Rethinking Homework (Review)

August 22, 2009

in hot topics, new and noteworthy books

Homework is almost universally hated: most teachers despise nagging and bribing students to do it then having to grade it when kids finally comply, parents hate being the ‘homework police’ for assignments they neither understand nor find valuable, and students would rather be doing, well, nearly anything else. I’ve changed my own homework practices repeatedly over the years, but I always feel like I could make my assignments more meaningful and my policies more relevant. It goes without saying that I was pleased to open my mailbox and find an advance copy of ASCD’s summer release Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott. Also known as The Homework Lady, Dr. Vatterott is a world renowned advocate for homework reform and an expert on ingrained beliefs about the inherent “goodness” of homework.

Her book is divided into five sections, the first proving most interesting to me personally, as it explores “The Cult(ure) of Homework”. Vatterott gives a brief and fascinating history of homework in America, then summarizes five largely unexamined intrinsic beliefs about homework. I found the most provocative belief to be that homework teaches responsibility:

Responsibility is often a code word for obedience. When we say we want students to be responsible, are we saying we want them to be obedient–to do what we want them to do when we want them to do it, to be mindless drones, blindly obedient to authority? One teacher said she thought not doing homework was a sign of disrespect for the teacher! When we say homework promotes self-discipline in students, does that mean being self-disciplined enough to do something they hate to do because its their duty?

More such introspective provocations are presented in the second section of the book, which explores homework in the context of the new family. Vatterott touches on the war between teachers and parents, exposing the tendency of teachers to perceive parents as incompetent or wimps when they don’t insist their children complete homework accurately and expeditiously. She juxtaposes this with the parents’ perception that teachers presume the right to control students’ lives outside the classroom and dictate how time is spent in the home. (Ouch.) The author thoroughly explores the importance of balancing academics and family-chosen activities and includes the effects of economic diversity, then gives five realistic tips for re-negotiating the parent-school relationship. The homework surveys and checklists provided are helpful and ready to use.

Homework research and common sense–a duo that many fail to connect–are Vatterott’s focus in the third section. She summarizes the findings of past and current homework research (which I was already familiar with), along with research limitations and common false conclusions that are unaligned with findings (which I was not familiar with). She points out the strong bias toward homework:

Both Cooper and Marzano, after stating that the research shows no benefit of homework for elementary students, nonetheless proceed to recommend homework for elementary students. Cooper claims it should be given for the purpose of developing good study habits and positive attitudes (a recommendation not backed by any research)…Both researchers have such clearly ingrained biases toward homework that they don’t appear to see the disconnect between the research they are citing the recommendations they are making.

Vatterott then dives directly into a common sense look into the research (Ten Things Teachers Know About Learning) and points out the correlation between homework research and the commonly held philosophy of ten minutes per night per grade level. The author maintains that classroom teachers have valuable knowledge of what individual learners need and should not be slaves to the research: just because homework has not proven to be useful in many cases doesn’t mean that teachers should abandon the concept.

So how then should teachers design effective homework practices? In the fourth section of the book, Vatterott discusses limitations of the old homework paradigm and how to shift to a new one, including guidelines for designing quality homework tasks, differentiating for student needs, and moving from grading homework to checking it through quality feedback. Her suggestions are surprisingly practical and relevant to the time-strapped and curriculum-inundated teacher, and in my own classroom, I’ve decided to immediately implement some of the ideas for helping students self-assess.

Vatterott uses the fifth and final section of the book to explore homework completion strategies and support programs. She gives many helpful tips on diagnosing completion problems and rectifying them through specific classroom strategies (including a critical look at both homework incentives and punishments). She then describes dozens of school-wide approaches to support students in completing homework, including programs that find time during the school day, curricular and scheduling options, and after-school arrangements.

I found myself resistant to most of these formalized ‘homework support’ programs due to my own bias: I believe homework SHOULD teach students self-discipline and responsibility, and resent the idea of using limited school time and resources to ensure students complete work I expect to be done independently. I bird-dog students all day long to make sure they complete the work necessary to succeed: homework is the only assignment for which they are required to be completely self-motivated. At what point do we stop trying to save students from themselves? If the assignments are high quality and the amount and type is developmentally appropriate, is it so unreasonable to expect students to consistently complete homework accurately and on time?

Vanderott directly confronts this traditional perception that students must prove themselves and their learning through homework:

When it comes to learning, it’s not about finishing the work; it’s about demonstrating learning. Can students prove that they know what they need to know? How can we determine how well they are learning, and how can we help them do better? If we can assess learning without all those homework assignments and the students have learned what we wanted them to learn, we don’t need the homework! This is a hard pill to swallow if we believe students must do as they are told, and that not completing all homework is a sign of laziness and insubordination. But if we become so concerned that children have not been compliant, we lose sight of the role homework should play in learning. Focusing on enforcing our own power as teachers, we become afraid to trust students, afraid they’re going to “get away with something”–so we sometimes resort to punitive solutions that backfire. Author and educational consultant Rick Wormelli raises an interesting point about homework. He asks, “Why do we expect 100% compliance in getting homework done on time? After all, we don’t expect all students to get A’s or to behave perfectly all the time.”

To that end, Rethinking Homework is certainly an apt title. It’s an informative read for anyone who questions the endless homework battle waged everyday between parents, teachers, and kids with no clear delineation of who is on which side. The author’s approach is equally respectful and non-condescending toward all parties; homework is not the enemy, nor are any of its participants or perpetrators. Vatterott makes it clear: homework practices can be improved through concrete and attainable steps so that reasonable amounts and types of homework are used to enhance learning, allow student practice, provide feedback to the teacher, and instill confidence in students. The quest for change is certainly work, but as Vatterott argues, it is valuable and important work.

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karren August 22, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Great post! You've got my wheels turning. I think it's good practice for us to evaluate why and how we give homework. I'm still mulling this over…

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2 Chris Bennett August 22, 2009 at 8:02 pm

I totally ordered this book for myself. My new school requires that second graders receive an hour and a half of homework a night. Yep, you read that right. It's pretty much the only school policy that I disagree with, but I didn't feel comfortable speaking up about it because I had no way to defend my ideas. I can't wait to read the book for myself, and try to implement the changes in my classroom and at my school.

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3 Karren August 22, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Gosh, I wonder how the teachers would feel if they were required to work an additional hour and a half each night? (OK, I realize that we often do, but it's by our own choice. There have been plenty of nights when my bags were carried inside, but never opened because I was just too tired.)

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4 Angela August 22, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Karen: Good point about teachers taking work home by choice. There have been countless nights that I, too, decided not to work because I had other priorities…and there was no consequence for me. Certainly creates a bit more empathy for our students! I actually give weekly HW packets (given and collected on Fridays so kids have 7 days to finish) to accommodate busy and tired families. The parents love it, and the vast majority of it is completed on time.

Chris: I think this book will give you excellent backing in your stand against what is truly a ridiculous amount of HW for seven-year-olds. It's a good read for parents, too, and you may want to recommend it to those who want to fight for change. Please let me know how that goes.

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5 Anonymous August 24, 2009 at 5:55 am

I have been rethinking homework for the last three years. When I taught middle school literature/language arts and social studies, I gave homework VERY rarely. We spent time in-class doing things; the students were busy applying concepts I wanted them to know. Now I am in junior high math, and do give homework, but limit it to 10-20 problems per night. We still us in-class time for activities, but I still feel they need independent practice. I have puzzled over the No Math Homework idea, and can't completely run with it. Any suggestions?

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6 Sarah April 8, 2011 at 9:55 am

I recently took a course using this text. I found it very useful to my situation as an ESL teacher. What I think it makes us realize is that nothing is “one size fits all”. Everyone has a classroom full of different students. We need to know our students needs and when it comes to homework, we need to know the students home environment. What do the students do after they leave our structured school system? Do they have to work after school or before school to help their family survive? Do they have a quiet place to sit and do homework? Are they caring for younger siblings while their parents work? There are a lot of factors that contribute to students completing homework. We really need to take all these things into considering when creating and implementing homework.

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7 Anonymous August 30, 2009 at 4:22 am

Hey there are many online resources available now to help kids and their parents with their homework. One such site is http://www.Aafter.com.

I liked is its style of answering your queries. As you type in any question on a topic on the search box, AAfter provides links to wiki, yahoo, chacha, eHow, YouTube and a host of many other sites that provide answers to your questions in text, videos or audios. A great aid in your assignment related research. Now homework is more fun.
Samantha

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8 Mr. D August 31, 2009 at 2:18 am

Maybe you can explain this part to me: The author points out that there's a pro-homework bias because the researchers still argue in favor of it even with no evidence. This is fine. Yet she then goes on to reason that "just because homework has not proven to be useful in many cases doesn't mean that teachers should abandon the concept." What? This is just as illogical as Cooper and Marzano's arguments! Why would we continue to use something that's not useful?

The rest of the book goes into creating better homework, to which you said: "If the assignments are high quality and the amount and type is developmentally appropriate…" That sounds great, but how often is that even close to true? You personally may have designed amazing, engaging, relevant assignments for your students, but what do you think most teachers are giving their students for homework? Probably the same thing most of them give during the day: mind-numbing drills and standardized test prep. Of course, all of this is still precluded by the research that says homework is basically useless!

I agree with you that we need to work to make students self-motivated, disciplined and responsible. I just don't see how giving them extra work to take home is going to accomplish that. I feel like I learned these skills mostly from working on my own projects, using my time away from school to think creatively about non-school things. I really like the teacher argument that others cited above; I have no doubt that I became a better teacher when I stopped doing most of my own "homework".

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9 Angela September 12, 2009 at 10:48 am

Sorry for the late reply…just realized I had not responded to some of you all!

Anon: I think 10-20 practice problems a night sounds reasonable. Especially in junior high, SOME independent practice is needed. Now that school's started for the year, how is that working for you?

Mr. D: I appreciate your thoughtful comment and I think you're right that the homework bias is so strong that many times researchers, authors, and teachers are not aware that they're still propagating ideas that don't work. Cathy, the author, is aware of this post–maybe she'll chime in and explain that part for us?

In terms of creating high quality assignments, you're right, I (and most other teachers) have not done so. Sometimes I can fool myself into thinking my assignments are ideal because the amount of work is appropriate and all assignments are review work that most students can do independently, but I do not put the time and effort into creating top-quality assignments anymore. I can admit that.

However, I used to: check out this page from my old website: http://www.mspowell.com/funfolders.html. I stopped doing the fun folders in order to align my HW practices with others on my grade level team. This method was not without flaws, but I believe it was more motivating and relevant to the dittos I send home now.

So, Mr. D., what (if any) HW do you give? How do you justify your practices to parents and admin? Sounds like you've totally rebelled against common HW practices, and I'm excited to hear about what you do. :-)

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10 amazon customer May 3, 2011 at 11:41 am

I saw your post, and feel for your students. You write:

“I believe homework SHOULD teach students self-discipline and responsibility, and resent the idea of using limited school time and resources to ensure students complete work I expect to be done independently. I bird-dog students all day long to make sure they complete the work necessary to succeed: homework is the only assignment for which they are required to be completely self-motivated.”

1) your power is not absolute. You may feel it is, but it’s not. The students entire life is not yours to order about, and waste time on punishing homwork.
2) You are not teaching them self-discipline; you are pressuring them to “act” disciplined by doing what you want them to do. Self discipline looks different: a kid chooses by them self something to learn; then they do it for them selves. Independent reading is the simplest example. Yet kids today report a drop in Independent reading due to a lack of time. (likely spent doing your bidding)
3) You appear to be in no position to teach self-discipline, as you fail to exercise this yourself. By loading students to the point of breaking, educators today clearly demonstrate only their perverse power trip. You show clearly that you feel all students time is yours to dictate; that shows little respect for the students, and no self control. Ease up.

Seek help. You have control issues.

Kids today are being worked to death. Literally. Look at Child Labor Laws: you will find that most teachers violate these regularly, and assign a total workload that far exceeds the time kids would have worked in coal mines in the 1800′s.

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11 Angela Watson May 3, 2011 at 5:41 pm

I’m not sure you understood my post. This is a book review, not an explanation of my homework policies. There was not enough information about me in this post for you to make these kinds of conclusions. I reviewed the book favorably, so I think that’s evidence enough that I’m not someone who “loads students to the point of breaking” or “shows little respect to students.”

For some reason, you decided to leave your remarks anonymously. It’s ironic that you chose the name ‘Amazon Customer’, though, because if you had come here from Amazon after previewing my book, you would have seen that I implore teachers to lighten students’ homework loads and not institute any punishments for homework that is not completed. I recommend weekly homework packets so that students can complete them whenever they have time during the week, and urge elementary teachers to only assign the bare minimum of homework that is required by their districts. That’s why I said in this post that I “resent THE IDEA of using limited school time and resources to ensure students complete work I expect to be done independently.” I don’t subscribe to that philosophy at all!

When I say that “I bird-dog students all day long to make sure they complete the work necessary to succeed”, I am describing what every good elementary teacher does: follow up with kids repeatedly to make sure they are successful. Teachers know exactly what I mean by this phrase. You cannot give an assignment to seven-year-olds and walk away. You constantly circulate around as kids work and say things like “Yes, that’s right! Good, keep going. It’s okay if you don’t know how to spell that, just write the sounds you hear. Don’t forget your name on your paper! Excellent. I love how you helped each other with that. I know it’s hard, but don’t give up now–you can do this!” To neglect to do this with very young children means that many will not achieve their full potential, so homework is the only time that I don’t provide this support for them. That’s all I was saying.

It’s pretty clear that you came to this post with a specific agenda in mind, and read into it exactly what you wanted. I don’t think you really understand my teaching style, and I encourage you to take a look around my website or read my book before judging me as someone who needs to “seek help.” If you are truly concerned, I invite you to contact me via email so I can address you by name and help you understand where I’m coming from. But, I don’t think you will, because your problem is not with me at all. It’s with your child’s teacher(s) who give an overabundance of homework that is not authentic or meaningful practice. Taking this issue up with them would be a more constructive use of your time than composing accusatory, anonymous blog comments. I’m sorry that your family has had a problem with homework overload, and I hope that you will be able to improve that situation for the sake of your child(ren).

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12 becca May 10, 2011 at 7:30 am

i hate homework it just takes up time

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13 Michelle T September 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm

This has been very interesting reading. I do give homework, except for Wednesdays. I have seen the results because it allows me to see the areas where students struggle. The homework packet idea is interesting and I am sure parents would appreciate it. I will think about it. One thing I wonder about– if a school does mandate that homework is given, how could a teacher not do it? I am also a parent and have seen how homework has definitely helped my children become very self- disciplined students. Last of all, I wonder if the book compared the United States homework practices to any other countries. I had dinner with an affluent Nigerian family who said that homework was an essential part of their educational system. Thanks so much for this conversation.

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14 Angela Watson October 5, 2011 at 11:22 am

Hi, Michelle! I do know of schools that give a homework break on Wednesdays (Christian schools that encourage families to attend mid-week church services) and agree, it’s a welcome break for families!

Re: schools that mandate homework assignments–I agree that it could be very tricky for a teacher to decide not to give any homework. One way I’ve seen teachers work around this is to provide class time for homework–the amount given is negligible so that if students work diligently, they won’t have anything to take home. I’ve never done this because I could never imagine sacrificing 15-30 of instructional time daily for kids to do homework (and justifying that to my admin), however, I know teachers who make that time extremely valuable (offering support to kids who wouldn’t have homework help at home, allowing kids to work together on difficult problems, etc.) It’s definitely something to consider.

Re: being sensitive to cultural perspectives on homework–yes, this is very important. I taught in schools where Nigerians were nearly in the majority (suburbs of Washington, D.C.) and I, too, found that the Nigerian families valued homework as an integral part of the schooling experience. They expected rigorous homework assignments. However, they also placed a great amount of respect on the teacher’s expertise, and when I explained the homework research at Open House and told them my expectations were based on what has proven to be most effective for young students, they all backed me 100%.

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