Homework, love it or loathe it?

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 6.a

“Graduating teachers  recognise how differing values and beliefs may impact on learners and their learning.”

Last week there were a lot of tweets in my feed on a New York Times article on plans by schools to scale back homework demands on their students. The idea of moving away from the traditional worksheet has already been implemented in some schools in New Zealand.

As a student in general I hated doing homework. I was quite content to go to school orchestra rehearsals, attend Board of Trustee meetings as the student rep and reading encyclopaedias to find out stuff (spot the nerd) but when it came to writing assignments or filling in worksheets, I tended to do avoid doing them if I wasn’t interested in what it was I supposed to be doing. The worst were the school projects which seemed to take hours and involved lots of yelling on the part of my parents.

When I was on Teaching Experience I was in charge of setting and marking homework. To be honest I didn’t enjoy doing it. Here was I perpetuating all the stuff I hated about homework onto the students, the dreaded worksheets. Marking the worksheets dealing with students who had lost/forgotten/didn’t have their homework sheets ate into classroom time that could have been utilized doing other stuff. But classroom time isn’t the only time wasted doing homework.

Some working parents resent the impingement that homework has on the very brief window between dinner time and bed time that they have with their children while others complain that homework eats up time that their children devote to sports and hobbies. Moreover some parents argue that taking trips to the museum, cooking and playing games are just as important part of a child’s learning as formal school work.

To be honest the only week I actually enjoyed the setting and marking of homework was when I decided to get the top-achieving students to design a simple game of chance to be played in class by the other students. The homework was relevant to the work we were doing in class which was a unit on probability, we had learned about what was good game (something with an even but fair chance of winning) and the students knew that I had the materials for the game in class.

The goal was getting students to apply their knowledge and teach the other children in the class. For their part the students took to the assignment with gusto turning their class into a gambling pit, complete with chips and a pit boss (again, we were studying probability) and it was rewarding to see the students using the principles we had learned in class. More importantly the students, both the players and game designers, enjoyed the activity.

But should these sort of homework assignments be the norm?

There are many parents that believe that traditional homework of worksheets, times tables and spelling lists are an important part of their child’s education. They themselves likely did a similar type of homework when they are at school. There’s also a school of thought that if teachers set students a lot of homework, then the students must be doing a lot of learning.

There is some merit to the idea that there are some things you just need practice, practice, practice in order to get better.  Martin Gladwell’s best seller Outliers argues that individual success in any field is based on the 10,000-Hour Rule. Drawing on a studying on the making of an expert by Anders Ericsson,  Gladwell argues that the key to success in any field has nothing to do with talent. It’s simply practice, 10,000 hours of it — 20 hours a week for 10 years.

The idea of practice, and lots of it, makes perfect undoubtedly drives some parents in particular those who sing the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. However buried under the headline of the amount of time needed to achieve mastery is how the time is spent:

“You will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach
not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself”

The problem with homework isn’t the amount, but how homework is utilized by teachers. However like many aspects of teaching what constitutes effective homework practice depends entirely on your point of view of what effective learning is.

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7 thoughts on “Homework, love it or loathe it?

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  1. love this post. yes, hated homework as student, hated even more as a parent. particularly the homework sheets at primary school level. i firmly believed they were designed by teachers to get revenge on parents for having to put up with their children during the day. they were surely a form of punishment, both for the child and the parent.

    practice of times tables or of basic addition, subtraction & division i can cope with. i can see the usefulness of having a strong grounding in maths. i also don’t mind spelling lists & reading. but anything more than that? please do your utmost with all the influence you have to wipe it out!

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  2. My mother (who used to be a primary school teacher herself) didn’t like the notion of homework either. Not surprisingly, neither did I – even though I was an extremely good student. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do or had to be taught self-motivated study (I’m very good at that, and many people are appalling at it even after a decade of doing homework through schooling), it’s just that I put my all into the school day and when I got home I needed to switch off and relax. Just like adults like to switch off and relax when they come home from work (except teachers – and maybe that’s the problem – when teachers go home they too have to take their work with them, so they expect it of others too maybe, I don’t know.)

    Even my special needs child brings homework back from school, which strikes me as somewhat bizarre considering that his teachers know how much work we have to do with him already due to his everyday challenges. It’s hard to add to that existing work-load, particularly because – much like I used to be – my son is exhausted after school and just needs and wants to have some downtime for a while before we get into the afternoon and evening routine.

    I add my voice to the above commenter – please do whatever you can to encourage the death of homework; maybe it will make life easier for my second-born at least!

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  3. Hmmm as a teacher it was always a nightmare to make sure we send a balance and keep up with valuing what the children do etc. so I am glad to be in a primary school where we use Mathletics, class wikis, (with basic facts and differentiated spelling/vocab) to provide a base for children to challenge themselves and/or simply keep their basic facts and spelling up to date. They are required to read every night and we monitor this carefully.
    However, as a parent, my son is Year 7 and his homework requires ME THE PARENT to teach him!!! I do protest if homework becomes less about self-management and more about ‘looking good’ as a school who gives homework. Thoughts?

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    1. Hi Kimberly,
      I think it was John Hattie who said that homework shouldn’t be a place for introducing new concepts and basically that it should be for drills/repetition etc. My experience at the upper levels of primary school, has made me aware how some parents have quite high expectations of the quantity of homework. I’m going to have to be mindful of while balancing those expectations with other parents expectations. I think parental involvement in homework is good, but should things like helping fix the car/making dinner/gardening count as homework?

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