Why I believe in homework

The title of this post makes clear where I stand on the homework issue. I’m going to start by trying to answer each of Mark Barnes Five Reasons He Doesn’t Assign Homework.

5.  Virtually all homework involves rote memory practice, which is always a waste of time. This argues against the form of homework rather than homework itself (and makes a big assumption). If you don’t like rote memory homework don’t give it, use something better. More importantly, though, I’ll challenge that “rote memory practice” is “always a waste of time”. This is a very popular view, though one that is not necessarily strongly supported by research. We build mental schemas by rehearsing procedures until they become automatic, much the same way that a musician practices a phrase until he or she can play it without thinking. When that procedure is automatic, we can perform it without conscious thought, freeing cognitive capacity for more complex problems. I’ve got to question the wisdom of teaching material that’s not important enough for learners to perform automatically. I’m not saying assign rote learning work for homework – other forms are probably better. But don’t be so quick to dismiss it as a learning strategy.

4.  Homework has nothing to do with teaching responsibility. I absolutely agree with this point. If you want to teach responsibility, teach it. Assigning homework instead is a cop-out.

3.  Homework impinges upon a student’s time with family and on other, more valuable, activities — like play. Again, like 5 this point assumes a particular form of homework (worksheets to be completed most likely). There is no reason that family time, play, exploring, conflict resolution should not be a part of homework.

2.  I can teach the material in the time I’m with my students in the classroom. We teach students, not content. I get that US teachers are now being expected to teach to specific standards which requires covering a certain curriculum. Those of us teaching in the British system have been doing that all along. If we make our job about teaching content, then I think we’ve missed the boat.

1.  Students hate homework. Well let’s have them do homework they love. This is utopian I know, but what I’m getting at is rather than agreeing with students by saying homework sucks, ask ourselves how can we get our students to integrate learning into everything they do?

Now in fairness to Mark, and from what I’ve read from him – he would agree with most of what I’ve said so far. I too am against much of the busy work that gets sent home with kids to fill a homework timetable slot, or to get the requisite number of grades or both. I think we’re saying similar things just defining some terms differently.

But this brings me to my most important reason why I believe in homework. When we give up on homework we send the message that learning stops when the students leave the classroom. It’s hubris really “I can teach you all you need to know.” Now I know that this is not the intention, but this is the message nonetheless when we say that homework impinges on “family time” or “play” or all those other activities we say should be a part of childhood and adolescence. We’re saying that kids live divided lives: school (learning) and home (everything else). And to an extent they do. But this is a function not of homework itself, but of our present conception of home, school, and learning. There are times when roles need to be reversed. Surely if there is one thing that technology can allow us to do is to extend learning beyond the classroom walls. Isn’t that what disruptive technologies are all about? The “Flipped Classroom” is challenging this model. It will be interesting to see where this takes us.

As for homework, let’s rethink, re-imagine, and re-invent it. There’s some good in there somewhere.

2 Replies to “Why I believe in homework”

  1. Hello Mr. Bethel, I would have to agree with your post especially the part regarding the impression that not doing homework suggests learning ends in the classroom. In a perfect world a students’ inquiring mind and zeal for learning would suffice and urge them to go beyond the classroom. However, this is not the case for everyone. Ideally, if all parents were involved in the teaching/learning process rather than leaving it solely up to the teachers, then perhaps it might be feasible. To disregard homework, especially in the Bahamas would be unproductive, as a positive outcome would require a total societal overhaul regarding the importance of education and being a self motivated life long learner.

  2. Thanks for you input, Ketra. You are right – for whatever reason, education is not valued the way it should be here. Perhaps this neglect is as guilty for producing failing students as are the schools.

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