Homework: Reconsidering its Purpose, Amount, and Weight

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To get a clearer understanding of this question, I recently read Dr. Cathy Vatterott’s engaging book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. She addresses my concern about the utility of homework directly. “The attempts of researchers to answer that basic question have led to conclusions that are inconsistent at best and contradictory at worst,” she writes. “Instead of being apologetic, teachers who don’t give homework should simply explain that they do such a good job of teaching that homework is not necessary,” she later states.

This year, I’ve really heeded Vatterott’s advice. I assign nightly homework only when it’s most necessary, instead having students work in class on larger writing and research projects, or study for upcoming assessments. On occasion, I also encourage students to think up their own assignments to convey deeper, more meaningful understanding. I’m a big proponent of self-directed learning, and I look forward to continuing these efforts in the near future.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Vatterott and discovered that we both think even more alike, especially with respect to limiting the amount of homework students receive. Last week, Vatterott tells me, she appeared on Minnestota public radio, discussing school with a “pro homework” advocate:

She was saying, well, it’s good for kids to learn to delay gratification, and it’s good for them to do boring tasks. I was like, are you kidding me? Don’t you think there’s going to be enough boring tasks in their life that they have to do? Do you think that we have to give them boring tasks? I guess I don’t look at that as the job of childhood. I worry more about what we’re doing to kids’ natural inclination for learning.

In trying to make learning relevant, I also strive to make it enjoyable. My students learn to ask critical questions and form coherent thoughts not only through essays, quizzes, and tests, but also by learning and showing an interest in mastering emerging Web 2.0 tools and 21st-century technologies.

Last year, my American government students learned basic video editing software to film a debate on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. While technologically impressive, their performance impressed me all the more in its substance and civility:

Another group of students built their own web site, Making a Difference: Give a Hoot about Learning, which features their thoughts on an array of education topics.

Vatterott reaffirms my convictions: “I’m more interested in helping kids stay excited about learning and creating a task that they want to do, that makes them feel smarter and that makes them excited about the topic that they’re learning,” she says.

Vatterott and I also discuss the purpose of homework, and whether it should count: “Why would we grade homework? If you’re sending it home to check for understanding and they don’t understand it, then we shouldn’t penalize them,” she says. “If it’s for practice, and we’re just checking to see that they’re practicing correctly, why would we put that as part of their grade?”

This makes a lot of sense. After all, not all coaches record a player’s statistics during practice, nor do they always penalize individuals for making mistakes. Instead, the most effective coaches encourage athletes to recover from failure so that these individuals can excel during competition. Increasingly, I believe the same should hold true for the classroom. Teachers should treat homework as practice, which boosts student confidence to excel on formal assessments.

“There has to be a way for it to be okay for a kid to not complete or not understand an assignment,” Vatterott tells me, as I nod my head in agreement. “I think there’s not enough communication going on between the teachers and the kids about the assignments, about what didn’t you understand, why didn’t you complete it. I think we have this rigid rule that says you need to complete this, and if you didn’t, there’s going to be a penalty.”

More schools are doing away with grading homework, Vatterott says, noting that she’s seen an upward trend in the last few years. I’m equally interested to hear Vatterott’s take on why many students don’t complete their homework, and if motivation, or a lack thereof, really plays that huge of a role in those instances.

“I think sometimes kids don’t do it because they’re burned out, because they’ve got homework in four different subjects, and they’ve already worked a six-hour day by the time they come home, and they’re ready to give up,” Vatterott says. “But when you look at the concept of motivation, let’s get real here. Motivation–who wants to do something that makes them feel stupid?”

If teachers must assign homework, Vatterott suggests that tasks should be time-based, not task-based.

“People who work at a slower pace, they’re coming home and they’re looking at the work in front of them, and they’re seeing no end in sight, and it’s really depressing to them,” she says. “They’re saying, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to be working on this all night.’ If they knew they only had to work on a particular piece for ‘x amount of time,’ I think you would see a lot more compliance from kids with what they’re doing.”

Speaking with Vatterott reminds me of my chat in July with Rick Wormeli, author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom.

I tell Wormeli about my first year teaching, and how I failed a student for not submitting a research paper. I should have investigated why he didn’t complete the assignment. Was it because he didn’t understand the material? Was it because life got in the way? Whatever the reason, six years later, I refuse to imagine that “laziness” had anything to do with it.

I firmly believe that all students want to do well. By giving my student no way out, I deprived him of the real learning experience. This is made even clearer when I revisit my interview with Wormeli, one of America’s first Nationally Board Certified Teachers:

A kid doesn’t do any assignment, no matter how large, and I just give him a zero? One, he doesn’t get competent. He remains incompetent. Is that really the legacy I want to carry forward? Incompetence, but be able to tell all my colleagues in the larger society, “Oh, I caught him. He couldn’t get past me with missing a deadline, let me tell you.” Or is it, “Hey, you screwed up, child. Let me walk side by side with you and develop the competence and the wisdom that comes from doing something a second and third time around, where you’ll get your act together.” Both of those are greater gifts in the long run, than simply labeling a child for a failed deadline.

I also allowed a 16-year-old’s lack of emotional or mature development to hold his learning hostage. Certainly, teachers should always treat students like adults — and grant them equally deserved respect. At the same time, students are still kids, and it’s sometimes illogical and impractical to hold them to adult standards when they lack adult life experience.

Moving forward, I encourage all teachers to contemplate what homework they assign and what purpose it serves. I know I am thinking hard about those things.

A high school history and journalism teacher from Massachusetts.

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