Five questions to ask before assigning homework

Teachers have widely varying opinions on homework. Before assigning it, think through these five questions first. (Icon “Medical School” by TukTuk Design via TheNounProject.com)

After co-authoring Ditch That Homework, I’ve participated in LOTS of meaningful discussions about the subject.

And they haven’t all been about “homework is evil and we should ban it all the way across the board.” (This is a common misconception about the title of the book …)

Homework is a contentious topic. Everyone seems to have opinions about it and can’t seem to see why anyone would believe otherwise.

What often happens on the topic of homework is:

  • We don’t talk about it at all and continue doing whatever we want to do, OR …
  • We argue about it without defining what we mean by homework in the first place.

Often, the conversation comes back to the same central questions. And those questions don’t have clear-cut answers.

1. What is homework?

The key question isn’t, “Do we assign homework?,” but rather, “What is homework?”

How do we define it? What is homework, and what isn’t?

From Ditch That Homework:

So, homework consists of any assigned task slated to be done outside the hours of class. What the word homework does not describe is the quality or quantity of the task, a reality that makes homework discussions challenging because it turns into a war of vocabulary.

For example, if two people discuss their children’s homework, one could be railing against mindless worksheets while the other is in favor of carefully crafted activities prompting students to reflect or create. But instead of naming the specific activity, they both refer to the tasks simply as “homework.”

And so one parent wonders why on earth anyone would be a proponent of (mindless) homework while the other can’t understand why a parent wouldn’t want their child to do (relevant and creative) work at home.

Neither parent understands the other’s point of view because they aren’t speaking the same language about homework.

So … what’s the definition of homework? As we go through this self-reflective process in this post, that’s for you to decide. Some questions to consider: When is it done? What kinds of activities does it include? Who is making the decisions regarding it? Is it done for academic credit (i.e. points in the grade book)?

If we can’t define it, we can’t successfully discuss it.

2. What does research say about homework?

In short: everything and nothing.

Hundreds and hundreds of studies have been done for the last century regarding homework. Some favor homework for positive academic achievement results. Others find that no homework produces the best results.

The biggest meta-analysis of homework research, Cooper (2006), even states in its abstract, “The authors found that all studies, regardless of type, had design flaws.”

Schools and many teachers seem to hold research data up as gospel. You have to be careful about how much you count on it, though. Research is often a report on an experiment someone did and how they interpreted the results. Not all results can be applied uniformly to every school, every classroom, every student.

The Cooper study above shows that, after analyzing hundreds of homework studies, “there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement.”

But there are lots of questions that research like this doesn’t answer. What are the other effects homework has beyond achievement? Are kids more than the average of their test scores? Is homework preparing them for the real future they’ll face?

When we look at research, we have to consider how much it impacts us, how much we trust its methodology and what impacts it might have other than the stated ones.

3. Does homework prepare students for the next level?

There’s this line of thinking related to homework that goes like this …

“There are some things about homework that I really don’t like — and that the students don’t like.”

“But I want to make sure that they’re prepared for middle school / high school / college.”

“If I don’t assign them homework, when they get to that level and they have homework, they won’t be prepared.”

“I’d better make sure I’m assigning homework so they’re ready for the next level.”

The heart of this line of thinking is this the formation of habit. Is what I’m doing forming habits that will help students succeed at the next level?

I’ve read a few books about the power of habit. I’m no expert. But I do know those books say that habit is something that can be created and changed AND that it doesn’t take years to create a new habit.

When students fail to keep up with the work load at the next level, I don’t think it’s because they haven’t developed the habit. It’s that their expectations don’t match up to reality.

The question — “Is what I’m doing forming habits that will help students succeed at the next level?” — isn’t as important as this …

“Is what I’m doing now what’s best to help my students learn?”

Assigning more homework to prepare students for the next level takes the focus off the most important task of the day — helping the students in your class to learn on that day.

(There’s also the bigger-picture question of, “Are the practices of the next level — the ones I’m preparing kids for — really in the best interests of student learning in the first place?” Of course, that’s a systemic, education-as-a-whole question that can’t be tackled in the classroom alone.)

Preparing students for the next level is important, but we have to decide if our actions to prepare them are really having the intended results.

4. Does homework teach students responsibility?

This one often goes hand in hand with the previous question. We want students to be responsible. To grow up to be responsible adults. How can school prepare them for that?

We often turn to homework for that. They need to be responsible for taking this book home, answering these questions, and bringing that paper back to class tomorrow.

Does homework actually teach students responsibility? Maybe … sort of.

The problem: Homework is inauthentic responsibility. Homework often is an artificial activity with a teacher-created deadline for an audience of one. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of work will create truly responsible citizens.

Lots of things in life promote responsibility. Caring for your family. Managing your money. Having a pet. Participating in a team.

Other things in school promote responsibility. Distributing class materials. Feeding the fish. Organizing a club. Promoting an event.

Responsibility is crucial, and schools can help students develop it. But for it to stick, I believe it has to be authentic and students have to buy in to the benefits and the process. So the question is … does homework truly play a vital role in responsibility? (Or should it?)

5. How do parents play into the homework discussion?

If we want to make important changes in our classrooms, parents are a key factor.

Will they get behind that change? What if they object — and object loudly? Do they have misconceptions?

Often, parents can be steeped in tradition. They remember how school — or, more specifically, homework — was done to them. It’s easy to look back on school with rose-colored glasses and talk about things like determination and resolve.

If we don’t share a common goal or vision of how their children should be educated, both our efforts will be against each other instead of supporting each other.

In Ditch That Homework, we talk about important pieces to the discussion with parents about any big changes in the classroom:

  • Help them see your vision
  • Share your heart
  • Cite research that supports your decision
  • Point to your own experiences
  • Give them plenty of opportunity to talk

Instead of just asking about parents, let’s ask another important, related question.

How do students play into the homework discussion?

How do they feel about the homework they’re getting? How could the process be improved for the sake of their learning, their motivation, their sanity?

Let’s do homework responsibly

Should we ditch our homework totally?

Should we ditch some of it and keep some of it?

Should we continue assigning it as is because everyone’s happy with the results?

Some honest soul-searching and dialogue can help us come to the best decision for the students we serve. And hopefully, these questions will help guide that thinking.

***NOTE: This is where I’d love to ask you a question and encourage you to leave a comment. However, as of publication of this post, the comment feature of my blog is broken! Feel free to respond via Twitter at @jmattmiller with the #DitchBook hashtag to keep the conversation going.

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