Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Svadilfari

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Svadilfari

A curious thing appears to have happened at my school. Over the course of the past two years, it seems we’ve decreased the amount of homework we give. At least, I think we have. We haven’t had an official policy change, or even any recent formal discussions as a faculty about homework. But there’s been informal collegial reflection.

My information to date is only anecdotal. Yet, it appears potentially significant. A growing number of teachers have reported parental gratitude for reduced homework loads. I’ve received far fewer calls from parents complaining about too much homework; indeed only one or two in the past year and a half. And, very recently I’ve heard from several parents wondering why there isn’t more homework, concerned that perhaps the lack of work assigned at home reflects a lack of rigor in our school. After conversation, the few parents who have expressed to me their concern about what they perceive as too little homework have come to understand and respect the increasing quality of learning experience and achievement at our school resulting from intensive recent attention given to revisions in curriculum and assessment. Homework, I’ve explained, is not the way to evaluate what is occurring in school, but rather educational quality must be judged based on evidence of student learning. Quite, fairly, some thoughtful parents have recommended that we clearly articulate our school’s approach to homework. What we have written in our parent handbook, crafted with the active collaboration of our entire faculty, has not been revised recently and is a remnant of practices of years past, no longer accurate or reflective of our approach.

I have indirectly addressed homework in posts on our school blog in the past; The Homework Parents Give Me: A Deepening Dialogue Between Home and School; May 13, 2011 and Making Homework Meaningful and Manageable; September 8, 2011. Although those posts hint at conversations that were occurring among teachers and parents about homework, they are neither sufficiently recent nor sufficiently clear and direct. They are merely glimpses into a more quiet, yet potent, shift. Parents, or at least some of our parents, long for and deserve more. So do many of our teachers, having a strong sense of what their colleagues believe, but not a comprehensive understanding. Providing parents and teachers with the clarity they appropriately seek cannot be my task as principal alone; but must represent a shared faculty understanding and vision.

I wonder whether my perception that there is less homework assigned in my school than in past years is accurate. And, if there is less homework, I wonder how this reduction has come to be. I wonder how homework is integrated with school learning and how we can evaluate the impact of homework on quality of student learning. I imagine that serious dialogue and reflection among teachers during the last few years about what does and what does not positively impact student learning has led to shifts in practice in many areas, including homework.

But, how can I know? Well, certainly I can ask.

We will be conducting a survey of our teachers on what and how much homework they assign. We’ll share survey results with the entire faculty at a morning “breakfast and brainstorming” (our version of faculty meetings, focused not on administration or even on professional learning traditionally defined, but rather on dialogue as a faculty on topics that impact student learning). We’ll consider our own perspectives and reflect on some of the available research. Homework: What The Research Says Brief, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is a concise, balanced brief quoting respected studies. Worth reading, the brief concludes that there is experimental evidence that homework for young children can improve scores on unit tests involving simple mathematics skills such as learning place value, but that homework does not appear to have much impact on broader measures of achievement for young children. John Hattie’s research is also of note. Synthesizing more than 900 educational meta-analyses, Hattie has found that the effects of homework are small, and close to zero in elementary school. Of 138 influences on learning included in Hattie’s expansive study, homework scored 88th. [Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Location 408). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.]

Hattie urges teachers to utilize the finding on the minimal impact of homework as an invitation to try something new.  He shares that many schools in New Zealand did not abandon homework because too many parents judge the quality of a school by the mere presence of homework and get upset if there is none, but instead tried different approaches. One school worked with students and parents to create a website of various ‘home challenges’ and evaluated the effects of this new policy on student motivation, achievement, and parent involvement with their children’s learning. [Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Locations 382-393). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.] 

So, what’s the point of homework? What learning makes sense to extend from school to home or alternatively from home to school? And, what processes might you suggest for a faculty to come together and determine collaboratively the role of homework, or perhaps more poignantly the role of home learning connected to school learning? What processes might you suggest for including parents, and even elementary school students, in that conversation? I welcome your input.

Comments on: "What’s the point of homework?" (8)

  1. Ann Zisser said:

    As a parent of two children, and being a teacher, I have grown and changed in how I feel about homework. I am one of those teachers that has developed the practice of giving less homework over time. I’ve read articles about “what’s the point of homework?” and “are there any benefits to homework?” I believe kids need to be kids after school. And, I believe the evidence of learning we teachers are looking for should happen in school. I think certain “homework” can and should happen at home.

    I have a 10th grader that stays up too late at night because of the stress he has of getting all homework done. I’m pretty opposed to that.

    I have a 5th grader who struggles in school, has been making huge progress in 12 short weeks on her new school (from private to public school), who has reasonable homework. For the first time ever, no struggles. She does her homework cooperatively and independently. And she’s learning. And she’s allowed to be a kid!

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Ann,
      Thanks for the insight both as a teacher and as a parent of a lower school student and a high school student. I wonder about ways of supporting the habits of independent learning without stressing and overwhelming our children. Learning from the success stories, like your daughter’s experience, can help. I’m so glad to hear she’s doing so well!

      • Ann Zisser said:

        Much to report, but here isn’t the place.

        What I’m sensing is her learning and the evidence of it that her teachers are witnessing is happening where the learning is taking place. She’s then transfering it home. Mostly, homework consists of reading. Started with 30 mins a night. Went up to 45 mins recently. Will go up to one hour. Absolutely no struggles with it at home. It’s expected to be done, and it is. There is a little math, to maintain practice. The learning happens in school.

        As for the boy…too much work being assigned to do at home. It worries me. I don’t like to see that stress in him. Even almost 16 yr old boys deserve “to be kids”!

      • Shira Leibowitz said:

        Reading is something we want to promote as a life-long habit; makes good sense to me to be a regular component of home learning. And, math practice on information that needs reinforcement seems wise, and supported as helpful in the research. I’d love to consider ways of promoting the habits of life-long inquisitive learners; curious and playful, yet not stressful, learning at home. It’s a work in progress. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Thanks for writing a great post about an important topic, one that has often been described as a “The Three Little Bears” Dilemma–too much, too little, just right. I have noticed a correlation with regular math practice and performance on tasks such as computation–those who practice, do better and nightly homework practice helps. We also know that regular reading helps readers. Also at times, it’s helpful to have students collect information at home that will impact a school report, activity and study. There are those students who are hungry to learn, and want more. And, we know that homework does develop a sense of self discipline and organization that helps with later study and responsibility. For every child and every home, homework presents a different challenge and attitude. Hence, at this point I’m still a believer of a weekly home study routine that includes math practice, reading and possibly some other activities, and I believe this routine (our school has decided on 45 minutes a night for fourth grade) needs to be flexible and modified for individual students when necessary. That’s where I sit on the homework debate at this time. Thanks for asking.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Maureen,
      I do appreciate your thoughtful, balanced approach; particulary your assessment on the impact of the homework on your students’ learning and your sensitivity and readiness to be flexible and modify to meet the needs of individual learners. I also respect the predictability of your homework routine, alongside the prerogative you own as a teacher to shift the home learning experiences as needed. “The Three Little Bears” analogy is apt. Finding that “just right” amount of homework, which can be different for different learners, remains the challenge.

  3. Interesting post Shira on a topic I have been discussing with some of my staff as well. What I am coming to understand is that the amount of homework is not the question, the questions is what kind of homework we are giving. Just like at school, low engaging tasks with passive processing is virtually useless as far as learning is concerned at home and at school. High engaging tasks with active processing and for a purpose are most effective at home and at school. For example, as part of a story or book students are writing an “About the Author” page may be included; their homework is to bring in a photo or artifact that could be included in the About the Author page. This type of homework requires students to analyze, summarize, synthesize and explain why they chose what they chose. It is for a particular reason and has high importance for a student. It make sense to me that the type of engaging tasks we work on at school, would be the types of engaging tasks we ask children to do at home. Anything less just feels like busy work.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thanks, Lori! I respect your thinking as an educator tremendously and constantly learn from your experiences and insights. I hope to creatively brainstorm with our teachers about amount, type, and purpose of homework. I do think amount matters. Children and families deserve time for family, other activities, rest, and simply to be and not necessarily to do anything. And, I do agree that with sensitivity to amount, type and purpose of homework is paramount and has to support student learning. I wonder about ways to be more effective in differentiating homework. Practice matters for those who are not entirely fluent with the skill (in that case practice becomes busy work). Practice can be detrimental to those who misunderstand and can reinforce the misunderstanding. Supporting the habits of reading, exploring, asking questions, and as you share – analyzing, summarizing, synthesizing and explaining are potent.

      An update – since I wrote this post and have sought more information, I’ve heard of several more situations in which students and parents remain concerned about amount of homework. I believe there is an ongoing balance and thoughtful deliberation as we consider what makes sense.

      I’m coming most significantly to wonder what the difference might be if instead of speaking of “homework” we spoke of “home learning”; explanding possibilities for exploration and offering practice as needed. I also believe that making our beliefs about homework or homelearning “visible” (as per John Hattie’s guidance to make learning visible) to parents, and even more significantly to students, is vital.

      Let’s keep each other posted on the ongoing conversations.

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