Homework — what works and what doesn’t

One year during a parent conference, an angry mother threatened to shoot a fellow teacher. Her daughter chased a sub around the room wielding a clarinet like a club. I had a girl in sixth grade two years in a row. During her second tour, she was sent home early from our overnight environmental camp after mooning the boys. This was a kid I’d seen with a baggie of potato chip crumbs for lunch. I had a fourteen-year-old sixth grade boy who torched a church the next year. I had students with no winter coats or boots. I had pre-adolescent girls who dressed like working girls. And I had one sixth-grade girl who wore a diamond ring.

In the middle school/ high school I sub in, I’m around sons and daughters who help with farm chores. They go to school after work and go to work after school. They sometimes nod off or talk about turkey and deer hunting as I explain the difference between dependent and independent clauses. The kid who rings up my food in the local market I’ve passed in the corridors. I know one boy whose older siblings cared for him as best they could when their parents took off for a month. I hear some kids plan for college and others for the military. Some seem to have no plans.

None of this will surprise or shock a teacher. Diversity isn’t restricted to race, religion, and ethnic background. There are no standard kids, and yet some outspoken critics of public schools would have the system perform as if there were. This fallacious thinking isn’t restricted to those who demand a standard curriculum delivered at regulated speed and tested at standard intervals with standardized tests. Every night I assigned the same work to every student in the class, I treated them like cogs. I did try to keep student differences in mind when I graded, but I had colleagues who did not. They had their standards. Rigor is a word I have come to associate with mortis.

I’ve always thought of homework as practice and a way to determine if a discrete skill was mastered. If a student masters the addition of two digit whole numbers, it’s time to let her move on. My daughter once came home with 100 problems covering the same skill. Why? She proved her understanding with five. Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results was insanity.

Of course, some activities are not limited to mastering separate skills and are never the same thing twice. Writing, for example, and complex mathematical and scientific problem solving as well as musical performance, sports, and acting require the creative application of sets of related skills. Those activities require hours of practice for mastery, and 10,000 hours to become a world-class expert. (See: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell) Hours make the difference between a college soccer star and Wayne Rooney. We could probably argue talent and passion too.

So what’s a sensible approach to homework? The unstructured hours I had after school have gone the way of the nickel candy bar. It’s not reasonable to assign homework as if students don’t have other responsibilities. This is a point made by Cathy Vatterott, an associate professor of education. Also known as the “Homework Lady,” She’s written a book called Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. Vatterott introduces her book in this ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) video.  In the book, she presents recommendations for designing quality homework tasks, differentiating homework tasks, deemphasizing grading of homework, improving homework completion, and implementing homework strategies and support programs. Her handout Six Steps To Effective Homework provides an outline. For more information and downloads, see the Homework Lady website.

The flipped classroom is another option for tailoring homework. If you’re not familiar with the concept, in flipped classrooms, students watch recorded lectures at home and complete their assignments, labs, and tests in class. How the Flipped Classroom Is Radically Transforming Learning will give you an idea. There are common misconceptions about flipped classrooms, and the Daily Riff addresses those in a three-part series beginning with The Flipped Class: Myths vs. Reality.

One problem I see with the flipped classroom model is that it assumes universal access to the necessary technology, and that, I know, is assuming too much. Mary Beth Hertz takes up that issue and others in The Flipped Classroom: Pro and Con.

One final thought. What prompted me to write about homework was remembering how many times I’ve asked my son if he knew someone to call to get an assignment. Often his answer is no. A quick search of the Internet turned up documents from many school districts that mentioned homework buddies. I like that idea.  Students miss days. Students forget to dig assignment books from the bottom of their swollen backpacks. Who ya going call?

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