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Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Dreaded H word: Homework

This is a 2-year-old article I just heard of, but it's been making the rounds: "Homework: An unnecessary evil? … Surprising findings from new research".

For a lot of teachers, what we first want to know is if this guy teaches or has taught. Has the researcher actually worked in the field? Or is he someone with an ax to grind? When the article writer establishes his credentials, she says:
"Alfie Kohn writes about what a new homework study really says — and what it doesn’t say. He is the author of 12 books about education and human behavior, including 'The Schools Our Children Deserve,' 'The Homework Myth,' and 'Feel-Bad Education… And Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling.' "
This does not instill confidence. Not only is there no  mention of this man teaching, but look also at those emotionally charged words. He goes on to attack teachers who give homework (which is opposed to his view):
"If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says."
So either the teacher is ignorant or willfully evil. This is an attack on teachers. Is that the best way to get people to change? Insults?


  1. The word "evil" is in the article title, so it's a valid use. 
  2. This is binary thinking. I can think of at least three other possibilities.  
    1. The "evidence" was poorly assembled. 
    2. The "evidence" goes against the teacher's experience. He may have had a different experience in his classroom. And that's what matters: How do we maximize the effectiveness of the teacher to teach? There is no one right way of teaching. This is where so many non-teachers get confused. There are millions of tools and teaching styles. Everyone outside education is under the false impression that a teacher just stands up there and talks. 
    3. The teacher has another reason for assigning homework.
    4. Insert your reason here.

Here is Scott Huggins, a history teacher, on this article:
Here's my take as a high school teacher with 9 years of experience teaching History:
1) What I feel is left out of these studies, because it is very hard to measure, is the QUALITY of the homework assigned. All homework is not created equal, and measuring the effectiveness of homework based on hours spent doing it strikes me as a little like measuring the nutrition a child gets by the hours they spend at the dinner table.
2) I would honestly rather assign no homework. The reasons I do assign it are these:
a) that reading, which can be done at home, is necessary to discussing history meaningfully as a class. If we read in class, it would cut our discussion time by at least half.
b) If I assign no written work on the reading, they don't read.
c) Some things, like writing research papers, actually demand that students start to do work on their own with little help from the teacher. It's a skill I'm trying to develop, so they aren't stunned by it in college.
d) Another skill I am trying to teach is writing about history, and if this were done exclusively in class, it would, again, kill our discussion time.
3) While this is anecdotal evidence, I have heard from MANY of my students, after they have graduated, that they are grateful for the homework (essays, research papers, etc.) that they were made to do, because it DID prepare them for college... and many of their college friends were not so fortunate. I take those stories seriously.
4) Lastly, I agree that homework can be assigned disastrously badly,, with horrible results for grades and for students' desire to learn. This should stop. I didn't weigh in on the discussion about the need to evaluate teachers, but I agree teachers can be and should be evaluated. I do not, right now, have a suggestion for how. I have yet to see a way I think is good, but am open to suggestions.
 Here's my response:

Some kids don't have to do homework to do well on the test. Some kids study (I suspect they didn't pay attention in class or don't formulate a good plan of attack) and still perform poorly. But in general, as a teacher, students who did homework, did well on quizzes. Those who did well on quizzes, did well on tests. Part of it is practice. The more you see/work with a thing, the better you tend to do. Now Marzano found a positive effect of homework, so I'm a little puzzled why that study isn't mentioned.

Plus, you can cover more, in more depth if you allow homework. Otherwise, you have to do all the students' studying for them in class, which defeats the point of having age-maturing students be mentally maturing (i.e. taking on more independence and responsibility).

I'm not sure how the studies were conducted either. Probably the best scenario would be to test the same students in similar scenarios and compare (Jonny takes a test without homework prep and another with). Of course, said homework should be *relevant* to the test.

Problematic: Comparing standardized scores to homework only makes sense if the teacher teaches to the test, which I suspect most teachers do not do.

Also problematic: How many teachers pass kids so they don't have to fight parents or the kid or the school system, or because they felt sorry for the kid, whatever?

Another problem is that students copy homework, which undermines the point of learning. This would also be masked on any studies like these mentioned.

Also, a number of teachers don't weigh homework heavily in the students' grades because they copy. Therefore, it would not show up in a student's grade. If a lot of teachers did that (I know of many who do), then it would not make a significant dent in showing a relationship between homework and actual grades.

I don't recall receiving homework until fourth grade myself. Maybe I did. But if homework is useful in later grades, lower grades will have to transition students toward homework. This isn't to say that students should be over burdened. As a teacher, I probably over-burdened my first year or two, but under-burdened the students, thereafter--just enough to make them practice concepts outside of class. I'm not sure how other teachers view this.

Someone mentioned word-searches being a waste of time.

This may or may not be true. I'd double-check with the teacher to see what they were up to--to see if the homework had a point (without being confrontational). I handed out word searches my first years when I was looking for the right combo to help students, but the word-search was optional (interestingly, some students who wouldn't do homework, did do the word searches, so at least they became more familiar with the terminology, which is pretty important to science). I gave a few points. Mostly it was for a brain break as we worked in a A-B block schedule (i.e. 1.5 hour classes). Research shows that humans work most effectively if we have breaks (52 on, 17 off). Writing down the definitions on the back, however, was not optional. Even then, one could skip all homework in my class and still get a good to decent grade, depending the school.

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