as punishment. Some blindly give it with little or no thought. Some grade it. Some don’t. Some check it daily. Some don’t. Some look for effort while some check answers. And even worse, we also do not agree on what percentage of the final grade homework should count. If we really value it’s importance and we want to give value and appreciation for the effort and time spent doing it well, why would it not count dramatically more than it does?

This is one of the topics that desperately needs thoughtful discussion. There is research on both sides of the argument. Some research suggests thoughtful and intentional and limited homework does have value, while other research suggests that the benefit is not what we hope.

Either way, no matter what you believe, it’s a discussion worth having. And if the worse thing that comes from that is that we all take a few moments and consider how and why we use homework in our own class, then I’ll still suggest it is worth it.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC

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