This post was inspired by reading this blog post The Trouble with Homework at Mental Multivitamin blog. I wrote this before reading the 9/10/11 New York Times article which actually is promising as it discusses effective homework, which are all new ways to learn (innovation!).
I think it is hard to have a serious discussion about whether homework is effective or not if one does not look at what the homework actually is. In the same analysis one needs to ask the goal and aim of the homework. What is actually the goal in doing that work? The last question should be if the right place to do that work is home as homework or really does it belong in the classroom as direct teaching, read on for explanation.
Even my limited exposure to seeing the homework of friends and relatives has pointed these issues out to me.
1. Homework given as the first time the student ever did that work. Some parents report their schools (including rigorous secular private schools) are clear about sending elementary grade children home with new math concepts for the parent to teach. Then what is not understood after that first work at home is reviewed in class the next day. Is that really a good idea? Who is doing the teaching, mom and dad or the teacher?
Another example of this was a sixth grade art homework assignment in which a student was to research a part of art history never discussed in class and then to give a critique of the piece including submitting a five paragraph essay. The student could choose the assignment but it ranged from modern American art to ancient Chinese art (with strong historic meaning which had never been taught in social studies) to impressionism and more.
2. I recently saw a homework assignment whose goal was to help a student learn to do research. The 7th grade student was given shortcut work such as I never had when I was in school. The shortcuts were so confusing as the content was completely unfamiliar to the student.
When I was in school we had to research the topic by reading materials (i.e. World Book encyclopedia), assemble facts, narrow down the topics, arrange into our own words and write a paper on it, even something like a five paragraph paper.
This homework assignment which I was asked to help with, was on worksheets and it gave a list of facts about Mayan culture and said "suppose you researched the Mayans and you found these facts" then there was a list of some similar topics and some random stuff. It said something that meant to pick the common topics and mark them. As I looked at it, I saw there were three topics that had more than one fact and then there were a bunch of random one fact things. The girl and her mother were unable to figure out what the worksheet homework wanted her to do so I explained it. After we had the three groups of topics, which I believe were climate, architecture, and religion, she was to expand the few facts into a paragraph on each thing and then do an introduction and a conclusion.
My issue is that such a worksheet cannot replace real research. When reading to find facts the students learns. The process of reading and picking out important facts vs. filler is an important exercise. Giving a student jumbled facts when they know nothing of the topic is stupid and I don't think they learn much from that.
Actually her assignment was to do the first half. The next part wanted the writing. I offered to help her with that and she said "no that was not assigned yet". I said, "Well it probably will be tomorrow night so do you want to just bang it out now while I'm here to help you?" and the reply was no. Sigh.
3. Homework as review. I like the idea of homework as review for math concepts.
4. Homework as studying. With school systems of quizzing and testing I see nothing wrong with homework as a way to do whatever kind of studying must be done to get that content memorized.
5. Homework as a way to learn in order to have class discussion, such as reading at home then discussing in class (rather than giving class time to read silently which I recall being done when I was in school). This is the best use of homework time in my opinion.
6. Homework as a way to do projects that are too large to do at home are fine BUT homework should not be given for crazy big projects that students cannot do on their own. There are too many huge projects being done that require the mom and dad pitch in and teach the content and actually do shopping for materials then have to actually help assemble. To do those projects as parent-kid team with the parent doing most of the work then the schools claiming success at having produced students who do that type of work is a lie.
7. Homework as standardized test prep. In my Connecticut town a lot of time is spent preparing for the CMT standardized test. Most frequently this is done as homework. It is also done as class work. Whether that is a good use of kid's time is up for debate. It seems to me if they know the material and know enough about test taking practices they should not need a zillion practice pages of math, reading comprehension, and writing composition with the formula they use and want done to get the highest score on the test.
Changing the School Way?
The same old same old way of grading in school requires memorization and parroting back facts. If this is to continue as the norm then homework will always exist to force students to do work to prepare them to score well on those tests.
If a person is going to request less homework I would ask what kind of homework do they want less of? If testing is to be done then studying must occur which requires homework. Perhaps what they want is a different system of assessment than the old style tests. Maybe what the person really wants is some other kind of learning happening rather than having parroting back as the main goal. When is someone going to challenge the benefit of short term memorization followed by forgetting nearly everything that was learned?
One should also see what is going on in the classroom with that time. Is it really being used to teach or is the classroom a behavior management experiment with hardly any learning happening then the doling out of homework assignments which is where the teachers expect most of the learning to happen?
I don't have answers.
What I do know is I was bored to death in public school and learned to play the school game. I was a fast learner and did well in school until I burned out and gave up and then I was an underachiever getting lower scores than I was capable of. Why memorize those facts to get a high score only to start to forget them the next day? Why bother? I felt I had better things to do with my time outside of school, and that boring stupid school was already hogging up too much of my life. I gave up and just refused to do it, instead relying on what I knew without studying and getting mostly B's and a C here and there.
I have learned a lot more as an autodidact as an adult learner.
I want my kids to learn more and to not hate learning which is what some who learn to hate school start to do: confuse learning with schooling and then hate learning and stop learning as a rebellion to their hatred of school.
Thus, we homeschool.
While I would love to debate the issue of whether homework is effective or not, I have other things to do with my time, like educate my own kids. I find blogging fun but lately the increased demands of homeschooling a high school student combined with our recent long distance move have prevented me from spending time pondering and discussing like I used to. I'm trying to keep my priorities straight! I need to make sure I am spending time doing what I need to do such as focusing on homeschooling my kids. With that said I already spent more time on this blog post than intended so I'll just stop here!