I have just finished reading Alfie Kohn’s ‘The Homework Myth’. It was a book that reinforced many of the things that I already believed about homework, and left me with a few more things to contemplate. Homework is definitely an issue that divides parents and teachers but many of the arguments that come out are based on very little evidence; much of it on what happened to them when they were in school. What I find even worse is when schools, or teachers, are judged by the amount of homework that they give as if it relates to ‘rigor’ in education.
I suppose I should start by giving my position; I am not against homework. I am against how and what is currently given and the reasons that many give for assigning it.
Many schools have a homework policy; my own school has a recommendation of how much homework students should be doing each night. The problem with this, even if it is only a recommendation, is that it is assumed that a set amount of homework needs to be given. This has the effect of causing teachers to give ‘busy work’, homework that is given just to meet a requirement rather than to help learning. “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night. Later on we’ll figure out what to do.” as Kohn writes in The Homework Myth.
Differentiated learning is a term that all teachers are familiar with. Why is it then that homework tends to be one size fits all? Students are given the same work to complete in the same amount of time. Is it fair that a top student who would only take 5 minutes to complete a task be given the same work that a lower ability student will take 2 hours to complete or vice versa? You would not allow this to happen in a classroom but it is perfectly acceptable for homework. If a student is advanced at a concept why would they need to do more of it at home? If a student does not understand a concept, why would you let them do it at home? Is it not our role to facilitate the learning of our students? I prefer education to be an example of individualised learning where each student takes their own learning path to one of differentiation where all students are doing the same thing.
It also worries me that teachers attribute homework to many skills such as time management, organisation, reliability and responsibility to name a few. Let’s just imagine for a moment that homework did teach these skills; once they had become proficient at these skills we would no longer have to give homework to teach them, right? Therefore most homework could stop in Year 2. There is no research that shows homework does indeed teach these skill but even if it did, is there not a better way to teach them in our classrooms that does not involve sending students home to do further work? As Kohn said “Homework is useful at helping gets get better at homework”
Like any issue in education there is research that is used to back up both points of view. The view of one person that I do value is that of John Hattie in his research Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement (http://goo.gl/3Xrhd). In looking at factors that influence student achievement, homework was bound to come up. By using a scale where 1.0 is associated with an increase of one standard deviation; or “advancing student achievement by two to three years, improving the rate of learning by 50% or a correlation between some variable and achievement”, and where .40 represents the “Zone of Desired Effect” where the greatest impact is had on student achievement, homework was only .29. This is the sort of information that teachers and parents need to be aware of if appropriate homework policies are to be introduced in schools.
So what do we do? As teachers and parents we need to begin asking questions about the value of the homework that is given to our students: Why has it been given? What is the learning that is involved in completing it? Is it relevant for the level of the student? What is the benefit of doing the work at home? These are just some questions that if asked may make schools take a close look at their current homework policies.