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At least the flowers that always come back in the Spring are beautiful. Far too often, homework arguments are ugly. (And I’m not talking about parents fighting with their children to do it.)

Should children do homework? At what age is it appropriate for children to begin having homework assignments? ON and on and on goes the debate.

I remember being a 3rd-grader. Up to that point, we never had homework. Our teachers thought we were too young.

But my precocious class, looking at our older siblings, thought we were missing out. Shouldn’t we be doing homework? Our 8-year-old little selves asked our teacher to begin giving us homework.

She was astonished. But okay, if that’s what we wanted …

Oh, those wacky days of the 1960s! When it was thought that 8 years was too tender for homework and giving an hour of homework to a 5-year-old was unthinkable.

Reading logs? Unheard of! I used to get my elementary work done quickly and always had a book to pull out and read until the next lesson began. One day, in 6th grade, I was particularly absorbed in reading and didn’t look up when the teacher moved on.

When I did, I immediately put the book away, somewhat chagrined. But it was a wise 6th grade teacher who let me read on, knowing I would pick up on what she was doing without her reprimanding me about it.

Long lost days in those ‘failing public schools.’

Back to homework. Recently a fellow blogger wrote about his homework practices.

So why does Grumpy Old Teacher assign homework and how does he do it?

  1. High school students need to spend more time than 6 hours a day in learning. I might argue for study halls and a longer school day so students continue to work in a supervised setting with experts available to help them in their independent studies as needed (a/k/a known as teachers), but since we have limited time for the educational goals we are given, students have to put in hours outside of school in studies. By the way, GOT teaches mathematics, one subject where independent practice is key to mastery of learning. It may not be the same for other areas.
  2. Adolescents (GOT has taught exclusively on the secondary level) have a developmental agenda as do all of us as we move through life. Adults have agendas, too: Each decade brings new issues: establishing a career (20s), family (30s), midlife appraisal (40s), preparing for retirement, and so on.
  3. For teenagers, it is the intense time of socialization and forming life-long bonds with their generation that carry them throughout their lives. They will experience the same life events at the same time, more or less. Like all of us, as adults they will form friendships with their parents and that generation, and in time, with their children and that generation. But the closest friendships are made with their own generation.
  4. For that reason, I do not assign excessive homework loads. Some of my colleagues do. It may help my students learn more, it could help them do better on tests, especially those state tests, but GOT believes it is inappropriate to ignore the developmental needs of children, which are far more than memorization of academic content.
  5. Thus, I limit myself to 30 to 45 minutes of homework per class. The rough rule is 10 minutes of homework multiplied by the grade level in total. For high school, that’s 90 to 120 minutes per night. Divide that among 4 classes a day (block schedule) and it works out to 30 minutes. Given that some electives do not have homework, such as P.E., and that I work in an academic magnet school, I have come up with the 30 to 45 minutes.
  6. To encourage those students who want to do more, I will offer extra credit for additional time spent in learning. After all, there is too much content crammed into too little time by educational standards.
  7. What is appropriate for math homework? The traditional method is to assign problems. Here again an argument develops. How many problems? Some would do drill: 50 repetitive problems or more a la practice makes perfect. Others say that is too much; only 5 to 10 problems are needed to rehearse the application of learning. I tend to the ‘less is more’ side of this debate.
  8. In my experience, students who know the technique and can do it don’t need a tedious, extensive practice. A few problems will aid in retention. Students who don’t understand and do something wrong, the more they do it wrong, the worse their retention becomes: the wrong way!
  9. The Internet complicates the problem. Ever heard of Mathway? Many other similar sites exist. Not only do these sites give away the answers, they show all the steps to copy down. Telling students to show all their work no longer stops the copying, which is really cheating.
  10. So what used to be traditional homework, practice, must be done under my supervision. I use the first 30 minutes of class for it. That also gives the advantage to teacher and students that I am available to help as needed. As I tell students, I don’t live with you in your bedroom. I’m not there to help you with homework. I am here in the classroom.
  11. Then what does GOT do with homework? A few years ago, I tried to flip my classroom. I assigned instructional videos so that the students would come with the teaching already done and we could focus on the how-to. It did not work because some students don’t do homework at all, some students do it but not before class, and some do it but find it of little help. As one told me, she watches the video but she is so busy writing down what the person is saying in her workbook for the videos that she can’t concentrate on what is being said.
  12. In response, I flipped the flip. Now I do the practice in the room and then move on to the lesson. I teach the concepts and give the students assignments that have them wrestle with the ideas to try to make sense of them. In subsequent classes, they practice.
  13. Then I assign the videos and workbook. Not for the initial learning, but for reinforcement and review.
  14. Thus, I set due dates but allow students to submit their homework evidence afterward because the homework will be beneficial whenever they do it.
  15. The homework is not essential, but it is beneficial. Those who do it, gain; those who do not, lose out. However, the lack of homework is not fatal to the mastery of concepts. It helps, but it doesn’t doom to failure.
  16. Therefore, I limit the impact of homework on the quarter grade. I monitor its percentage of the grade to keep it at 10%. Students who refuse to do homework drop one letter grade. However, they will not fail because they refuse to do homework.
  17. I do not worry about the homework cheaters. Yes, they get that 10% by getting another student to allow them to copy. BUT! those are the students not learning. Tests (60 to 65% of the grade) catch them.

Math is tough. Those who do homework find that it helps support their grade. That is the key to success. Do all the work, do it honestly, and it will provide a cushion against a bad test performance.

While grades capture a student’s performance, I also want the process to encourage students to keep trying.

It’s a delicate balancing act. I am always searching for the next tweak to further this goal.

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