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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

The Homework Debate

By Peter DeWitt — February 25, 2012 4 min read
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Sometimes parents want to help their children with homework but may not know the “right” way or newest way of doing it, which could be counterproductive to getting it done correctly.

Why do teachers believe that homework is so important? Is it really important at all? Do teachers believe that whatever they teach is so extraordinary that students must continue to work on assignments at home as well as school? Or, are administrators making top-down decisions that homework must be a part of a student’s nightly practice? Is homework being used to teach students time management techniques? Whatever the reason, homework still continues to be a hot topic among educators and parents.

Like any good debate, the one over homework has valid points on both sides. When done correctly, homework can be an extension of school where students continue to work on projects from home that they began in the classroom. Some assignments are so engaging to students that they want to continue doing research when they go home. It can also provide parents with important insight into what their children are doing in the classroom.

Unfortunately, if homework is an evening of worksheets it can be a chore more than a learning experience. Some educators send home homework because it is what they have always done. It’s important to keep in mind that the homework that is sent home provides parents a window into their classroom. If teachers are sending home worksheets or other homework that is more boring than engaging, the parents may think their child’s classroom provides the same experience during the day.

For students who struggle with school, homework can be an extension of the agony they feel on a daily basis. When a student struggles during the day, that struggling doesn’t magically disappear when they get home. Sometimes their parents struggle as well, and they cannot provide assistance to their child. Homework can act as a reminder of what they do not know and it’s easier to not complete the homework than it is to complete it. Asking students to do more of the same will not make them better at it.

The Homework Routine
When I began teaching, my principal made classroom teachers give homework based on the student’s grade (kindergarten was ten minutes, first grade was twenty minutes, etc.). I taught first grade so we had to give about twenty minutes of homework every night. Twenty minutes was easy, after all it was important for students to review what we did during the day. Unfortunately, I found out weeks later that some students struggled for an hour each night with the homework that was supposed to be twenty minutes. Other students got through it on the bus and never had to complete it at home.

Parents didn’t want to tell me that their child was struggling with homework because that could potentially mean that there was something wrong with their child. As much as I asked parents to write a note on top of the paper if their children became frustrated, they did not follow that direction.

We also had to give homework packets for vacation. When the students left for holiday, winter or spring break, they left with a packet of worksheets and a journal. After a few years of this practice a parent, who also happened to be a teaching assistant, told me she would not allow her child to complete the assignment because that was their special time with one another. She assured me that they did other types of educational work together, and the school need not send anything home.

Other parents were not as honest but they were very savvy. The students went all vacation without doing anything and then two days before they went back to school they sat down to complete the packet. I would hang a lot of it up on the wall because I wanted it to seem relevant, but even I felt it was merely busy work to do during the week.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are times when parents get mad at educators for not giving their children enough homework. Those parents believe homework prepares their children for the future. They also ask for extra worksheets if their child is high achieving. That can potentially add to a child’s dislike of school.

In the End
Homework succumbs to outside influences. Teachers and students may control their classroom environment but they do not control the home environment of their students. What may be easy to complete during the day may be a chore for the student at home. Teachers and administrators need to understand that the point of giving homework is not a routine, but relevant practice for what their students are doing in the classroom.

Homework, if given at all, needs to be engaging for a student. If the student is the only one completing it at home, then it should certainly be student-centered because that will increase the likelihood that it will get done at all. The point, however, is to not give students something to do at night as busy work, because they can find their own engaging activities which can be more important to their development than homework.

Things to Remember:

  • The same homework assignment can take a short or long period to complete depending on the ability of the student
  • Not all home environments are conducive for completing homework
  • Students who struggle in school will continue to struggle on homework. The magic of a higher reading ability or math ability doesn’t happen when they walk in their house
  • Just because the teacher or parent had homework when they were younger doesn’t mean the students have to have homework as well. If educators want students to change with the times, their assignments have to change with the times as well.
  • Test prep should never be given for homework. It’s boring and sends the message that all the school thinks about is achieving high marks on a test.
  • Sometimes parents want to help their children with homework but may not know the “right” way or newest way of doing it, which could be counterproductive to getting it done correctly.

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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.