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.