What’s Your Homework Policy?

Math Homework
Image by Corey Seeman [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
Oh…homework. What shall we do with thee?

I wonder, wonder, wonder about the value of homework. At different times in my teaching practice, homework has taken very different roles. Early in my teaching career, I assigned a lot of homework; my middle school math students had an assignment almost every day with a few dozen problems being the norm. Later, when I transitioned to teaching science, I still assigned quite a lot of homework, but it was of a different sort: usually a reading assignment as preparation for a lecture or lab activity in class. The longer I taught, however, the less importance I placed on homework. I didn’t see it as being a value-add for my students’ learning. Honestly, most of the homework I assigned was busywork at best and redundant to what we were doing in class.

A friend recently shared an article with me; it is a piece by Biz Stone, one of the founders of Twitter. In it, Mr. Stone shares his experience in high school basically telling his teachers he wasn’t going to do his homework, and he was willing to accept the consequences. I found this fascinating; I really encourage you to read it, and spend some time reflecting with your colleagues on the questions it raises.

You see, I’m just not convinced that homework adds much value, especially in the elementary grades.

It seems to me that teachers generally assign homework because they feel some pressure to do so. They may put that pressure on themselves; they believe that assigning homework for their students will afford the practice they need to master certain content or skills. Others feel pressure from colleagues: “The other 6th grade teachers are assigning homework…so I guess I should too!” Others may feel pressure from parents who don’t want their kids left behind somehow. Still others may feel pressure from their school or district; there may be school- or district-wide policies in place requiring a certain amount of homework at different grade levels.

The argument often goes that homework will improve achievement–that students will learn more if they have homework.

The thing is, I’m not convinced that much of what is assigned as homework really does improve learning. (Many folks agree with this idea, by the way. Alfie Kohn is a particularly clear voice arguing against homework. You should also check out Pernille Ripp’s page arguing against homework.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of kids practicing. “Practice makes permanent,” after all. And much homework probably falls into the category of “practice.” The real question in my mind is this: how does homework support learning?

I recognize that this may be a controversial question to raise for some teachers. We almost take it for granted that we should be assigning homework–perhaps to “teach students responsibility.” (I’m really not sure this is a very good reason to assign homework either…) And to be fair, maybe this is just me with my own biases as a parent thinking about my own kids’ homework.

Is there compelling evidence that homework improves learning? I guess I’m just not convinced it does. I’d love to hear about your experiences with homework. Did you feel like you learned more in courses that required a lot of homework? Do you feel like your own children learn more when they have homework? What kinds of homework seem to make the most sense? How can we ensure that the homework we assign actually results in more learning, and not just more busyness?

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