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.