EdLevity: Uncle Curmudgeon Gives Aspiring Teachers The Lowdown on Homework
Every now and then, I come across a letter from Uncle Curmudgeon, an old retired teacher, to his niece, Kennari, an aspiring new one. I’m happy to pass another along!
It was another interesting week here at Sweet Meadow Acres for Retired Teachers. Last Tuesday’s dinner was fun. A bunch of us had a chocolate milk bubble blowing contest. Mr. Keene (a former physics teacher) tried to pass it off as an experiment in surface tension, but the dining hall attendants weren’t amused. While we were being reprimanded, several compatriots at a nearby table created a diversion, and I sneaked some tater tots into my day jacket pocket. I’ll find something creative to do with those later.
Now, on to business. In your last letter you asked for my thoughts on homework. Are schools still doing that? I thought that’s a practice that would have died out by now, but I suppose expecting something in education to fade just because it has little value displays my developing senility.
First, let’s explore why it’s so ineffective by considering a few typical kinds of homework and why they don’t work.
Drill and Kill: (Complete problems 1-30 on page 35. Memorize the conjugations of these these five verbs. Practice these 15 spelling words.)
Deliver me from the 1950s. Are we still mushing mind-numbing rote content into kids’ heads? A third of your class can already do these tasks independently and a third need help to be successful, so right off the bat, two-thirds of the class is out of luck. I know, I know. You don’t want to waste precious class time on low-level content, but is students’ after-school time worth wasting?
Projects: (Be ready for the science project at the end of the month. Study a country and prepare a presentation.)
While more valuable than rote work, projects require coaching. How will you support students if the work happens when you’re not around? You’re not counting on parents to help are you? Though some will be delighted (and take over) others don’t have the time or skills to help. It’s the kids who most struggle with school work who fail when it comes to at-home projects. Keep projects in school where you can model, teach, and help students practice skills of time management, complex thinking, and creativity that great projects require.
Finish Classwork: (You didn’t have time to finish your work in school? Then finish it for homework!)
Ask yourself, why did the student not finish the work in class? Did she not understand the task? Did she need help with skills or content? Does she struggle with attention and time management? None of these things will be any better at home—they’ll likely be worse. Let’s be clear, “giving” students more time (especially away from the teacher) is not differentiating or personalizing, it’s simply weak management.
Flipped Learning: (Read Chapter 5 and be ready for tomorrow’s discussion. Watch this video and write a summary, so you’re ready to go deeper in class.)
I get the gist of this newfangled flipped learning thing. Teaching shouldn’t be all about lecturing, and kids should more actively explore content. Great. I love it. Just don’t require that work to happen at home. Like project work, it’s a crap shoot as to whether or not kids can get the help they need away from school. More importantly though, what about students who work after school? Or babysit their three younger cousins? Or are homeless and don’t even have a place to work? What happens when these kids can’t/don’t do their homework? Now they’re even more lost at school—unable to participate fully in the day’s work! Let’s set all kids up for success each day, not just the ones who are already responsible or come from stable homes.
Read and Report: (Read each night, and in your reading journal, write the title, author, three new vocabulary words, the number of pages, and a brief summary of what you read.)
Now we’re getting close. Reading at home is something we should encourage all kids to do. Whether it’s a novel, magazines, the backs of baseball cards, or anything else, let’s help kids discover (and deepen!) their passion for reading. But for Pete’s sake, let’s not beat the joy out of it by attaching clerical work to it. Imagine snuggling up in bed with a favorite book only to remember that once you’re finished you have to do all of that other malarkey. Yuck! Try it yourself for a few weeks and see whether you want to read more or less.
So what should you do, you ask? Here are a few ideas.
Stop giving homework. Can you get away with this? Your students (and 75% of their parents) would likely breathe a sigh of relief. Just think of all of the time you would be able to devote to more energizing and worthwhile aspects of your work!
Minimize the damage. Can’t just quit cold turkey? Send home 5-10 minutes of work instead of an hour. Remember that even the simplest task will take some students a surprising amount of time, especially after a long day at school, when their energy is low. No more reading logs! No more complex projects!
Educate parents. Be proactive. Tell parents what you know about homework and why you do what you do. Help them learn about the research that shows that homework doesn’t amount to a hill of achievement beans. Help them understand that volume does not equal challenge. Offer fun ideas for ways they might extend learning at home.
Don’t cave to colleagues. Sometimes, it’s other teachers who cling to the myth that homework builds responsibility and skills. (I once taught in a school where the teachers who gave the most homework—and did so with much chest-thumping about being rigorous and challenging—were the first to file a grievance if asked to do anything outside of contract time!) Stand up for what you know is right and what is best for your kids!
Give optional extensions. For kids who are interested in extending classwork outside of school, give some ideas for ways to do so that are fun, independent, and optional: games, cool websites to explore, and (yes, now’s the time) projects! Keep these invitational and don’t incentivize them (or they become mandatory for some).
It’s easy for an old codger like me to scream about homework from my safe rocking chair here at Sweet Meadow Acres. I don’t envy your struggle.
That being said, I have just one more thought. As I watched my own kids and grandkids suffer through tears at the counter, family fights, meltdowns and mayhem, and feelings of failure—all over multiplication facts, verb conjugations and the capital of Mexico—I have wondered. Do schools even have the right to dictate what families do after school? Why do teachers get to commandeer evenings and weekends, doling out required assignments? And as a society, is this really what we want? Are we intentionally casting the next generation of workaholics who will take work home on the weekends, neglecting their friends and families, trading a fulfilling life for a life simply filled?
All right, all right. I’m off my soap box. It’s time for me to call it a day as well. Besides, Mr. Keene and I need to hatch a plan for those tater tots. I think Betty Ann (a former health teacher) might find a surprise in her shower cap later!
Mike Anderson is an educational consultant who leads great learning throughout the United States and beyond. He is an award winning teacher and the author of many books. You can follow him on Twitter at @balancedteacher. To explore more resources about homework, explore Mike’s Pinterest board, Rethinking Homework.