Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water!

153679054-620x4131Last school year one of my grandson’s called me using Skype so that I might help him with his seventh grade math homework. It was an unusual request from him because he is generally quite mathematically inclined and is even taking Algebra I this year in the eighth grade. I learned that he had a long term substitute teacher who wasn’t especially equipped to teach math and so he was not grasping concepts during class the way he normally does. In addition the homework assignment didn’t appear to match the information that he had been given during regular school hours. Even worse was the fact that it was over four pages long with a total of about eighty problems. He caught on quickly and managed to complete the assignment with little help from me but it took well over two hours and he was almost falling asleep as we worked to beat the clock. I suspected that perhaps he had been given the worksheets earlier in the week and simply chose to get them completed just before they were due but he insisted that it was a one night deal. Since he is generally quite honest I had to believe that the situation was one of those travesties that students must sometimes endure.

There is a great deal of discussion regarding homework these days. There are pros and cons regarding its impact on learning but virtually everyone agrees that in some cases there is way too much of it, particularly for younger children. I have a feeling that much of the homework trend is being driven by the tightly packed curriculum that literally does not allow for any breathing room in the teaching cycle. Educators today are pressured to introduce an impossible number of concepts during the school year, sometimes more than one new idea during a single hour. It is a race to get everything done and often assigning homework is the only way to provide the practice that students need. The problem of homework is brutally complex and needs to be addressed but not in isolation. Unless the entire issue of scope and sequence, skills and knowledge and testing is addressed the fixes may be quick but inadequate.

I taught math. I knew for certain that the vast majority of my students needed infinite amounts of practice before they mastered concepts. I tried to direct teach and then provide lots of in-class time to try out the new ideas while I walked around guiding those who were struggling. I managed to cleverly work in short periods of practice when students had to demonstrate understanding without assistance from anyone. I gave homework Monday through Thursday with regularity. I learned that ten problems worked as well as fifty for reinforcing learning so I tried to keep my intrusion on my students’ home life as short as possible. I generally found that I needed to work the problems myself before giving them to my kids because I had to see how much time they actually took to solve. I also checked regularly with those of varying skill levels to find out how long it took them to do my homework. I adjusted whenever I learned that they were having to work for more than forty five minutes. I tried my best not to give assignments on the weekend or before holidays. I wanted my students to have family time and to come back rested.

Some teachers and parents are suggesting that there should be no homework at all. I find that such ideas are akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Instead of attempting to adjust the situations that worry us we tend to use one size fits all strategies and as an educator I am certain that it is never a good idea to do so. When I was a student I needed homework because I was always too distracted inside a classroom full of other people to adequately absorb the information that my teachers were presenting. I needed the quiet of my home to go over my notes and study examples. I tend to die in group settings. Even in college I had to avoid the library because I was constantly losing my attention because of the distractions of the sounds of people walking, turning pages, shifting in their seats and so forth. Teamwork projects were just an extra burden for me because I always had to later go into my quiet little lair and study in my own way to master concepts.

Educators need to bear in mind the many different learning styles that make their students tick. One of the best ideas I have ever seen is giving students choices regarding how to reinforce their learning. Allowing them to select activities that correspond more closely with their innate learning styles just might be a great way to reduce the stress that universal homework assignments create in so many kids. They might for example have the opportunity to stay a bit longer once school is out so that they can participate in group study settings, especially if that is a better way for them to learn. For those like me who lose all focus in a crowd a private room might work or even the chance to just go home to do the work in solitude and familiar surroundings. Until we begin to assist each student in building on the strengths that they already have we will almost always find problems.

Another way of dealing with the homework problem is to have teachers from the different curriculum areas communicate with one another. I wanted to know when science fair projects or research papers were due so that I might shorten my own assignments or even eliminate them entirely. When every teacher is piling on huge amounts of work students become overly stressed and little learning is actually occurring. By working together to consider their needs it is far more likely that they will actually take care in meeting the demands from each class.

I think that high school students have to have homework or they will be totally unprepared for the rigors of college. They must learn how to manage their time but teachers should also bear in mind that few university students are held captive in classrooms for seven or eight hours. They instead have many extra moments during the day to complete their reading, papers, labs and studying. When high school students don’t even arrive home until five or six at night they have a very narrow window of time in which to get everything done. Sometimes they struggle to complete their work before midnight and then have to arise with only five or six hours of sleep to begin again. Little wonder that so many of them become unduly anxious and burnt out.

I advocate for continuing to assign homework beginning about third grade and slowly increasing its intensity as the student progresses through up the line. Perhaps first year homework assignments should be as little as  five or ten minutes in the main subject areas total while a senior in high school might handle as much as three hours total in a single night. All grades from the fifth grade on should have a summer reading assignment as well to encourage a lifelong habit of learning. Students can prove that they actually read the text in different ways such as writing a critique, analyzing characters, giving a speech or presentation, and so forth but not with a “gotcha” test over small details. Let’s face it nobody recalls such things and the literary experience should be as enjoyable as possible.

I’m glad that people are thinking about homework. We’ve gone way overboard of late and it’s well past time to begin a more creative way of insuring that everybody learns.

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