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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

In Defense of Homework: Is There Such a Thing As Too Much?

A former teacher stands by her assignments.
By Lisa Morehouse
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades

As a middle school and high school teacher, I assigned a lot of homework to my students. And though writers such as Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, make sound arguments against it -- particularly the drill-and-kill variety -- I stand behind the homework I gave. Why? In the twelve years I taught in low-income urban and rural schools, I saw my students extend their skills, their understanding of their communities, and their sense of themselves when given well-crafted take-home assignments.

Credit: Kay Pat

My long-term goals for my students, and the skills I thought they'd need to reach those goals, drove what homework I assigned. I wanted all my students to have the opportunity to attend college, to carry a lust for learning into adulthood, to have engaging employment, and to build meaningful relationships. To do so, they needed to adopt some learning behaviors -- to engage intellectually outside of class, access resources, read independently, write and revise, and work with others.

Ideally, students have meaningful after-school internships where they would apply classroom learning, build independence, and foster relationships with peers and adults. Because we're not living that ideal, I believe the right homework can help.

My students didn't have instant access to an academic network, so often I required them to identify and use community resources: They got library cards. They identified tutoring centers. They frequently found appropriate adults and peers to engage and edit their writing. These assignments helped combat their teacher fatigue and required that they stretch beyond their comfort zones to ask bosses, older cousins, or former teachers for academic help. To be honest, some of these assignments mattered to me but were hardly the standards-based activities my administrators looked for during class hours; homework sometimes allowed me to address my standards, not just California's.

Metacognitive assignments also proved particularly effective. Students completed logs describing their thought processes during independent reading. Or, building on reading strategies I'd teach in class, they'd revisit chunks of text at home, recording their questions, connections, and predictions. Later sharing these responses with their peers, students made meaning of text together (often while I took roll!) and I quickly assessed what needed reteaching.

The more metacognitive strategies I taught, the more freedom students had with homework; by year's end students picked strategies from a huge "toolbox" to help them grapple with that night's text. Students overwhelmingly reported that metacognition, much of which has to be done independently, built their reading confidence and skills.

Perhaps the most motivating and challenging homework? Oral history projects. Students interviewed family members about immigration and migration, transcribed tape, created and revised narratives, and published their work. In the process, they didn't just address hard-to-cover standards, participate in organic grammar exercises, and handle equipment; more importantly, they connected with adults in their lives, learned about history (their own, each others', and California's), and started to see themselves as the community's storytellers. All these results came from the interviews, which took place in kitchens and family rooms across San Francisco.

These assignments worked for my students, and necessarily took place outside of school. Even simple journal responses to literature, letters to me, or bringing in found poetry gave students a chance at personal expression otherwise impossible in large classes. And when the assignment was right, students were active rather than passive, making connections between one day of class and the next, not waiting for their teacher to provide the next "show."

As with most conversations about education, we can't separate the question of homework from questions of equity. I'm not arguing that thoughtfully created homework levels the playing field -- affluent families surely assist and prod more than struggling ones. But I worry about the outcome if every U.S. school were to embrace Kohn's radical query: What if we just didn't assign homework at all? While middle- and upper-class families still took vacations, paid for tutoring, and enrolled kids in music classes and language schools, would children from families with less social capital have even fewer learning opportunities to help them in school?

Even if we wanted to, in the end, most teachers won't experiment with Kohn's imaginings and ban all homework. In our No Child Left Behind era of scripted curricula and diminished teacher creativity, few instructors have the autonomy to make such decisions on their own.

What the anti-homework camp does, though, is remind us that there are different types of homework and that those differences are significant. Teachers who read Kohn's argument against homework probably will, as I have, revisit what homework they assign and why. Kohn does for teachers what good homework should do for kids -- he gets us reflecting on experiences, thinking about practice, and talking to each other about the meaning of our work.

Lisa Morehouse taught secondary English for twelve years in San Francisco and rural Georgia. She is now a public-radio journalist and an education consultant.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Vanessa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year of teaching and I don't assign written homework. I have a large number of students who are being raised by grandparents or are from single parent homes. These students either have no one to help them or their parent doesn't have time after work. Our school has a policy on assigning homework. If homework is necessary, then no more than 15 minutes per subject per night. This is good. An earlier post discussed a student having 4 hours of homework. This is ridiculous.

Jackie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm in 6th grade, and homework is UNBELIEVIBLE! The first few weeks, I had NO time to go out and play with my friends or watch tv. I even have tons of homework on the weekends! Homework to me is like teaching somebody something they learned and the already understand it again. Homework just gets in the way of everything I do. If somebody asks me if they want me to come over their house or watch a movie, I can't because I still have homework. I guess it's something you need to have...

Jackie

Laney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm in a debate about homework currently for debate club. I'm arguing that people should have homework, but I need more reasons why. If you want to help me out just post a comment on why there should be homework. Also feel free to talk about why kids shouldnt have homework because I LOVE a good debate. Thanks! Also I am a middle school student so that's why its sooo hard to argue in the defense of homework since every night it practically ruins my social life. but anyway thanks again!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lisa, your argument is enthusiastic but fails to persuade. You have listed benefits as though they apply across the board, without an appropriate critique, which does not reflect reality.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What if they didn't understand the work in class and then you offer them homework that is another step beyond what already confounds them? Hrm. It sounds like a good idea for some students but a bad idea for others.

Dave's picture

It is so hard to comment on homework. I can see how some students do not need homework. They are responsible and participate many after school activities. I have found (I am a high school teacher) that most students who are responsible and participate in after school activities complete their homework on a regular basis. Completing homework teaches those students to manage their time. Adults looking back at students who are doing homework often forget that learning to manage multiple tasks took practice. Many students who do not do homework assignments are unorganized and in most cases have little parental pressure to complete homework. This is not always the case. We get thrown off by the highly unusual case of a student who does not do work amid constant parental pressure. For the students who do not care and parental pressure is non-existant, there is no helping these students with current school resources and under current law. Students who complete their homework surpass students who do not. It would be easier to not give homework. As a teacher I can see that students who complete their homework are better prepared for the lesson the next day. Those students get better grades on tests. Students who do not do homework are not less prepared and do poorly on tests. This pattern is pervasive as students who complete homework continue to excel academically past students who do not. This compounds over time leading to the disparity of student readiness for college by 12th grade. So, should we hold back students who are ready and willing to complete homework that would help them with organization while also helping them to retain and apply content knowledge so students who are unwilling do not get left behind?

Beaker's picture

I teach on the college level, which I admit is quite different than normal public schools. There is a good deal of reading in these classes. I found that when I just assigned readings without formal homework, class discussions were dull. Even with reading guides to help students identify the more important info for the class, students didn't seem to have picked up on the info. I was never sure if they read the material or not.
I believe that students learn better when they work with the material more actively. I am not in a position to ditch the textbooks entirely. However, I now give homework assignments that ask the students to DO something with the material they are reading- to reflect, relate, clarify, synthesize, apply. I probably spend more time devising the HW than my students take to do it.:) But I think it enables them to have more of a grasp on the material. We can then take that material and discuss it, further apply it and even do some fun activities based on it in class.

alina's picture

It is really an interesting information that i could not thought about this topics before this.Teachers have the responsibility to help for concentrating and interacting with their corresponding subjects.

Mick Mack's picture

The problem I believe is more fundamental as both writers, Alfie Kohn and the author above accept , IN PRINCIPLE, that being in an educational institution is actually, healthy, and worthwhile. Says who? They are both trying to rectify in their own way a symptom of education, which is not designed to stimulate but to control and inculcate with the need to be productive for the dominant economic system. That's the problem and the arrogance of such people that humans need a "passion for learning" is complete veracity. Capacity and desire to learn is inherent in the species, we've been doing it for millions of years as an evolving organism. To tell us that we need somebody to stand in front of us and show us how to live is BS and a waste of time and energy. Don't believe these people who would have you turn out as imbeciles to continue the carnage and destruction. What they believe they know is not worth knowing.

Marley Howards's picture

I do believe that there is such a thing as too much homework. Some teachers can be insensitive to the amount of school work brought at home. Homework is only a glimpse of how the student understood the lesson. - Marl of Homework-desk.com

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