Entry 25 – The Homework Debate

This week’s reflection prompt:

Do you think we give too much homework as a school or not enough?

As I was preparing to write this reflection, I did some research on Alfie Kohn’s homework ideas and theories.  If you’re not aware, Kohn is probably the lead voice in criticizing most homework practices and stating their ineffectiveness (as well as writing a lot on rewards/punishments as motivations…another topic I have a lot of thoughts on but will save for another blog).

I generally agree with Kohn but also feel that he is a bit of an idealist with most of his perspectives.  He taught for about 6 years back in the 80’s before becoming more of a researcher and theorist.  It’s easy to believe a lot of the critical headlines about him and think that he says ALL HOMEWORK IS BAD!  NEVER PRAISE CHILDREN!  ALL TEACHERS ARE DOING THINGS WRONG!  DO IT MY WAY!  Actually reading through his work though, you recognize his views and theories aren’t as black and white as his critics make them out to be.

To summarize his homework views, his main beefs are the following:

  • homework (especially excessive homework) have a lot of negative effects
  • most positive effects of homework aren’t based in research; homework generally provides very little value

His suggestions:

  • nix the idea of mandatory homework policies (x minutes per class a night)
  • reduce the amount (and move towards getting rid of it altogether)
  • ask the kids for suggestions on what meaningful homework would be
  • have teachers only assign homework they designed (vs worksheets or textbook photocopies)
  • help teachers move away from grading / checking off assignments and more towards sharing the work done on the homework assignments

My general policy on homework is that students have assignments and problems they work on in class.  If they had about least 30 minutes to work on it in class, whatever is incomplete is homework.  I will almost never assign problems to be done at home if we didn’t get a chance to start them in class.

Each new concept we learn about has a 3-5 carefully selected ‘meaty’ problems that they work and we discuss as a group.  They generally have Khan Academy exercises for each concept as well.  The discussion problems are pulled from various sources or ones that I created if I couldn’t find anything good.  I use Khan Academy for a variety of reasons but the main one being the immediate feedback students get; they know right away if they’re doing it right or wrong and have videos and tips available to them for every problem.  I remember doing textbook problems in high school and coming to class only to realize I did it wrong 10 times in a row and reinforced bad habits.

For the Khan, they get a 100 for the assignment (which is just 10% of their grade) if they get 5 right in a row.  My rationale for this is that students who get it, can do the 5 and be done.  Those who need more practice, can get more practice.  It was always frustrating in school when I had to do 15 or so problems even though I knew how to do it.  The biggest frustration students share is when they get 4 in a row and miss one and don’t want to settle for an 80.  Initially my reasoning for 5 right in a row instead of just getting 5 right was that getting them in a row showed that you really were beginning to master the concept.  Continually missing several of them shows that there may still be gaps in understanding.  Khan is also very easy to grade.

As convenient as Khan Academy, sometimes it will present some odd problems for certain exercises.  That point by Alfie Kohn about creating your own homework assignments really hits home here.  I generally do a few of the Khan Academy problems for the given exercise to see what they’re like and if they’re a fit with what we’re doing in class but alas, I don’t see all the examples provided for that given exercise.  I tell students in the beginning of the year to not spend more than 30 minutes on it at home.  If that happens, they can just email me and come check in at office hours to get some help.

That’s my homework policy in a nutshell.  As as school, I know we are moving to being a bit more progressive in this regard.  Mandatory homework is generally discouraged from administration and we make concentrated efforts to see the workload of each grade-level at the end of each semesters when many projects start piling up.  Teachers will sometimes send out emails like “hey a lot our 7th graders have been sharing that they’ve got a lot on their plate with the science project, the english paper, and the big math reflection due next Monday.  Anyone willing to push any of that back.”

What does homework look like in your class/school?

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2 thoughts on “Entry 25 – The Homework Debate

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