My senior writing course is all about argument and persuasion, so on their final exam they need to write an argumentative essay in response to an article. One of the articles that many of them chose to use as the basis for their argument suggests that homework is a vital part of the educational process and it is necessary for learning. Those who chose this prompt universally agreed with it this year as they generally have in the past couple of years. These are not honors students; this is a class full of mid-level students; many of them are college bound, but not all of them. These are not students who always get great grades and consider school a top priority. In fact this level of student is notorious for not completing all their homework, and yet they are generally all suggesting that teachers should continue assigning homework or even assign more homework.
There are conversations about homework happening all over the educational landscape. Cathy Vattertot’s book Rethinking Homework is an interesting read on the subject. Many schools are suggesting a “Homework Bill of Rights” for students; other schools are limiting the amount of time students should be spending doing homework. All the research about the effectiveness of homework seems inconsistent–some studies suggest that homework increases achievement; others suggest it has no effect. The homework debate really is a minefield right now.
I think ultimately, we are focusing on the wrong conversations about homework though. Let’s stop talking about how long students spend doing homework and the undue stress it may cause. These are just the symptoms of a real problem. When I go to the doctor, I don’t want him to simply treat the pain; I want him to find out what is wrong with me and solve that problem. Otherwise the pain will just keep resurfacing or eventually intensify and require stronger medication. If the doctor figures out what is causing the pain and stops that, then the problem is truly solved.
That’s how I feel about the state of the homework debate. We’re talking about mitigating the symptoms of the problem rather than actually solving the problem. The conversation shouldn’t be about how much time should students spend on homework each night. The conversation should be about whether or not the homework we are assigning is meaningful and purposeful.
School leaders need to not make homework mandates that just anger teachers. Instead, they need to be leading conversations about the purpose of homework with individual teachers and PLC’s. Is the study guide that students answer as they read the book really a meaningful piece of homework? Should we be asking students to draft their essays outside of class? Do they really need to complete 25 Algebra problems for homework? Is the worksheet on verb conjugations appropriate practice? We can’t say definitively whether these are or are not appropriate without knowing the situation, which is why the teaches involved need to be having these discussions with their PLC’s and school leaders.
Sometimes when I suggest things like this, people react by suggesting that we don’t have the time for this. That’s malarkey. If we can find the time to discuss how many minutes each night students should spend on homework, then we have the time to discuss whether the homework we are giving each night is meaningful. It’s not time to start a brand new conversation; it’s time to change the conversation we are already having.