The other day I talked about grading and some of my concerns about its traditional uses in classrooms. Today, I want to talk about another issue: homework. I’m largely anti-homework (pre-college), but I’m not as up in arms about it as I am with grading. There’s a great blog post – and a fantastic discussion – about homework happening over at Brilliant or Insane that I encourage you to go read. I read through it, and it covered a lot of what I was already planning to write about here, but I want to go ahead with the post anyways.
Mark, over at Brilliant or Insane, is right when he says there is no research that supports the idea of homework. Back when I was teaching 6th-grade (in the 90’s), I quickly dropped homework during my very first year, and I never looked back. My initial reasoning had nothing to do with learning. I actually thought it would be great if they had at least some homework every night. And, at the very beginning of the school year, I did assign homework.
No one did it. Ok…maybe a couple of kids….but really, no one did it.
Why? It wasn’t because my students didn’t want to learn. It was because most of them went home to very chaotic lives. Few of them had a space that supported them doing homework. What’s the point of assigning homework if no one is going to do it? I really didn’t want to just hand out a bunch of zeros. Seemed to make the kids feel defeated, and it wasn’t helping anyone. So I quietly packed it in. By Christmas of my first year as a teacher I stopped giving homework. I never regretted it.
Fast forward to the present day. As a college instructor of course I give homework, but it’s not the same. I see my students once a week. They have a week before they see me again. And still, I try not to overload them. I always say that I am fine with not finishing books in my courses. My courses are never about saying we read a book just to say we read a book. If we need to spend more time on a particular section, we do. If that means we don’t get to other stuff, well, then we don’t get to other stuff. If it turns out my students don’t need to read some portions of the text then we cut them out. Heck, sometimes students come to class with ideas about what to read instead and we work those in and cut out some of what I thought we would do (FYI: Those are always the best classes).
In my summer gig in this program to prepare students to go to college, I attempted to assign some homework. My rationale for this was based on:
(a) this program is supposed to help prep them for college. Learning some things about handling homework and time management is applicable here
(b) this program is supposed to provide them with extra academic support. If I can get them to spend just 30 minutes a night reading or writing then that will help them too.
Here’s what I found….most of the students still won’t do the homework, but some will. The ones that will were going to do it without it even being assigned as homework. There is a core group that is doing extra reading from the books I gave them because they like it and find it useful. They are writing more because they like it and find it useful.
But that doesn’t mean the rest of them don’t care. In this case, I don’t know what it means. I know many of them have hard lives. They have all sat around and shared a bit about their childhood. In a lot of cases, their lives mirror those of the middle school students I taught. Not all of them have the space to sit and do the work they might like to do.
But, and I’ll say it again, that doesn’t mean they don’t care. We are at the halfway marker in the program, and I am asking students to share the essays they have been working on. We always share them to some extent, but now each person is being asked to step forward, read it, and have it on the table for class discussion. And what I have found is that students will step up their game when they know they have to share in front of their peers and have their work discussed. Students who I could barely get to do any writing in class, and who did not appear to be doing it at home, are showing up with solid drafts written up in google docs. They proudly put them up on the screen for all to see (not a requirement or even an expectation). I can’t help but wonder where it came from. But does it matter? They are proud of their work, and they should be.
So, in the end, I am back to dropping the homework expectation. However, this time around I am open to providing additional educational opportunities for students to take advantage of. And this, ultimately, is what I think can be more helpful than homework. I have noticed that when one student talks about something he/she chose to read at home, another student becomes inquisitive. “That’s in the book?” is a question that gets asked a lot. “Where?” And before you know it, one student is introducing a reading to another.
I have to think that is way more effective than me assigning Chapter 15 for homework tonight.