Monday, January 7, 2013

What's the deal about homework?

Today's comment is in response to a blog by a teacher on the homework debate.

The "deal" with homework is actually quite different from what the current debate suggests. It's not just a question of what the research says, and what's good and bad homework, but one of individual capabilities and lines of authority. There is no doubt that some subjects lend themselves more to having homework than others, and there are differences in the impact of homework in elementary, middle, and high school. Unfortunately, we make erroneous assumptions about why children don't do their homework and, because of these misunderstandings, engage in strategies that cause considerable harm.

One underlying fact regarding homework is that, unlike schoolwork, it is defined by the assignment, not by the clock. The school day begins with a bell and ends with a bell, so the teacher and the student learn to work together within that context. Homework usually involves a time-estimate, but then has to be done until it gets done. It is touted as a way of teaching time-management, which it is not, since the time is not contained and defined, and hence, there is no clear time interval to manage. The slow working student necessarily must spend more time to get the work done, and inevitably finds himself with a choice of either putting in large amounts of time for mediocre grades, or not doing the work and getting bad grades.

By high school, that student has reached an age where he is more capable of dealing with his teachers, separate from his parents, and he may also have choices in the courses he takes that will require different amounts of homework. But in the lower grades, the student is really dependent on his parents to set the tone in the home, and, unfortunately, homework policies strip that parent of the authority to make those decisions. This is not always a problem. Certainly, there are many families for whom their children can manage the homework and the policy is in sync with what the family believes. But for homework-trapped children, the end result is a loss of authority on the parents' part and this is a devastating state of affairs for any child. Regardless of how "good" the parent is, we all have a need, when young, for our parents to be in charge. Homework policy that allows teacher judgment to override parental decision-making upsets the natural hierarchies of the family, and this can be extremely damaging to kids.

The other major issue is that teachers are not adequately taught the theory, research, and practice of homework-giving. This leads to wide variation among teachers regarding homework policy, but no place to go to learn what makes sense. Schools of education do not have courses on homework. Professional development resources for teachers are quite lacking in courses that teach them about homework. As a community, we expect that our teachers are trained in what they do, and, sadly, they don't get trained enough in how to give homework.


Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Teachers, and Students, published by Wyndmoor Press.

 I recommend giving copies of the book to the teachers at your child's school. Discount purchases are available through Wyndmoor Press. Single copies can be purchased at Amazon.



Christopher said...

"By high school, that student has reached an age where he is more capable of dealing with his teachers, separate from his parents, and he may also have choices in the courses he takes that will require different amounts of homework."

Our public HS does not have this option. "rigor" is the theme of the local USD and homework reduction, even for a special needs student with a 504, is considered a alteration of curriculum—not allowed. All courses are required to mandate a certain number of hours of nightly homework, 7 days a week.

My wife is a HS math teacher at a prestigious private school and spends weekends re-teaching material that was "taught" via homework. While it's certainly been good for her private tutoring business to essentially teach some two dozen students in the very same math dept's courses, it's a horrible situation for a public school to be failing this miserably while clinging steadfastly to the belief that "rigor" and lots of homework 7 days a week will make a successful student. I wish we had choices.

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