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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.

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Christine Onieda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe homework is justifiable. The old drill and practice is not the type of homework that benefits all students. Typically when you give a lot of problems on the same topic, the level of difficulty increases and if a student does not understand the easier problems, they are not going to be successful on the harder ones. As an educator we know that it is harder to break a bad habit than it is to introduce a new one. Therefore, on nightly homework, I follow three headers; review, recent material, and new material, presented at an APL conference. Under the review section there are three problems from the beginning of the year to help the students retain knowledge throughout the year. For the recent material section there are three to four problems in the current unit so the student can continuously review the topics that would be assessed during the unit. Lastly, any new material that was learned that day in class the students have three to four problems to practice. This allows the student to attempt new material and then review it in class the next day while knowing that the topic will show up again under the recent material section. From day one in my class students know that my homework is ten problems a night and that I am looking for attempts, not prefect papers. I can usually get most students to buy into my homework policy and the student builds confidence throughout the nightly homework due to the order in which the homework is presented.

Sakura Mizuno's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the keyword here is "well-crafted homework". Not only they are justifiable but they are also needed. It is a useful tool to re-inforce main ideas and concepts of the lecture in order to build the foundation for the next level. Unfortunately I have seen the fair share of "busy works" or assigned repetitive worksheet as homeworks, all in the name of teaching discipline to the kids. Personally I view this latter approach and philosophy of homework as a complete failure: most of the time it does not provide any further value in the active learning process and only make learning more of a chore. In that context, student will tend to complete homework because it is required for the grade rather than a helpful process in understanding the subject.

Anita Burke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This will be my second full year teaching high school chemistry. I feel like I want someone to just tell me what homework to give, how much to give and when to give it. But I feel like I understand the concept. I believe that students need to practice what was taught in the lessons. If they are to learn the material, practice is an integral part of the process. In the boarding school where I work, cheating/copying is a very big problem, so I am only giving it a 10% weight this year. My logic is that if we practice together in class, they will be engaged, we can make it fun, and I will know whether or not they get it. Then, homework is given as practice, and the types of questions will stretch their abilities. Instead of giving them ten more problems just like the ones we did in class, I want to guide them with well-designed questions to expand their logical capabilities. I think this general format will work at least half the time, when they are learning to work different types of problems or learning to interpret data.

Nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe homework is a necessary part of the school experience. It provides practice and lets both student and teacher know if the concept was actually learned. But, there is a point when too much is too much. When my son was in fourth grade, he came home one night with 11 different assignments. He only had five subjects, yet he was given 11 separate assignments. He spent 4 hours from the time he got home, we stopped to eat dinner, then continued until he was done at 9:00. I argued with the teacher and principal that this was an excessive amount. I was told that is was necessary to prepare the students for the (then) 4th grade proficiency tests. I still believe that it was too much. There needs to be a balance between learning in school and practice at home.

Misty's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel like often times homework does not accomplish what a teacher would like for it to accomplish. I do not put much emphasis on homework. I have had children to bring in homework that was completed by their brother,sister,cousin, and even parents. How did this help the student? I realize that not all children do this, but is it a fair assessment for not knowing?

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