Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What is Homework?

A couple of weeks ago, I read a tweet that has really stuck with me. It said that homework wasn't about learning but about behavior. I wish I could remember who tweeted that so that we could continue that conversation and so that I could give them credit for saying it.

I have to say in my evolving journey as an educator, I have been questioning a lot of practices and wondering about their validity in truly and rigorously educating our learners. I teach in a system that requires a certain number of grades per grading period. In some cases, they go so far as to tell us which assignments must be assigned and graded and how many of those assignments we have to give each grading period. Then our school administration has each grade level break down those assignments/categories even further to turn into them. These categories are given a percent value for the final averages for each grading period. All of this is done for the sake of continuity across the district. I agree that there needs to be some continuity across the district, but are we more focused on continuity and losing sight of what's important? Doing what's best for our students.

Even within those tight restrictions, I have to say that I've moved away from creating these rigid homework assignments because, as the mystery tweeter mentioned above said, it is really measuring a behavior than actual learning. Many of my students go home with younger siblings to an empty house. They are the one in charge of caring for their siblings, helping to feed them, making sure they get baths, and they get to bed. If one of those students, slaps something down in a workbook to turn in without giving it thought, or by reinforcing the wrong thing by doing it incorrectly, what good does that homework assignment do? Is actual learning being evaluated? I have to say, "No."

To complete many of the required assignments, I've broken my class down into small group, learning centers, where I can meet with small groups of students to find out who really understands principles and concepts and who needs more help. These small groups change day to day and sometimes minute to minute based on what the learner understands and can apply to the project/assignment at hand. Once a student grasps something, he/she moves on to higher level activities that involve problem solving and critical thinking. Doing this I can accurately measure what each of my students understands and has learned even within these tight grading constraints.

Often in these small groups, we have really deep conversations and they make outstanding connections between life outside the classroom walls, their background knowledge, and their personal reading. These students often go home and do extra work to bring back and share with their peers. Sometimes, they gather up supplies and conduct an experiment with the class that they found while doing extra reading because their interest was so peaked by something we discussed in small group, they wanted to extend their learning and share more. I've also had kids create costumes and come to school as a historical figure, create presentations or games for the class, and find all kinds of interesting online resources to share. We've created a class wiki where we can house many of these activities/resources so that the students can further extend their learning beyond our classroom time constraints.

Now which one measures learning? The workbook pages that kids do, often incorrectly, or these amazing activities that they do that enhances and sparks enthusiasm in their peers often setting off a chain reaction of amazing learning events that they pursue on their own? Well, of course, anyone, including my 10 year old students, can see it's the latter. They know when they are working on something in the classroom, they are responsible for providing me with evidence of their learning and their thinking. I keep a file of all of this work, but because of our strict grading parameters, much (not all) of this extended learning is not reflected in their grades.

So how do we fix this? This is an excellent question, one that I'm still pondering and reflecting upon daily. Isn't traditional homework doing a disservice to our students? I think so, but I'd love to hear your thoughts about homework. 


  1. I would LOVE to change homework policies. Our biggest problem is the higher grades want us to do homework to get them "ready" for them. How about us teaching our grade level well? Also, changing even those in my grade level about traditional homework may be an issue. They like everyone to be the "same" in regards to homework. How do we overcome all of these obstacles? I don't see the value in homework beyond reading. What are your thoughts on reading logs?

  2. I feel the same frustration. However, the way I look at it, it is my job to meet each child at whatever level they are in each area and move them as far forward as possible. Of course, I am focusing on the standards for 5th grade, but many of mine may reach far beyond that, others may just meet mastery. Changing my focus to that has helped me deal with the frustration of all of the assignments and grades that we are required to give.

    Reading logs are one of those required assignments. I actually wrote a blog post regarding that here:
    I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks for the comment!