Homework – What’s the point?

With the school year fast approaching, parents and students are soon going to be asking about homework.  Do you have a well thought out rationale for homework? Is it one supported by your admin, and more importantly, is it consistent with your teaching colleagues within your school? There are many different perspectives on homework, ranging from those who believe it’s completely unnecessary to those who feel that it is critical to students’ learning and retention.  I likely fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and here’s why.

As a middle years teacher in Math (I have had several other teaching assignments but this one will most easily serve the purpose as a background for my thinking) I typically assigned the same 15-25 minutes of homework to all students everyday.

My lesson was likely very similar to many of yours back then.  We started by reviewing the previous days’ homework and solved any problems that kids may have identified (if they were brave enough to share them in front of their peers).  We then went on to the learning for that particular day.  After some teaching/exploration of the topic, we did some guided practice.  Kids then attempted a few questions on their own which we checked over as a class.  Now that I was sure everyone was ready for the assignment (yes I know now that this was some very flawed logic) I assigned dozens of questions to the class.  Whatever they didn’t finish in class was “homework”.

This approach worked for most kids, most of the time, it was common practice among my colleagues, and students and parents didn’t seem to question it.  I share this lesson structure not because it is something that should be modeled, but simply because it was the best we knew at that time… that was over 10 years ago.  I know that we have learned much about assessment and student learning since then which now must change our thinking on homework.

My first question with respect to homework is:

“What is the purpose?”

I am sure there are many reasons to assign homework but for now I am considering two main purposes – solidifying learning that has already occurred; introduction of new topics (I know there are more reasons for homework and encourage you to share them with a response to my post). I believe that homework as practice – to reinforce concepts that have been taught in class, is entirely appropriate in the middle years. I realize that there are many who would disagree but please read on.

If, through your lesson activities, you are virtually certain that your students understand the concepts you have explored, it makes complete sense to have them practice the skills or reinforce the knowledge that they have begun to construct.  Here is a huge caution though – you must be certain that each student knows what to do when they leave the school.  Remember, practice makes permanent.  It takes much longer to undo incorrect learning than it does to simply re-teach in a different way for those who haven’t yet grasped the concept.

Two other important points regarding homework.  First, because this homework is intended to support learning and provide additional practice, it doesn’t make sense to “count it for marks”.  Secondly, remember homework is practice – I know I often spent too much of my time and energy enforcing its completion and my kids and parents probably spent too much of their family time completing homework on some occasions.  Find a balance that you are comfortable with as a classroom teacher.

While it’s a bit humourous, Allen Iverson makes this point regarding practice in the video below.

A Parent’s Role

I do not believe it is our parents role to “teach” concepts to students who may not understand.  It is their job to support their child in completing the homework.  To me this means that they have an appropriate work environment for their child, they do everything they can to ensure that their child attempts the work, and they support their child by communicating any difficulties to the teacher.  When we send homework home, we have an assumption of how long it will take (note the key word there – “assumption”).  When a student returns to school and the work is completed for the most part correctly, we assume (again there’s that word) that the homework went as we envisioned.  We do not know that it took over an hour to complete and that it started a mini family feud!

Communicate the Purpose of the Homework

If our students and parents are very clear on the purpose of homework right from the first week of school, we can avoid frustration on everyone’s part.  Discuss with your students at the beginning of the year why you assign homework.  Include a statement on your course outline that discusses the purpose of homework, approximately how much you assign, the best way to communicate with you regarding difficulties etc.  Remind your students weekly as you assign things – “guys this is just to provide practice for you – if you don’t know how to do it, leave it and come see me tomorrow.”  Let them know how long you expect the homework to take – should it be 15 – 20 minutes or is this one of those rare cases where you’ve asked them to spend 30 – 40 minutes because based on your unit plan it may be the only homework for the week.  Tell them – let parents know.  Use a blog, send a mass email to your parent distribution list… however you choose to do it, keep parents informed.

How much homework?

If the purpose of homework is to solidify learning, does every student require the same homework?  We all know that kids learn at different rates, and as one of my professors so eloquently put it a few years ago “The learning will arrive when the student is ready”. Does every student need to do questions 5-25 (I used to think so)?  Some students may need this amount of practice, but what measure are you using to determine if the homework has consolidated the learning?  Is it that they answer 8 questions in a row correctly? Are there particular questions which require a bit of deeper thinking and a new application of the concept which show you that they get it?  Why are we making those kids who have internalized the concept quickly do the exact same homework as those who are really struggling with the learning… or vice versa?

As a teacher I would have said that there is no way I could have known exactly how many questions to give to each individual student… I think this still rings true today but what several years of reflection have helped me to realize is that many of our middle years students can help make these decisions with us.  If they know the purpose of the homework, many/most are mature enough to do the right amount.  If you know which questions are critical for understanding, or how many questions done correctly you need to see from kids, let them know.  They can then go home and practice to the degree that you’ve indicated.  For those who you feel may take advantage of this level of independence (good teachers typically know who these students are or learn very quickly who they are) you can assign specific questions.

The same logic holds true for other subjects.  You probably have those students who, on a writing assignment, need the exact number of paragraphs or sentences etc. that they must create for their story.  You then have others who you can simply remind that they need enough language to have created plausible characters and a well-developed plot.

Homework to Introduce Learning

This is a new thought for me so I would love to hear the perspective of other teachers/admin/parents with this one.  I believe homework can be used to introduce learning in creative ways.  Have you ever sent kids home to gather information on their family tree – perhaps this is going to support future learning in Health.  What about introducing a topic – Biodiversity and asking kids to go home and try to find the most biodiverse region in the world  (they must also provide their reference for their information).  What about introducing a topic to be explored e.g. Penguins in the grade 2 program of studies – and asking kids to come up with 2 questions that they want to find the answers to.  I think the opportunities here are endless and have the potential to lead to greater student engagement in the learning to come.

Time For Your Thoughts

I encourage you to discuss homework with your colleagues, admin, parents and even students as this year begins.  Let me know your thoughts.  Mine can definitely use further refinement.

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About SPatras

I am a husband and father of two fantastic girls. I currently work as the Principal of Woodhaven Middle School in Parkland School Division in Alberta, Canada. I am excited to be continuing my administrative career in this learning community!
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