Sunday, November 6, 2016

Is Homework Really the Devil?

"I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework." 
-Lily Tomlin

For better or for worse, homework seems to be a highly polarizing issue in education. People seem to think it's either inherently horrible or it's an absolutely necessary element of school, regardless of actual value. Many arguments on Twitter quickly devolve into "Homework is bad and if you assign it, you're a bad teacher!" or "I had homework when I grew up and it taught me responsibility!"

Students demonstrating understanding of
prior night's video.
Yes, we all have heard the studies that "prove" homework is horrible and has little to no effect on achievement nor does it effectively teach responsibility. By and large, a lot of homework is meaningless, developmentally inappropriate, and just perpetuated for the mere sake of "it's part of school." But what if we stopped being so black and white about it and started analyzing how homework can be best leveraged for learning?

We interviewed Connie Hamilton and Starr Sackstein on the EduRoadTrip to discuss their new book Hacking Homework: 10 Strategies That Inspire Learning Outside the Classroom. (As an aside here, I contributed to the book. I'd recommend picking up a copy - page 107 alone is worth it!) The custom of the EduRoadTrip is to ask guests for a bumper sticker - a memorable takeaway from their episode.

Starr spoke up and said, "We're not anti-homework. We're anti-stupid homework."

Homework must be relevant and meaningful. In my classroom, I do assign some homework in reading, math, and reviewing history. I always give a digital and physical choice for each. I keep it to a minimum and allow the students some choice in what they do. 

The value of reading outside of school
Image Source: blog.maketaketeach.com/ 
In reading, the students must read at least 25 minutes a night. This could include reading a good book, visiting ReadTheory.org, or having a parent read aloud to them. I absolutely insist that students are reading every night. Reading will make a difference in life. If students walk out of my classroom not being able to recall who won the battle of Yorktown or how to multiply by hand, there is Google and calculators, respectively. However, if they can't read, they can't use those resources.

What I don't do is force a reading log. I don't understand the value of reading logs.  The main argument is it's "proof" that the students read. It's really just proof that students can write down numbers and parents can initial (or as I often did in my middle and high school years, students can forge their parents' initials.) How about just asking students what they read the prior evening? A rich discussion outweighs a log that gets thrown away.

In math, we do a flipped classroom. Each night, students watch a video to frontload them with the information they are expected to master, according to the state. I create the videos with my iPad and ExplainEverything, so I can tailor it to my students' interests and my teaching strategies. The key benefit to this flipped classroom is that the student can self-individualize. Watch the video once and you got it? Great. Need to watch it three times? That's great too. Viewed it 10 times and still want to keep at it? More power to you, but we can work on it in class more.

Practicing learning how to take notes for a
flipped video
If a student can't or doesn't view a video at home, I give the student a choice; watch it during class or do it at home the next evening. Either one is fine by me, but inevitably students choose to double up and do it at home. Why? They say they rather work in class on stations and they can focus better at home. 

For history, my students have a variety of methods to review: classic study guides, online Jeopardy, or Quizlet flashcards. I use the study to teach study tips because like it or not, studying will be a part of their life later on. I noticed numerous students saying they could "never study the whole study guide" in an evening so I took some time to lead some mini lessons on chunking it down, self-monitoring, and having someone else to check their understanding. 

What you'll notice is there are no worksheets being sent home to be completed. If a student doesn't understand it in school, why would they understand at home? If a student gets it in school, why should they waste time at home practicing what they know?

I want to make homework purposeful, engaging, and in smaller amounts than the norm. I'm a big fan of students using their time at home to be kids with their families (which doesn't include little Johnny sitting playing Call of Duty in the family room while Mom updates her Facebook in the office.) I want families to spend time together, and it's even better if that involves learning together, as I shared in my earlier post Forming Family Foundations. I also know that students these days are incredibly busy, with sports, music, Scouts, and other extracurricular activities. If students spend 7 hours in school, another 2-3 at sports, an hour or two for traveling and eating, when do they get to just have unstructured play time?

I do not have children of my own, so I can't approach this from a father point of view, and I know my outlook will change if I do have children. The fact of the matter is they are kids (yes, even high schoolers) and we need to give them time to be kids at home. It's also important to note that this is what has worked in my classroom and I have modified it to be responsive to family needs along the way. Homework will look vastly different for everyone.

So next time someone starts ranting about homework, engage them in discussion. Shift the conversation from demonizing homework to discussing how the homework experience can be improved. It's not a black and white issue, and it won't be going away. It's not enough to simply not assign homework in your own class.

We can do better by our kids, so how will you make an impact on a larger community?

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