Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Does Homework Raise Attainment?

In the past you have seen me talk about edchat. In short, it is a conversation that takes place on Twitter every Tuesday night. Participants vote on the topic and during the chat, add a the hashtag, #edchat to their tweets. (Wanna know more? Check out this great summary post by a great friend of mine, Shelly Terrell.)

Last night over 100 educators, (who tweeted over 1100 times and even made #edchat a top 5 trending topic in Twitter Search) joined the conversation. The topic: Homework. Another great friend of mine, Tom Whitby, arranged for Alfie Kohn, a nationally recognized expert in the area of homework to participate. In his book, The Homework Myth, he, "systematically examines the usual defenses of homework – that it promotes higher achievement, “reinforces” learning, teaches study skills and responsibility. None of these assumptions, he shows, actually passes the test of research, logic, or experience."

Homework is one of those issues that there rarely middle ground. On one side of the debate are those that say we have to have it to keep students accountable and make sure learning takes place outside of the classroom. On the other side are those that say our traditional system of homework should be replaced with meaningful assignments like reflecting in blog posts and contributing to wikis. Here is a summary of some of the thoughts from last night:

  • Homework is not beneficial if it is given solely for the sake of being given. It needs to have a purpose - a goal - and needs to fit into the larger scheme of learning. It needs to be something that all students can complete so not to turn people off who cannot, but it should be challenging enough that the upper-level students aren't bored with it. It should, therefore, be differentiated by students OR should/could be made non-mandatory.
  • If a student is able to demonstrate that he/she knows the content and is able to use the information suitably, there is no reason for that student to be required to do homework on said content.
  • My mind is racing after #edchat! I've never agreed with the philosophy of giving a lot of homework and never will. I think it takes away from the learning that happens in the classroom. You never really know the environment of your students while doing homework, which is another huge piece to this. I simply know that I see better results in my third graders when they are given little or no homework. If I do assign homework, it's something authentic to the students (reading a book they choose or writing in their writing notebook or researching a topic of interest and sharing it with me the next day or the next week).
  • Great chat tonight! Lots of great info. My summary: as with most things in ed, tools/medium are not the real issue as much as quality learning and thinking. EX, real problem with homework is not always the work, but our ideas of what homework is because of past associations. Assumption is made that homework=busywork. If that is true, yes, ditch hw. If homework is engaging and relevant and given in moderation, I say keep it in. Nice counter points on student/family rights and overworking kids, though! Lots of great viewpoints shared tonight!
  • Homework is a tool that reinforces what students learn in class. If students are not assigned some tasks to do at home, they do nothing and forget what they've practiced in class. It can be creative and interesting.
  • As a relatively new teacher (6 yrs) with little overlap with my parenting years, I always resented the thought that teachers felt they needed to manage my parent involvement with my child by assigning homework. I also believe my children are not readers for pleasure because reading was always work at home for them. And I have never believed anyone should have to come home and continue working.
  • As a teacher, I am investigating how I lessen the emphasis of homework in my classroom by suggesting rather requiring work outside of class that would be designed to further investigate or enrich what is going on in the classroom.
There were so many more comments. You can read them here.

Two things kept coming up over and over. The first was about reading. Many who participated commented that they believe teachers and schools kill the joy of reading by pushing texts upon them and have a required number of minutes or pages per night. I would have to agree. I can remember growing up, lugging home my 500 page literature book to read some story that had some meaning about life and answer all the questions at the end. For me it killed reading enjoyment. I regularly would skip those assignments and read what I wanted. I have no problem with kids reading at night. But why try to leash them to texts they have now relation too? If I see a student checking out a book about monster trucks, basketball, Harry Potter, Twilight, etc, I am happy that they are reading.

The other issue that came up was meaningful learning. Homework needs to be meaningful. Alfie challenged us to think about this. What is meaningful work? Is doing all the odd problems in the math book meaningful? Is writing a 3 page essay about the Battle of Bunker Hill meaningful? Do I think our ideas and system of homework in this country are outdated? Yes! Do I think we should abandon it all together. Well, that depends. Students should not have hours and hours of work to do each night. That turns students off of learning and takes value out of education. Meaningful homework for me would be just what I described above. Have students respond to a blog post about something they talked about in class. They can then comment to each other and the blog becomes an extension of the classroom. The point here is to think about meaningful learning. Does the homework you assign add value to your classroom?

We were so fortunate and lucky to have Alfie Kohn take part in our edchat. He provided an interesting prospective and posed questions that really make you think about where you stand when it comes to homework. He made a chapter from his book, The Homework Myth, available and I encourage you to read it.

When you have some time read the entire transcript of the chat and head back here and tell me your thoughts on homework. What is your idea of homework? Should we keep doing it the way we are doing it or is change in order? How do you add value to your homework?

Image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons. View the original here.


  1. I find it frustrating that this issue is often viewed only from the extremes: either give homework regularly or don't ever give homework. I can recall some homework assignments (projects, mostly) that I loved and from which I learned. I would not have taken the initiative on my own to start these projects, however. Viewing homework as an extension of classroom instruction should cause us to view homework as we do teaching. Is the instruction effective? Is additional independent work an effective instructional method for this material? Does the assignment promote the type of processing that will deepen understanding/promote learning? I agree that it should NEVER be busy work, and that it should be given at far more rarely than it currently is. But I question the wisdom of making a blanket "policy" at either extreme. I think it's like most other things in teaching: intentionally designed and used wisely, it can foster learning. Used thoughtlessly, it's ineffective.

    Proficiency, especially with skill development, comes through practice. If Michael Jordan had only practiced basketball during his school's mandated practice sessions, I think his proficiency would have suffered. While we're not necessarily trying to produce NBA-level mathematicians in fifth grade, the principle still has merit. True, a student possessing skill proficiency does not need the additional practice, but that does not negate the value of additional practice for those still mastering the skill. But such homework will only be worthwhile IF in-class practice WITH formative assessment AND instructive feedback PRECEDES the assigning of homework. Again, if it is an extension of effective instruction and intentionally designed for the right type of processing by the student, homework can foster learning. All the if's must be in place, otherwise the homework is just busy work, or worse, a detriment to learning.

  2. I love what Kevin says here. The goal in my mind is to teach people to think, not to stuff content into their heads and then hammer the same thing home in the evening by repetition. Much of what I hear seems so alien to the way I learned. I don't imagine I'm a model for everyone by any means, but maybe my example at least provides another way of looking at it.

    I had the opposite experience from many people, I did almost all of my learning at home by reading and finding resources on my own and with the help of my parents, motivated lifelong learners themselves. The classroom for me I remember mostly as a place to get ideas, clarify requirements, and verify whether I was "getting it."

    Ironically, assigned homework was mostly a waste of time, yet most of what I learned, I learned at home. After finishing the stupid assignments, I broke open my own books to start actually learning the concepts and finding ways to apply them to things I was interested in or imagining ways to make them interesting.

    I really feel as if teaching people how to do this sort of thing would help a great deal in resolving the homework dilemma.

    Maybe this is a pipe dream for others, but it worked for me.

    The edchat was interesting, though I felt very alienated by how most people were thinking. Alfie has some wonderful ideas, applied judiciously with individual prudence at least.

  3. If we are considering a "policy" for homework, then, perhaps it should be in the form of guidelines rather than blanket statements about when and how much. For example, a guideline might read: The teacher will give homework that enhances or extends the learning in the classroom. And then teachers might have to keep a reflective log that explains the reasoning and rationale for the homework assignments they give. If we have teacher learning teams within our schools we could then analyze homework assignments using protocols in the same way we use protocols to look at student work.

  4. Homework can also be preparation for the following day. In lit classes, pre-reading text allows for richer discussion, debate and development. Creative projects have greater depth when linked to deep, rich discussion of the texts presented.

  5. I agree with Alfie Kohn that only behavior can be reinforced, not understanding, and would prefer that homework is not required. Today, I found out that my child's kindergarten class will receive a weekly homework packet of 20 minutes of homework per night. It is paramount for my child's learning that he enjoy whatever activities we do to broaden his experience with his world, not just classroom topics. I am flexible and want to collaborate with his teacher on how to do this in a way that meets her needs. Any suggestions on how to best approach this with his teacher? It seems ironic to ask her to read Chapter 2 of The Homework Myth.

  6. I also enjoyed the edchat and look forward to new ones. My feeling is that HW is too monolithic a topic. I believe the utility of HW varies widely based on several varialbes including age, subject, home environment, parent involvement, tasks assigned, tie in to class, etc. I also wrote a blog post with my reflections on the discussion.

  7. Great summary! I also look forward to the next session.

    We also did a blog post about #edchat from a parent's perspective.

  8. How amazing that you got Alfie Kohn to tweed at #edchat. My learning team read that book and it has had a dramatic impact on my teaching. I agree that homework in many regards needs to be supplanted with alternate means of rehearsal, and application of knowledge. Since I have started to create online activities for students to use, I feel that student mastery of content has increased with less tedium. I also use blogging as a way to increase language fluency in the L2 classroom. In the second language classroom there is still a need for students to practice recall of words, forms and syntax, but Web2.0 offers abundant ways that students can practice without the rote recall, and tedious fill in the blank type exercises of the past. Our students have been raised using the internet, now we have the responsibility to create meaningful activities to tap their interests and skills.