The Heck With Homework


Good teachers are always evaluating their own teaching methods, trying to cram more material into less time with better student understanding.  It's an elusive goal but we keep trying.  One of the topics I agonized over was homework. 

If you ask people what the purpose of homework is, they will tell you it's to improve the students' understanding of a topic.  Besides, in the eye of many, the hallmark of a "tough" teacher is one who gives lots of homework. I used to buy into that, but not anymore.

If a student understands the material taught in class, then homework simply becomes "busy work" with no discernible or concrete objective other than it's the generally accepted norm.  If a student doesn't understand the material when they leave the class, how are they expected to understand the homework?  This leads to frustration, anger and further dysfunction.

Then there is the concept of differentiation, i.e., tailoring an assignment to a student's capabilities.  This is the latest in a long line of great ideas brought forth by people who don't have to implement them in the classroom.  Here's the problem with differentiating homework.

If we apply the concept of differentiation to homework, then the most capable students should get more homework or harder homework in order to challenge them.  Conversely, a student who struggles in math should get less homework. But if homework really improves student performance like its adherents claim, shouldn't it be the other way around?  Students who understand it should get less; students who don't understand should get more.   The way I see it, homework and differentiation are at complete odds with each other.

Then there are practical considerations.  When my daughter was in high school, she routinely got 30-40 math problems a night for homework.  You know how many times they got collected or checked in any way?  None. If something is worth doing, it's worth checking. That's  a basic leadership principle. If students do their work and put some effort into it, doesn't it rate at least a look?  So we'll just collect it up and grade 1,000 math problems every night.  Or we'll take 15 minutes out of a 45 minute class every day to check homework.  Besides, what student is going to knock themselves out to do quality work if their reward is more work? Especially if it never gets checked or acknowledged? What's in it for them?  I wouldn't do it.  That's simply not human nature.  See what I mean?  There's no win-win scenario here.

Still not convinced? There's a lot more going against homework.   Life in this 24x7 wired world is fast-paced so homework competes with many other outside activities.  It's a low priority among families, many of whom view homework as an unwelcome intrusion into their limited time together. 

Additionally, homework cheating is rampant, enabled by Internet technology to which the students all have access.  Cheating across the board is so bad that any work done outside the classroom is suspect.   If you are using that material for grades, you run the risk of meaningless marks recorded from a compromised system as students will freely exchange work to get the points.  This results in perfect homework scores and bombed tests.  The only work that can be trusted is that done in the classroom with the teacher.  These trends have accelerated since I left the classroom. If you include outside work, you have to be prepared to play homework detective to determine its validity. Don't you have enough to do already?

Lastly, there is the hard reality that a significant number of students simply don't do their homework - for whatever reason or no reason at all.  Then what?

The bottom line for me is this - I've never seen a struggling student become a good student or a good student become a better student because they had lots of homework.  Students improve as a direct result of good teaching in an efficient classroom and all that goes with it.  I would much rather give my students 10 minutes to do five problems at the end of class.  That way, they have to do the work and I know it's their own.  I can watch them work.  I can spot problems early and correct them.  I can gauge the effectiveness of how well I taught them.  It restores the integrity of the system and gives me an accurate picture of where people are at both individually and as a class. 

I started teaching with the traditional view of homework and tried to keep the faith.  However, upon reflection over the years I reluctantly concluded that homework has outlived its usefulness.  Improvements in technology and changes in our culture have nullified it. Its origin is suspect.  It takes time to assign it, collect it, check it and go over it.  That's time that could be used to actually teach - or eat and sleep.

In teaching, you have to pick your battles.  I found that homework consumed far too much time for far too few benefits, so I said the heck with it. My students, my families, my grade book and I were all happier for it.

Si facile, omnes esset facere....Mister L.