Monday, May 26, 2008
Does Homework Help or Hurt?
When asked to describe our elementary and secondary educational experiences as a student most of us describe certain teachers and remember certain events. We can all tell humorous stories of the remember when so and so variety. We also remember our successes and failures. When pushed we can even remember the more unpleasant parts of formalized education such as grades and homework.
Remember homework? Those joyful minutes spent filling out worksheets, memorizing spelling words, and cramming for tests? Where did the concept of homework come from? What is the purpose of homework? The issue of homework is heating up in the public debate.
This is not the first time our culture has debated the pros and cons of homework. The assigning of homework has caused various reactions throughout our collective educational history. Homework has been banned by a number of various bodies in our history. In the 1880'a a retired civil war general led a crusade in Boston's public schools to eliminate homework due to its damaging effect upon family life. The brave general argued repeatedly that kids just needed the chance to be kids. California followed suit in 1901with the state legislature banning homework and limiting it significantly at the high school level. The argument once again was homework's negative toll on home life and a perceived injustice is saddling young people with hours of work to complete upon their return from school.
Never doubt that one floating piece of space junk can have a profound influence on your life. When the Soviets launched Sputnik we went into fear mode. This floating piece of tin garbage pushed education in the States into overdrive. With fears that America was being out performed by her mortal enemy the blame had to fall somewhere. As usual the public school system became the whipping boy for all real and perceived social failings. Schools needed to be more rigorous if we were to win the space race and keep the Russians in their proper place. This ushered in the remarkable return of homework to American schools.
Does homework help and increase student learning or is it just mindless busy work that drives the joy out of learning while providing fodder for explosive arguments at home? Why do teachers give homework? Most teachers when pushed will advocate for homework along the lines that it reinforces the lessons in the classroom and leads to greater retention of facts. One might ask why in the 21st century are we equating learning with retention. As Einstein noted decades ago, "Why memorize what you can reference." Teachers often cite homework as a way to create a buffer for students with low test scores. Specifically in the secondary level these homework points that can often account for between 10-70% of the total point value for any course. As administrators we realize this buffering pillow often becomes one that can suffocate students of high intellect and creativity but low responsibility. How many F's and D's are directly related to missing homework assignments? I would argue (without any real evidence) that the majority of D's and F's awarded in high school are directly tied to missing homework? Some buffer.
Are our students better off with homework? The research in inconclusive at best with some slight correlation with improved grades. In general homework's impact on elementary and middle school performance is non-existent with only slight benefits being found amongst high school students. Alife Kohn writes extensively about these returns in his work "The Homework Myth". Kohn connects the proposed benefits of time spent with homework to the now debunked behaviorism of the 1940's.
Homework at the secondary level is a mixed bag. Some assignments seem necessary if anything productive is going to happen in class. Take an American literature class for example. If students are going to have a meaningful and engaged discussion about the themes of "The Grapes of Wrath" having read the novel or prerequisite chapters before class would be most helpful. Writing a paper cannot be done entirely in class either. Some tasks seem to necessitate out of school time being devoted to them. On the other hands mind numbing worksheets and spending hours doing repetitive problems that won't be checked or met with any meaningful feedback seems pointless. At best students drudge through them and at their worst sit clustered in morning (or mourning) groups before exchanging and copying the work. Sounds like a stimulating learning environment doesn't it?
With teacher preparation programs only providing cursory looks at how to assign and what to do with homework it is often left to individual school's to set policies or provide parameters. Teaching in secondary schools often remains an isolated task with individual instructors pursuing varied practices. How do we push for best practice regarding homework? What is best practice regarding homework? Are there general guidelines schools should require teachers to work with when assigning homework? Should it be voluntary? Should it be open ended and creative? Should it always be graded? Are our schools assigning too much?
Below are a couple of interesting videos regarding homework. One if a student produced tribute to the joys of homework while the other is from the author of a Wall Street Journal piece on homework that is reigniting the discussion on homework.