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What’s the point of homework?

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.

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