I hate homework. For the few people that know me, I feel like I have at least an average vocabulary, I would pretend that it is above average. And I cannot stress the importance of the choice of words. I hate homework. I am not annoyed with homework, I am not repulsed by homework, I am not disgusted with homework. I hate homework. There are two major misconceptions about homework that I would like to attack to explain why I hate homework.
But first a clarification, homework can have a purpose. Readings that provide students with information that will be necessary for participation in a class discussion. Using flashcards to memorize medical terminology prefixes and suffixes, those are good uses of homework. So why do I have a problem with homework? Here’s why.
Homework reinforces the concepts covered in class.
If I ignore whether an assignment is graded based upon completion or accuracy, I see eight possible outcomes from the homework assignment. If a homework assignment is to achieve its maximum benefit it needs to be in a place where a student has mastered the material enough to complete the task, but still has to expend intellectual effort. The goal for this homework is that the student is moving recently learned information to become part of a long-term schema. Once in schema, the material becomes intertwined with prior knowledge and can be used to interpret and understand even more concepts.
However, very few homework assignments covered in class actually fall into this sweet spot. If all outcomes on my flowchart have equal probability (which is a big assumption) only one out of eight homework assignments will have the desired result. Only one out of eight outcomes will reward intellectual effort positively. Seven of the eight will reward aspects of school that do not help us learn. Imagine homework for a student, with the student thinking, “that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was cool, that was dumb, that dumb.” Now repeat that over and over and over for twelve years. Is it surprising that so many of our high school students have a negative view of the purpose of school?
Students need something to work on at home.
Often I will get a question from a parent the first time we meet. Usually it goes something like, “What should my child be working on at home?” Deep down I really want to tell the parent that their children should be working on whatever interests them. In reality though, I get a sense that work is associated with learning. If a large math assignment is completed, much learning has occurred. Big assignment equals big smarts (insert caveman imagery here).
But work is just that and nothing more, work. A better option for parents who are concerned with their children would be to simply have them demonstrate what they are learning in class. What follows might come in fits and bursts, with some information being comprehensible and mastered, while some of it might lack clarity, but that is the nature of learning. A student working doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is learning. Learning takes work, but not all work is learning.
So what’s the solution?
I wish there were an easy answer, but there isn’t. Research is mixed, even personal experience is mixed. So what I have chosen to do is have my students do as much work in front of me as possible. At least that way I know what they can and cannot do. I will list a practice assignment for students to work on if they desire, but it is optional. It is optional precisely because the student would need to see the benefit of homework, how homework’s purpose shouldn’t be grades, but rather homework should exist to benefit understanding and mastery. Not many take advantage of this opportunity, but a few have.
I hope more will.