Thursday, October 6, 2016

Common Sense and Homework

Nothing gets teachers, parents, and students fired up more than homework. One of the reasons for this is the contradictory research findings that seem to suggest that homework both supports and prevents learning, both encourages and discourages effective habits, and is both emotionally healthy and emotionally destructive. As intelligent people who all want the best for our kids, what are we to believe?

Great book!
We believe decisions about homework should consider these three things:
  • The research about the brain and learning.
  • The research about child and adolescent development.
  • Good old fashioned common sense.

The research about the first two can be found fairly easily (we suggest James Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain, Eric Jensen’s Teaching with the Brain in Mind, and Thomas Armstrong’s The Power of the Adolescent Brain), so in this blog, we are going to focus on the third.

Common Sense and Homework:

Quality:  Common sense tells us that at certain levels or ages, homework could very well have a positive impact on learning.  However, we also know that for learning to be positively affected by homework, it needs to be high quality homework. All homework is not created equal. And let’s be honest...we all think our work isn’t busy-work. But if our homework isn’t created or assigned based on what we know about learning, and if it isn’t directly used to inform instruction, then there’s a pretty good chance it is, in fact, busy-work.
  • Rigor: More is not better. The classes that give the most homework are not the most rigorous. This is a huge misunderstanding, one it’s time we stop perpetuating. More does not equal harder; difficulty is not the same thing as complexity.  (The Critical Difference Between Complexity and Difficulty)
  • Standards-based and Differentiated: If we are in a standards-based class, then homework needs to be standards-based. And if we are in a standards-based class, then we know precisely what each student needs, and therefore, we know that homework needs to be differentiated. Yes, this is difficult. Here’s a link to a handout about Homework in a Standards-Based Class.

Time: For years, we have heard that students should have 10 min of homework per grade. So a first grader should have 10 minutes, a 7th grader 70 minutes, and a 12th grader 120 minutes. While the simplicity of this rule is seductive, does it make sense?
  • We know that learning is not time-dependent. For some students, a task that we intend to take 30 minutes will actually take three times that. For others, less time. So if we are going to play by the 10 minute rule, we need to be assigning tasks that are not time-dependent. In other words, we need to tell students that finishing a task is not the goal (and then we need to stand by that, not punishing or rewarding students based on what they have finished--not taking away recess or free time because a task we assigned for homework is incomplete). For example, asking students to read for 25 minutes is okay; asking them to read 4 chapters may not be. Also, this rule does not mean 10 min per class, per grade. It’s total. That means if a student in 9th grade has 8 classes a day, then each teacher should be expecting just over 10 minutes for their individual class; in a 4 block day, that means about 20 minutes of work per class.
  • We know students are busy outside of the traditional school day. Kids have family responsibilities, jobs, chores, sports, music, clubs, and after-school programs. All of these things enrich our students’ lives, and provide avenues for them to learn incredibly valuable life skills; we want to encourage these activities, not have students opt out because they’re too busy. But a typical 6th grade child may attend school from 7:30 to 3:00, go to an afterschool activity until 5:00, get home and settled by 5:30, then be in bed by 8:00. That leaves a possible 2 and a half hours of awake time in the entire day that is not school controlled. That’s absurd. Add dinner, chores, and 60 minutes of homework...and those hours are gone. As teachers we often lament the lack of creativity and imagination in our students, and yet we allow so little time for them to be imaginative outside of our classrooms. Kids need time to be kids. They need time to play and imagine and be bored. And brains need time to consolidate—which means time to play and SLEEP!  (TED Talk on the relationship between the brain and sleep)

Habits: Despite pockets of research that say homework teaches students to have effective habits, common sense says this is probably just not true.
  • Teaching v. Evaluating: Homework more often rewards or punishes existing habits, and sometimes speaks more to the habits of the parents than of the students. If our goal is to help students learn time management and organizational skills, there are many ways to do that that are way more effective, measurable, and equitable than homework. In addition, what we know about child and adolescent learning tells us that humans do not fully develop their executive functioning skills until their early 20s (Armstrong) asking students to be good at these at age 8 or 12 or even 17 may be developmentally inappropriate. Here’s a blog that discusses these issues and makes suggestions about how to instruct habits: Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?
  • Preparing students for the “next level”: In the middle schools, we say we need to assign homework to prepare students for high school, and in high school we say we need even more to prepare them for college. The best way to prepare students for the rigorous work and complex thinking they will encounter in the future is to teach them how to ask questions, how to think to learn. We don’t need tons of homework to do this. In fact, we can do this much more effectively within our classrooms. Side note: The average college student spends 15 hours a week in class, and 15 hours outside of class doing homework (citation). The average high school student spends 35-40 hours in school each week, not including homework. Hmmmm…..seems to us we could use this time more effectively, rather than just adding on to it.

You can find research to back up your opinion about homework, regardless of your beliefs (unless you teach K4, in which case there is growing consensus that homework is not beneficial). While all this contradictory information could be viewed as frustrating, why not view it as liberating? Let’s use what we know as professionals--not what was done to us or what we’ve always done--combined with our common sense to develop a homework policy or belief system that we (and our families) feel good about. We need to make sure it supports what we know about learning, respects our students as young people, and maybe most importantly, makes common sense.

Still want to see research about homework? Okay. We get it. We have spent hours reading it all as well. Here’s a great resource from Brandon Blom called “If We’re Going to Do Homework, Let’s Do It Better”: there is a really comprehensive list of resources at the end!