I Assign my Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good

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In academic circles the debate over homework rages on.

Does it actually help students learn or does it just cause undue stress and frustration for children and parents?

As a teacher and a parent, I see both sides of the issue.

In class, I assign my students homework every week – Monday through Thursday. Never on the weekends.

My daughter’s teacher does the same. So at home, I’m on the receiving end, spending hours with my little munchkin helping her get through mountains of assignments for her classes the next day.

Perhaps this is what they mean by the proverb – you reap what you sow. Except my daughter isn’t doing the homework I assigned. She isn’t in my class and we don’t even live in the district where I teach.

But it sometimes does feel like payback plodding through seemingly endless elementary worksheets, spelling words and vocabulary.

After a while, even I begin to question whether any of this junk does any good.

As a teacher, I know the research on the subject provides slim support at best.

In fact, the closest we have ever come to an answer is a reformulation of the question.

It really comes down to a matter of causality – a chicken and the egg conundrum with a side of sharpened pencil and crumpled paper.

If we look really hard, we can find a correlation between students who do their homework and those who get good grades.

The problem is we can’t PROVE it’s the homework that’s causing the grades.

It could just be that kids who excel academically also happen to do their homework. If we removed the homework, these kids might still get good grades.

So which comes first – the homework or the grades?

There has been surprisingly little research that goes this deep. And almost all of it is anecdotal.

Even the investigations that found a correlation did so in tight parameters – only in secondary grades and usually just for math.

Some wealthy districts have even reduced the amount of homework without seeing a subsequent drop in learning.

But nothing has been tested across socioeconomic divides or with any consistency and very little has been proven definitively.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no consensus on the matter.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) suggest educators assign no more than a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” per night.

In other words, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework on a given evening, a second grader no more than 20 minutes, etc.

However, it appears that students – especially in the primary grades – are getting more work than these recommended maximums.

A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy surveyed more than 1,100 Rhode Island parents with school age children.

Researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night – almost double the recommended maximums. Even more shocking, Kindergarteners – who according to the guideline should receive no homework at all – actually were assigned an average of 25 minutes per night.

That’s a lot of extra time sitting and slogging through practice problems instead of spending time with friends or family.

Though I live in western Pennsylvania, this study is certainly consistent with what I see in my own home. My daughter is in 4th grade but has been assigned between 30 minutes and two hours of homework almost every weekday since she was in Kindergarten.

It’s one of the reasons I try to abide by the guidelines religiously in my own classroom. I give about an hours worth of homework every week – 15 minutes per day for four days. If you add in cumulative assignments like book reports, that number may go up slightly but not beyond the recommended maximums.

I teach 8th graders, so they should not be receiving more than 80 minutes of homework a night. If the teachers in the other three core classes give the same amount of homework as I do, we’d still be below the maximum.

I’m well aware that the consequences of giving too much homework can be severe.

A 2014 Stanford study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that giving too much homework can have extremely damaging effects on children.

Still this isn’t exactly hard science.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California neighborhoods. They also used open-ended answers to gauge the students’ views on homework.

They concluded that too much homework was associated with greater stress, reductions in health, and less quality time with friends and family.

So where does that leave us?

We have anecdotal evidence that excessive homework is harmful. And limited evidence that homework may increase academic outcomes in the higher grades in math.

Frankly, if that was all I had to go on, I would never assign another piece of homework ever again.

But I’m a classroom teacher. I don’t have to rely solely on psychological and sociological studies. Everyday in school is an opportunity for action research.

My classroom is a laboratory. I am a scientist. Nearly every decision I make is based on empiricism, hypothesis and testing the results.

Maybe X will help students understand Y – that sort of thing.

This applies to homework, too.

I’ve had more than 15 years to test what works with my students. I’m not saying my results would necessarily be reproducible everywhere, but they’re at least as scientific as the body of research we have on homework. In fact, within these parameters they’re even more rigorous.

So why do I give homework?

For several reasons:

1)  It prepares students for the higher grades.

Most of my career has been spent in the middle school teaching 7th and 8th grade. In my district, high school teachers give a lot of homework. I need my students to get used to that rhythm – homework being assigned and handed in – so that they’ll have a chance at being successful in the upper secondary grades. Too many students go no further academically than 9th grade. Giving homework is my way to help provide the skills necessary to avoid that pitfall.

However, this isn’t a sufficient reason to give homework all by itself. If high school teachers stopped assigning it – and maybe they should if we have no further reason to do so – then I’d have no reason to assign it either.

2)  It makes kids responsible.

There’s something to be said for getting kids used to deadlines. You need to know what work you’re responsible for turning in, getting it done on your own and then handing it in on time. This is an important skill that I won’t apologize for reinforcing. I’m well aware that some students have extended support systems at home that can help them get their assignments done and done correctly, but I design the work so that even if they aren’t so privileged, it should be easily accessible on an individual level. Plus I’m available, myself, as a resource if necessary.

3)  It’s good practice.

In school, we learn. At home, we practice. That pattern is necessary to reinforce almost any skill acquisition. I know it’s trendy to flip the classroom a la Khan Academy with learning done through videos watched on-line at home and practice done in school. But when Internet access in not guaranteed, and home environments often are the least stable places in my students’ lives, it makes little sense to try to move the most essential part of the lesson outside of the classroom. After all, it’s easier to find a place to do some low tech practice than it is to find space, silence and infrastructure for high tech learning.

Don’t get me wrong. We practice in school, too. But there’s only so many hours in the school day. I use homework in my language arts classes for a few select things: increased vocabulary, word manipulation, grammar, self-selected reading and the ability to do work on your own. I think it’s important for my students to increase their vocabularies. Having kids read a self-selected book (both inside and outside of class) helps do that. It’s also a benefit to be able to play with words and language, find words in a puzzle, recognize synonyms and antonyms, etc. Grammar may not be essential, but a rough knowledge of it is certainly useful to increase recognition of context clues and better writing skills. Finally, some students benefit from the simple opportunity to do an assignment by themselves without an adult or even a peer looking over their shoulder.

That being said, I think it is important that the homework I give be seen as something students can achieve.

I’ve had numerous co-workers tell me they don’t assign homework for the simple reason that their students won’t do it.

This isn’t a big problem in my class. Almost all of my students do the homework. Why? Because we go over it and they know it’s something they can do without too much difficulty.

I scaffold assignments building the difficulty progressively as we proceed through the year (or years). I make myself available for extra help. I accept late work (with a penalty).

And most of all – I stress that I’m not expecting anyone to be a genius. I’m looking for hard work.

I tell my students explicitly that anyone who puts in their best effort will pass my class – probably with a B or an A. And that’s exactly what happens.

Homework is a part of that equation. It demonstrates effort. And effort is the first step (the key, in fact) to accomplishment.

Do students complain about the homework?

Sure! They’re children!

I’d probably complain, too, if I were them. No one really wants to be given extra work to do. But it’s all part of the pattern of my classroom.

Students know what to expect and how to meet those expectations.

None of this makes me a super teacher. It certainly doesn’t put me on anyone’s cutting edge.

I’m just doing what educators have done for decades. I’m attempting to use best practices in my classroom with a full knowledge of the academic research and the pitfalls ahead.

I may assign homework, but I made sure to do my own before coming to that decision.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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STEM Education Severs the Arts from the Sciences

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What’s the most effective way to dumb down a nation?

 

 

Focus on How without Why.

 

 

That’s really the biggest problem with the pedagogical fad of STEM education.

 

 

There’s nothing objectively wrong with teaching science, technology, engineering and math – the disciplines that make up STEM.

 

 

In many cases, doing so is essential to a well-rounded education.

 

 

But therein lies the problem – you can’t have a well-rounded education if you purposely leave out some of the most vital aspects of knowledge.

 

 

Where’s the art? Where’s the literature? Where’s the social studies, government, citizenship, drawing, painting, music – heck! Where’s the philosophical understanding of life, itself?

 

 

STEM initiatives often involve creating two tiers of school subjects. You have the serious disciplines that will earn you respect and a job. And you have the soft, mamby pamby humanities that are no good to anyone.

 

 

The problem is one of focus not content.

 

 

Corporate-minded bureaucrats who know nothing of human psychology, child development or education look solely at standardized test scores and get hysterical.

 

 

The U.S. is falling behind other nations – especially in science and math, they say. So we must do whatever we can to bring those test scores up, Up, UP!

 

 

Yet they have never bothered to see that our student test scores have never been at the top of the pack for all the decades we’ve been making international comparisons.

 

 

We started contrasting multiple choice assessment results for 13-year-olds in a dozen countries back in 1964. And ever since, America has always been right in the middle.

 

Yet for those five decades we’ve dominated the world in science, technology, research and innovation.

 

 

In that time we sent the first people to the moon, mapped the human genome, and invented the Internet – all while getting middling test scores.

 

 

In short, standardized assessments are a fantastically unreliable indicator of national success, just as they are poor indicators of individual learning.

 

 

We’ve never been a nation content with picking our answers from four options – A,B,C,D. We blaze new paths!

 

 

But number obsessed fools have convinced a public blinded by sports statistics that these tests mean our kids are deficient. And the only cure is to put on blinders and focus almost exclusively on those subjects most featured on the tests.

 

Even reading and writing are only valuable if they let us guess what a normalized reader is supposed to comprehend from a given passage and if they allow us to express ourselves in the most rudimentary and generic ways.

 

 

This is exactly what they do in countries with the highest test scores – countries that are LESS innovative than the U.S.

 

 

Asian countries from Singapore to South Korea to India are not blind to this irony. While we are trying to imitate them, they are trying to imitate the kind of broad liberal arts education in which we used to pride ourselves.

 

“Many painters learn by having fun,” said Jack Ma, founder of one of China’s biggest Internet companies Alibaba.

 

“Many works of art and literature are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”

 

Ma worries that his country is not as innovative as those in the West because China’s educational system focuses too much on the basics and does not foster a student’s complete intelligence, allowing him or her to experiment and enjoy the learning process.

 

In other words, no matter how good you are at math and science, you still need to know how to learn, think and express yourself.

 

To be fair, these criticisms of STEM are not new.

 

Even global pundits like Fareed Zakaria have made similar arguments.

 

The result has been a hasty addition – change STEM to STEAM by adding in the arts.

 

Unfortunately, this hasn’t always worked out for the best.

 

Most of the time, the arts component is either an after thought or merely a sweetener to get students interested in beginning the journey – a journey that is all STEM all the time.

 

There is still an education hierarchy with the sciences and math at the top and the humanities and social studies at the bottom.

 

This is extremely unfortunate and will cause long-term detrimental effects to our society.

 

For instance, we pride ourselves in being democratically ruled. Political power does not come from authority, it comes from the consent of the governed.

 

This requires a public that knows how to do more than just add and subtract. Voters need to understand the mechanisms of government so they grasp their rights. They need a knowledge of history so they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. They need to grasp human psychology, anthropology, and sociology to understand how people work in groups and individually.

 

Moreover, as human beings, they need the humanities. People have thoughts and feelings. They need to know how to express those thoughts and feelings and not just by writing a five-paragraph essay. They need to be able to create works of art. They need to be able to write a story or poem. They need to be able to manipulate images. They need to understand and create music.

 

Without these things, it can be difficult to become fully actualized people.

 

That used to be the goal of education. Provide students with the tools to become the best version of themselves.

 

But this focus on STEM and STEAM only endeavors to make them the best cogs the workforce needs.

 

We have relinquished our commitment to students and replaced it with a commitment to business and industry.

 

The idea is that schools owe the job market workers. That could not be further from the truth. We owe our students the tools that will help them live the best lives. And employment is only one small facet of that goal.

 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach math and science. We should – we MUST. But those can’t be prioritized over and above other essential human endeavors.

 

We need to fund and encourage a broad liberal arts education for all students. As they get older and move on to post-secondary studies including industrial arts they will inevitably specialize in areas that they find most interesting.

 

But until then, it is our job to give them every opportunity to learn – not to mold them into future wage slaves or boost national pride with arbitrary and meaningless test scores.


 

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