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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Homework the Root of All Evil?

By Peter DeWitt — December 10, 2012 5 min read
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As an elementary school teacher I was required to provide homework to students every night except for Fridays. During school vacations we were required, yes...required, to provide packets of math and ELA to students. Every vacation I gave my first graders packets of dittos that they had to complete before they returned. I was young, inexperienced and untenured. I cringe at the fact that I provided that experience to students at such a young age.

There were times when homework took longer than 20 minutes. Yes, I asked all the right questions.
• Does your child have a quiet spot to sit?
• Do you have them go to the bathroom before they begin?
• Do you provide them with a snack so they can focus?

Sadly, most parents didn’t want to tell me that their children were doing homework for an hour, because they didn’t want me to think their child struggled. I began having them stop after 15 minutes. Parents had to write a note on top of the assignment stating that the time was up before the assignment was completed. Unfortunately, those students who couldn’t finish the homework walked away feeling like failures because they knew other peers probably breezed through it in a matter of minutes.

I could no longer afford to help ruin my students’ educational experience by giving them mind numbing paperwork to do at home just to prove that they valued school. Fortunately, when the principal retired and a new one began, I was not required to provide so much homework so I limited how much I gave.

I left the school to relocate and began teaching at a school that also did not require homework. It was a less than wealthy city school and many of the students came to school every day without their homework completed. What should I do...
• Keep them in from recess because they didn’t do their homework? It was the only time they went outside.
• Ding them with a bad grade because their parents didn’t do their homework with them?
• Did I even think about the fact that some of my parents couldn’t read, so therefore they couldn’t do the homework with their children even if they wanted to?

I decided to provide them with the best education within the school day that I could because their home experience sometimes didn’t or couldn’t support them when they struggled with assignments. This was before the flipped classroom and most of my students didn’t have books, much less computers and the internet. This was before cell phones were popular and prior to district websites. They couldn’t reach me at night to ask for guidance, so I stopped giving homework.

French Law
Recently French President Francois Hollande gave a speech stating that he wanted to abolish homework. In a recent New Yorker article called Today’s Assignmentwhich focused on the president’s speech, Louis Menand wrote, “Homework is an institution roundly disliked by all who participate in it. Children hate it for healthy and obvious reasons; parents hate it because it makes their children unhappy, but God forbid they should get a check-minus or other less-than-perfect grade on it; and teachers hate it because they have to grade it. Grading homework is teachers’ never-ending homework.”

In yet another article focusing on the topic, Mark Barnes wrote a blog called Homework: It Fails Our Students and Undermines American Education, where he said, “This practice of assigning homework, simply because it’ something that’s always been done, is not only absurd and outdated, it is undermining effective 21st-century teaching and learning. Most teachers link homework to grades so the students who don’t do homework don’t learn the material -- mainly because not enough teaching is being done in class - and many would-be learners grow to hate school because they wind up with poor grades and, ultimately, feel like failures.”

Barnes was bound to get comments and one person replied to Barnes by saying, “You’ve been a teacher for 20 years and you don’t know why homework is important? Seriously?
Sigh...To master a skill or field you must automate basic facts and procedures so that working memory is freed to explore higher level, more complex ideas and tasks.
How does that automation develop? Repetition. Practicing the skill over and over again.
That’s what homework is all about. Teach the skill, students go home and practice it. Over and over again. Once they’ve automated that skill, take it to the next level.
Try selling your no homework woo to a master musician, athlete, or any other professional. Then proceed to get laughed out of the room

I agree with Barnes. Practicing a skill over and over again at home is one solid way to get students to hate school. Add that to a boring classroom experience and it’s a recipe for disaster. In addition, any master musician practices an instrument because they want to and not because they have to. They choose what they practice.

If we really want students to be engaged with learning, we should allow them the autonomy to self-explore at home one their own and not give them death by ditto because it makes us feel better about the assignments we provide. Barnes went on to say, “Now, projects and individual activities and diagnostics are all worked on in class. Best of all, many of my students still work at home, but they choose what to do and when to do it. This is what independent learning is. This is what every teacher should want.”

In the End What’s interesting for me is that the roles have reversed and I could require homework or I could require teachers not to give it but I don’t do either. Teachers have autonomy to follow their own course, just as students should have autonomy to follow their own course. Interestingly enough, some parents love that and other parents do not. There are parents who ask for homework and some teachers feel pressure because of parents, not because of their principal.

I have worked with teachers, not in my current role, who provided homework because they needed extra grades for report cards. They also happened to be the ones that took report cards hostage if parents didn’t show up for parent conferences. I don’t think there is a silver bullet solution for homework, just like there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for education as a whole.

Although I can see why the French President wants it abolished, I do not think it is not the root of all evil either if it is relevant and engaging. The only thing that makes it the root of all evil is if the homework teachers give hasn’t changed over the past twenty years that they have been in the classroom.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.