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Crazy Little Thing Called Homework

When we think about controversial topics in education, a wide array of issues come rushing to the fore. However, one of the most ubiquitous is the endless debate surrounding best practices for homework. Experts and laypeople alike go round after round arguing about the worth and validity of homework. It’s like the fourth constant: death, taxes, childbirth and...homework. And no matter where people come out in the conversation, opinions tend to be strongly polarized. Why is that?

To be not at all flip, the topic of homework really hits home. For one thing, anyone who has been a student feels like an expert on homework because they’ve been through the process. To top that off, parents develop very strong feelings about homework, likely because doing homework with a child should be an additional circle of hell in Dante’s inferno. As for teachers, whether or not homework has a tangible presence in their practice depends on many factors, including but not limited to school or system policies, the relevance of homework to instruction, and of course, the understandable fear that assigned homework might cause more harm than good.

Over the years, the question I have been asked the most as a teacher is: “So, how do you feel about homework?” I never know quite how to answer that question, and not just because it feels like a setup.  An issue as wide-ranging as homework is complex, and my thoughts about its usefulness shift constantly with every class I observe. I’m also afraid to answer the question because I know the person who asks me has a very clear set of ideas or agenda, and if my answer deviates from their thinking, I’ll get pulled into a lengthy debate that I want no part of. So, I typically just say something along the lines of “Homework is a mixed bag” or “It’s complicated” and hope they drop it.

However, if school stakeholders (especially parents) ask me that question as a professional, I have to provide a better answer, and it’s this: any and all homework assignments need to have the purpose of leading students toward an overarching learning goal. If the homework doesn’t add a piece to the mastery of learning objectives that enhances and supports growth and achievement, then I don’t believe in assigning homework. If it does, then homework is justifiable within reason. That is still the case if the work is reinforcing a topic learned in class. It’s not as strong rationale-wise, but we’re still in the game.

Looking at these philosophies in practice, let’s say that a ninth-grade student comes home with a worksheet about identifying common vs. proper nouns. When her parents ask about the worksheet, the child explains that she worked on the same lesson in class earlier, which may raise questions about why she is repeating the work at home. In order for the teacher to create buy-in with students and parents on homework, it is vital to communicate the assignment’s purpose clearly and not just send the work home in a bubble. Does the teacher want to check for student understanding in a specific way that requires completing this worksheet at home? Is the worksheet part of a larger objective that will be continued in class the next day? Since parents and students do not usually ask about the “why” behind assignments, they typically assume that the homework is just a way to fill time rather than believe it has a larger instructional purpose. As a best practice, teachers must be sure to provide that all-important “why” on a regular basis when they assign homework.

Having said that, my chief recommendation for a best practice that removes a lot of the homework controversy is to aim for superior first instruction and not rely on anything that occurs outside the classroom walls to provide additional teaching. For one thing, keeping learning in the classroom prevents the abuse of homework, which occurs when class time runs short and teachers are afraid that they will not, to use one of my least favorite expressions, “get through” the curriculum. That mindset looks at learning from a coverage perspective, and the goal should not be to look at instruction as a series of tasks. Rather, looking at course content holistically and figuring out what students need to know at the end of the class and then back mapping those objectives is a far more pedagogically sound approach. It also removes the hectic pace and pressure that so many teachers feel when thinking about learning outcomes. For instance, instead of worrying about whether students read a whole essay, the focus should be on reading the sections together that lead toward an important goal. Make sure that goal is clear and at the forefront of classroom discourse; then, the pressure to finish the reading will cease to exist because the instructional objective will be met. If homework is still a tool that teachers would like to implement, they can flip the classroom and send home engaging texts and media (podcasts or short videos, even) for students to watch with the caveat that equitable practices must be honored. Not all students have access to technology at home, so choice and flexibility play a huge part in culturally responsive pedagogy.

Ideally, the Big Homework Debate should be centered on what is best for students. When people take an absolute standpoint, they highly oversimplify the process of instruction. There is no blanket homework practice that can be replicated in all educational subjects and settings. It’s just not possible. If we see homework that has no clear rationale (i.e., the ever-dreaded “busywork”), that is a clear indicator of poor teaching practice. Likewise, missed opportunities for at-home instructional experiences may detract from a student’s learning. Rather than endlessly argue about whether or not homework should exist, let’s keep the focus where it belongs: on excellent teaching practices that provide rigor, clarity, and high expectations for students in the time we spend with them. Then, we can stop worrying so much about what happens at home.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS


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