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At our house, the less homework the kids bring home, the better. We help them if they have complicated project assignments or confusing worksheets to complete, but we wish their teachers would spend more time in class working on these things. On the other hand, helping them gives us a chance to teach them how to write book reports and research the history of western civilization.

My son had a junior high Health class assignment last week to develop an anti-drug abuse message. He could create a poster, a story or poem, a skit, or a video. He was allowed to work with a partner, so he and a friend decided to make a video. They spent time at school writing a script, and then they got together on Saturday to film it. I don’t have a video camera, but the friend’s dad has one, so they met at his house to make the movie. The other boy’s dad shot the movie and edited it after my son left so they could turn it in on Monday.

I wasn’t real happy about how all that worked out for my son, even though he got an “A” grade, because he didn’t do very much to earn it. He did write the script, and he might have actually done as much work as he needed to do. And he probably learned a few things, but he didn’t learn very much about producing a video, which would have been cool, but they did the editing at the other kid’s house after he left. At my house, we don’t help the kids with homework by doing it for them. We do it with them when they have trouble.

When I asked him about the the fairness of having his friend’s dad work on his homework assignment, he wasn’t concerned in the least. It didn’t matter to him if another kid’s parent worked on his project. They offered to help, he said, and the teacher told them they could work with a partner. We told him that in the future, we wanted him to avoid group projects because they involve transportation and family schedules, variables that the kids don’t always have control over.

This little homework incident illustrates another problem with homework that I have as a teacher. I don’t require major projects to be done at home because the help available to the kids is very uneven. In some cases when it does get done, it’s done so poorly that I’m sorry it went home. If parent oversight isn’t the norm, and sometimes even when it is, the kids don’t get the same benefit as if they did the work in school.

In an interview about his book last year, The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn said there is no research to show that elementary school-aged kids benefit from homework. I don’t entirely agree, because I know that my own kids do learn from having us help them at home. But not every kid has parents with the time and ability to offer effective help. I do agree, though, that a lot of homework is unnecessary busy work, and it wouldn’t be missed. High school kids should have homework, I think. But I also think that everyone who does have it, should know that doing it will benefit them in some way besides the grade.

One of the promises of having internet technology in school is that kids will be able to collaborate on projects away from school, and that they can use the computer as a research tool. But, just as with books and pencils, the kids without solid parent help won’t get the same benefit from the technology as if they had good mentors, people with the time and knowledge to show them how to edit video, and how to avoid researching the entire history of western civilization. And then, some kids don’t have internet or computer access at home.

Kohn thinks that one possible reason homework persists despite it’s dubious benefits is that we entertain widespread misconceptions about learning. Time on task isn’t the same as engagement with a meaningful task. He also says that homework may be deliberately intended as busy work because people are suspicious of what kids might do with too much free time. One of the biggest problems with homework is that it often results from an assumption that kids should have homework regardless of what it is.

One of my goals this year is to help my students develop the skills and interests that would lead them to voluntarily spend time at home on projects that we’ve begun at school, even if it’s “only” reading. I’m not naive enough to imagine that everyone would do this, but that wouldn’t be any different than when I assign it, except that I wouldn’t have so many zeros in the gradebook. Homework should not be on the list of negative certainties in life for elementary school students.

8 Responses to “Death, Taxes, and Homework”

  1. Jenny says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. As a fifth grade teacher I struggle a lot with homework. I teach in a title 1 school in which kids have a wide range of support (or lack thereof) at home. I’ve drastically changed my homework in recent years and I’m feeling much more comfortable with it.

    But, I’m always looking for new ideas and thoughts from others.

  2. One important element of homework which I find is often neglected in these discussions is that it creates an expectation that creating a solitary space in your home/life for learning is a good thing to do. Now, I know that this is a luxury that many of our students don’t have- often the same students who lack the kind of parental support that some kids have in spades. Certainly, the majority of my students don’t have that space- and our neighbourhood community centers are doing what they can to create space for it, because, as my grade 12s told me, the public libraries in the area are too noisy and over-run with children for them to get any work done there. [and i'm not bashing on the libraries here- we just don't have enough space in the community where I teach to meet all of its needs. I'm happy that the young'uns are having fun.]

    So creating this expectation exacerbates socio-economic inequities, granted. But still- contemplation is an important part of learning. And our classrooms are busy and social and there’s no privacy there.

    Homework is also important to those of us with intrapersonal intelligence. When I get excited by an idea that I encounter in a classroom setting, the first thing I want to do is get away from everyone so that I can find out what I truly think about it. I always loved homework because it gave me the opportunity to get face to face with the ideas without distractions getting in the way. Even if time was created in the class for journaling or independent work, the awareness of the other bodies around me stifled me.

    Perhaps it’s possible for the work that needs to be done at the elementary level to be done within the school day- you folks who are working at this level know best on this one. And I agree that homework can be used to extend the regulatory eye of school into the home.

    But I wonder if it isn’t a good thing to require our students to begin to develop the habit to go away with an idea, and wrestle with it by themselves for a bit, and to help the ones who lack the space to do so to find it, right when they’re young?

    thank you for, as always, your thoughtful engagement of these ideas.

  3. Doug Noon says:

    Katehrine, I place a high value on contemplative time and space, so your point about our students’ need for those things is well taken. I also see the limitations of community and home resources in their ability to provide quiet places to study. The school day at the elementary level could be used to provide that, but we’ll have to extend the day. My school is currently working on a grant to fund personnel and resources for kids to stay an extra two hours, and be provided with enrichment activities and “study hall” time. Something like that may be part of an answer to the problem. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Brian Crosby says:

    Doug – My school and others in my district are also looking into “extending the day”, and maybe even extending the year for at risk students, – which I’ve advocated for years as long as it is done well and includes not only time to “catch-up” but time to have experiences – field trips, playing supervised games, “makin’ stuff”, you know … what we probably did afterschool and outside of school that actually was an important, integral part of our education.
    Brian

  5. [...] A clever commentary on homework. Now I wonder what kind of homework would a pirate want? Mostly, it has a low exchange value. [...]

  6. Alec Resnick says:

    Hi! I had a quick question. You remarked, “We told him that in the future, we wanted him to avoid group projects because they involve transportation and family schedules, variables that the kids don’t always have control over.” Did your dissatisfaction with his uneven involvement in the project play a role in that decision?

  7. Doug Noon says:

    Alec, we live a long way from everywhere, 20 miles away from Fairbanks, Alaska. When the kids need transportation to someone else’s house to work on a group project, our role in their schooling is reduced to being a driver, and it takes us at least an hour to go somewhere and return home. Then there’s the picking up, later. We’d prefer to spend that time doing something more productive. And yes, if the kids had been given a chance to see the project all the way through, I’d have considered the driving time well spent.

  8. Alec Resnick says:

    Ah, I see; that makes sense. Just curious!

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