"Homework Bag by David Truss CC = BY::NC::SA"

I question the value of most homework.

Example: A math teacher teaches a concept to 30 students, then assigns 40 questions in the text. Here is a typical breakdown of student experiences…

Group A+: These 3 students knew the concept before it was even taught, not a single of the 40 questions are remotely helpful in teaching anything new… in fact, the homework is useless, boring and I’d even argue punitive.

Group A: The lesson was great, it taught these 6 students very well. The first 25 questions were unnecessary as the concepts were really simple and the last 15 questions were helpful and challenging (especially the last 5 word problems that required some critical thinking). Still, more than half the homework was pretty much a waste of time, and quite honestly, if the last 15 questions were the only questions they had to do, they could have finished all, or at least most, of them in class after the lesson.

Group B: For these 10 students, the homework was good. After the lesson they are able to tackle the questions and actually find them challenging. The practice was needed and good to have. However 2 of these students get too challenged with the last 15 questions and get more wrong than right. They have essentially gone home and ‘practiced’ doing these more challenging questions wrong.

Group C: These 6 students found the lesson tough. They found the homework even tougher and like the 2 struggling students above, they do a good job of praciticing how to get practice questions wrong at home… But 1 of these students has a really smart mom who ‘gets’ math and who sits and helps him. This student gets the support at home to make the homework achievable and useful. Beyond him, students in this group will all struggle significantly with the last 15 questions. It will be a frustrating learning experience!

Group D: You knew these 5 students couldn’t do the homework even before you assigned it. At best they’ll get the first 10 to 15 questions done, and they don’t have a hope of being successful on the last 15 questions even if they tried… but they won’t.

Score card: A class of 30 students and 9 of them find the homework experience valuable, (8 from Group B and 1 Group C). I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be too proud of a 30% success rate. I know my student breakdown includes sweeping generalizations, I know you do more to meet students’ needs, but I think you can see the truth behind the value of homework to the different ‘categories’ of students I describe.

As a math teacher, my first lessons were not about Math they were about life. I wrote this formula on the board:

"Equal is not equal to fair"Equal is not equal to fair.

Sometimes certain students didn’t get homework, or they got alternate homework. Some didn’t write the pre-tests, some only did every other question, some only had to do 5 questions, some had to do them all. It’s not fair to give 3 students the same number of questions when one student is bored to death by them, one can do them in 20 minutes and still another student will struggle with them unsuccessfully for an hour… it would be equal, but not fair.

But still, with all my attempts to differentiate and make the homework meaningful, homework was still an area of my teaching that I found challenging to manage well. It was different when the students were doing their Science Alive project, going home and adding to their wiki pages. But most of that homework was done by student choice… it wasn’t imposed upon them.

My last post was about flipped classrooms with the lesson/instructions watched at home, and the practice done at school. This could be a great strategy to help make class time effective, but as I also mentioned, those lessons need to be well thought out, well produced and engaging enough to get kids to actually watch them… you need to work at making it meaningful homework that actually gets done. In a comment response to that post, David Deubelbeiss wrote:

I’ve written and workshopped about flipping our classroom instruction in ELT and being more inductive. Usually teachers – prepare, practice, produce – a kind of behavioral and assembly line approach. However, for language learning which is a skill – production is most important, the doing. Students usually don’t do much there because the bell cuts the lesson short, the teacher takes ages explaining/pontificating and doing the chalk talk. So I suggested to teachers to FLIP. Just let students have a go. Monitor and then plan and instruct from that basis – after you see what they can do, do know. So instruction becomes about dealing with the holes in student understanding, not giving them the whole enchilada beforehand.

Done well, the flipped classroom could potentially be a useful way to assign homework. I’m sure there are other examples, but I’m willing to bet that most homework is neither effective nor is it something that encourages a love of learning… and if that is the case, then why continue?

Other things to consider:

How much class time is dedicated to explaining homework? How much class time is committed to checking homework answers? How valuable is the ‘homework checking’ time? Are the students who struggle most with homework the ones who get the most attention during ‘homework checking’ time? How much of your time is spent policing homework completion? How many positive conversations do you have regarding homework? How many students truly get value from homework? How many don’t? How valuable is homework?

Note: I’m currently at an international school where there are very high expectations for homework to be given. My philosophy on homework does not match my reality. My kids go to my school and I’d say conservatively that they spend an average of 1 hour on homework a night, and that’s in Grades 3 and 6. I see value in the discipline, and there have even been (sparsely experienced) moments where we’ve enjoyed working on something together. I also think the (student choice) reading they are required to do is excellent, and the response journals are worthy activities to do… but for the most part, I’d rather they had much less homework. At my school, I am definitely a parent in the minority in that regard.

I have previously asked and shared re:

The purpose of homework…

Is homework an effective practice?

What is it intended to accomplish for student learning?

How do you use it effectively?

How do you deal with homework that isn’t done? Is this the same as others on your team?

What feedback have you had from students? Parents?

What I’ve read to get me thinking about homework: (Each one already linked to above.)

‘Rethinking Homework’ by Alfie Kohn

‘Homework, the tip of the iceberg’ by Harold Jarche

And here are three more to ponder:

‘What Homework Should Be’ by Brian Kuhn

‘Homework Headaches (to my teachers!)’_by Amber Teamann

‘Why I Don’t Assign Homework’ by Dan Meyer

What do you think?

33 comments on “Homework

  1. I think another important question to ask is, what would happen if you didn’t assign homework? I mean, how would it affect family life, particularly in families which struggle to get their kids to complete the homework assignments.

    We can argue about the educational merit of assigning homework, but what about the other problems with homework?

  2. David, I have a recent post on my blog that deals with this topic called “The Burden of Proof. Why math homework can be a waste of time“.

    Regarding the Flipped Classroom, have you seen Salman Khan’s Ted Video on the topic. It’s fabulous.

    As far as homework goes, I’m against it. Kids spend about 6 or so hours away from their families and neighbors. Why are we robbing them of more time to be in the world connecting to those in their lives? Why can’t we finish what needs to get finished during the day and let kids actually do stuff they love when they get home?

  3. Just a thought.
    Suppose they did homework. All of them. Then, what would be the criteria to judge its success?
    Many students pass standard tests with merit. It doesn’t entail learning. Nor does homework,at least to me.

  4. Generally speaking I have come to believe that homework is a bad idea especially with the students that I have worked with. So many of them have part-time (or full-time) jobs after school that this is really not something that they will prioritize. I can try and have all the discussions I want about the appropriateness of this but the facts are what they are. I also don’t think (for all the reasons you point out here) that homework really works.
    I have had a debate with some that it teaches ‘work-habits’ but what good is it for the students who don’t have somebody at home to help them work through the frustration.
    Interestingly for me is this will soon clash as my son will be starting school and in the handout I received I saw that they expected students to do homework every night (30 mins) starting in grade two. I see even less point in assigning homework just for it to be done at home. I don’t really understand why him reading for 30 mins or more about something he is interested in wouldn’t be better for him.

  5. I’m glad David brought up the tricky topic of homework – it’s really one that needs to be explored from all angles.
    While I wholeheartedly agree that the kind of homework David describes in his post is not productive, I’ve gone from not assigning homework at all (Alfie Kohn) to assigning very short homework, only once a week, highlighting one specific point I would like to emphasize(Robyn Jackson). For example, the homework one week was on the difference between “long” and “no longer” and consisted of 6 sentences.
    While I most certainly have not gotten to the point where all the students do their homework, I have found that the students rate my class more seriously now that I give homework and those that do their homework benefit from it. Because I give it online I can use pictures, video clips or even just color, options which are unavailable at the school photocopying machine.
    I still hope to increase the number of pupils doing homework – lots to aspire to!
    I wrote about this in more detail here:

  6. David,
    I love your question, “What would happen if you didn’t assign homework?”… and I love the answer(s) you shared on Twitter with the link to your post: 15 things kids can do instead of homework And also the link shared on that post: 25 Myths About Homework

    That TED talk and many others are on my ‘to watch later list’, my Internet connection here in China doesn’t like video these days, and I’m sick and tired of re-watching the beginning of videos over and over again before I get to see the full show.
    I love your point about robbing students of their time… another consideration is robbing students of their relationship with their parents as “Get your homework done” and “This isn’t good enough” takes precedence over “How was your day?” and “What would you like to do this evening?”

    Great question! I would also like to share the comment you wrote on my last post, which seems very relevant to this conversation:
    “Why would we assign homework the students may not do at all and still carry on with the lessons and learning? If they don’t do it, wouldn’t that leave a huge gap? At least in a foreign language class, the silence and sense of being lost the following class is deeply felt. Unless the homework was some kind of extra practice they can afford to miss, in which case it’s hard to see it integrated (not the best word choice, I know)to the learning process; but then again, if it is not important how can we expect it to be engaging?”

    The clash is coming for you… I’m in it… and it is at my own school where I am the principal. I still remember my first parent meeting where everything was going great until I started to share my views on homework. Suddenly I felt like I was from another planet!
    I have many students that in addition to their homework for our school, go to ‘academy’ to do work unrelated to our school and then get additional homework from the academy. I’ll sometimes see students doing their academy homework during our lunch time. Sad.

    Thank you! It was your comment on my last post that inspired me to write this.
    I find this statement absolutely fascinating:
    “While I most certainly have not gotten to the point where all the students do their homework, I have found that the students rate my class more seriously now that I give homework and those that do their homework benefit from it.”
    It begs two questions:
    1. What is the purpose of homework?
    2. What do students see as the value of homework? (And I’d like to see answers from both students who do it and students who don’t.)
    I love the post you shared… thanks again!

  7. David,

    Another comprehensive post, full of stuff to chaw upon! (and I have been thinking about a post on this subject – how too often blog posts are all gravy, no meat and potatoes…. but that’s another day).

    Thanks for mentioning my thoughts on inductive teaching. Here’s the original post – Learning as a self organizing principle. http://bit.ly/bhLXDP

    I usually don’t agree too much with Alfie Kohn but got to vote that if possible (given all the pressures a teacher is under) that homework is purely voluntary and not punitive. Kohn outlines why much better than I ever could here….

    The purpose of homework?

    I think there can be many but one “ultimate” purpose is to recycle and fortify the learning objectives (not necessarily just what went on in the classroom). A student might not work well in class, in that whole high pressured social context so why can’t they have homework available to “keep up”? (and I’d also suggest that they shouldn’t even have to be in school in the first place – but that’s another day too…). I also think the purpose of homework should be to personalize the curriculum in a very direct way.

    However, I’ve heard a teacher mention that homework should have the purpose of helping parents! Meaning, the teacher gives homework so that the parents will spend time with the student and help the student. Takes some set up but it is a valid purpose I think.


  8. Me again, just to clarify how I see the purpose of homework:
    I use the homework to highlight (or put a spotlight ) on one rule, phrase or aspect that I want to emphasize every week. Although we worked a number of times in class on the difference between “order” and “in order to” , I have found that the students who do homework remembered it on tests. Their homework was 6 sentences dealing with the difference. That’s it. Homework is only given once a week.
    The students who don’t do homework know that it is costing them in the “teacher evaluation” component of their semester grade.

  9. David,
    Your comments of late have also been ‘meaty’ (and quotable), I really appreciate your contributions! (Yours too Naomi)

    I can’t agree with the ‘helping parents’ argument as homework completion often becomes more of a concern for completion than working with the child. I think meaningful homework that engages parents would be something that takes considerable time AND needs to take into consideration the different circumstances of students… Adding parent-student formatted homework to a working-single-parent’s schedule is far different than doing the same with a stay-at-home parent. If parents are a ‘reason’ for homework, those reasons better be flexible enough to meet parent needs and situations. (Also see my note to Lisa re: robbing students of their time, in comment 6 above.)

    Thanks for taking the time to clarify. I like how you focus homework on both a single idea, and a purpose of increased comprehension. It also is manageable in how much is expected. The fact that some still choose not to do the homework further makes me want to ask students the second question that I suggested above to you:
    2. What do students see as the value of homework? (And I’d like to see answers from both students who do it and students who don’t.)

    I’m enjoying the continuation of this conversation… thanks again!

  10. I’d like to throw in a few things from a parent perspective.

    Parental Homework — I’ve often suspected that some of the “homework” that get’s sent home is really for me. I find it somewhat offensive every time. If the culture we are trying to achieve is “Parents as Partners” assigning a parent work is not a step in that direction.

    To pick up on David Wees’s point a bit further … I jealously guard the time that I have with my kids. School get’s them for a good portion of the time (my kids ride the bus .. so they are gone from 8:30-5pm) .. when they get home it should be our time as a family. There are many things that my husband and I want to share with our kids. We garden, they like to help their dad on the farm, sports activities, community service/involvement, walks in the field, bike rides and time just to do nothing.

    Regular homework infringes on our time to share our passions with our kids and for them to explore things they are passionate about.

    I’ve often joked that if homework became an issue (which I am fortunate it is not) that I’d send a note to school saying

    “Dear Teacher … Please have my son complete the following assignments today at school .. Daydreaming for 30 min, Exploring a mud puddle for 15 min, and please read to him about dinosaurs .. he’s really into that these days. A nap in the afternoon would be great for bonus points. Thanks”

    Sounds ridiculous … but it sounds equally ridiculous when you ask ME to set aside valuable activities to complete school work. Don’t get me wrong .. I love to know what is happening at school, and we do extend the learning at home — but in a way that makes sense to our family. For example http://web20parents.blogspot.com/2009/04/class-blogs-are-great.html

    I’m fortunate that our school seems to get this. They have recently implemented a 4 day rotation — this cuts the class times in high school down to 60min and allows for a “homework” block at the end of the day. I was skeptical at first .. but the feedback from other parents(my kids are still elementary) has been great. Kids can get the help they need from people who actually know what’s going on. Parent’s are reporting better family life due to less fighting and struggling over homework. Win/Win.

    Thanks for starting the conversation David .. it’s an interesting one!

  11. I completely agree with this entire post. 🙂 I’ve managed to insert my views on hw in every single staff meeting we’ve had this year…yet to see an impact but I’ll be SURE and share this article with them as well! 🙂

  12. While I can’t say what homework means for the students who don’t do it I can describe the four types of students that I have who don’t do homework.
    Note: Remember I teach high-school and the deaf / hard of hearing students I have are 16 – 20 year olds.
    Type one: Students, particularly in the 12th grade, who know they aren’t going to graduate with a matriculation (national leaving exams) certificate anyway and see no point in bothering with h.w
    Type two: Students whose aim is just to PASS the matriculation exams. These kids won’t even sit with me to correct their exams, despite the fact that I give an extra 5 points for a full correction. They also do not bother with h.w .
    *Both these types also have attendance issues.
    Type three: Students whose home life is a MESS. I’m very flexible with these kids – long story.
    Type four; smart kids who, until high-school, aced tests effortlessy and projected an “its not cool to study” image. doing homework ruins that “cool” image. high-school can be difficult and grades on exams will also ruin that image but you have to let these kids realize the price of not studying by themselves.

    I really agree with Penny that homework should not be for parents! I do other things with my children! Or did, they are big now!

  13. What a great piece of the education puzzle to question and such thoughtful comments. Perhaps your flipped classroom should be the baseline approach and then the type of “homework” assigned is differentiated based on student need. Student needs may be enrichment and challenge or practice and remedial depending on the student. Find a balance of what is best done in class with the teacher available to assist vs at home as preparation, investigative, or assistive/practice. I think open it up to many ways to support many types of students. Why should it be the way our parents expected it, we expected it for our kids? Make it work for kids today. And don’t overburden kids – be sensitive to their home context (as some of the comments suggest).

  14. Penny,
    I want to frame your comment… or at least your letter to the teacher 🙂
    There have been a few times in the last couple years here that we have told our kids, ‘don’t worry, we’ll write you a note, don’t do that homework’. Fortunately that hasn’t been a big issue, but I agree with you completely! As Lisa Nielsen said above, “Why are we robbing them of more time to be in the world connecting to those in their lives? Why can’t we finish what needs to get finished during the day and let kids actually do stuff they love when they get home?”

    I don’t get to share this post with my staff, (I don’t know how many read my blog as I don’t push or direct them here, I tend to discuss rather than link to my own ideas with my staff). They already know my feelings on homework and they are also keenly aware of our parent expectations at the school. These are in direct conflict and I do believe my teachers are already working hard to find a balance. I would love to hear how things go when you share this with your staff!

    Thanks again. I do appreciate that you’ve come back and continued to contribute! You have in your comments brought up an interesting point regarding how we re-enforce skills, or use of language, that tends to need practice to improve. I’m at school with a high percentage of English Language Learners who go home to parents that don’t (often can’t) speak English to them. We will have a week off next week and they may not hear English that entire week. Outside of school ‘practice’ has value: how that is delivered is something we really need to look at as a profession.

    Your last two lines could have been added to my comment to Naomi above: “Make it work for kids today. And don’t overburden kids – be sensitive to their home context…”
    We don’t necessarily need to ban homework, I started this post by saying, ‘I question the value of most homework.’ And the reality is that most homework is work that should be done at school and has been passed on to student’s (and parents) free time. If we put most of that time & work back into schools, and then provided engaging activities that supplement and compliment school rather than simply extending the school day into the afternoon, then I think we would be benefiting everyone involved in the education of our children.

  15. Most maths homework should be banned for children under the age of 13. This means there needs to be high quality maths teaching particularly for children aged 10 to 15. In Great Britain passing the 11 plus exam seems to give rise to a relaxed attitude to maths, instead of an urge to meet the challenges of the subject at this important stage. Homework often conceals poor quality teaching.

  16. I assign homework because parents expect it (many want more) and the school handbook says we do. For 5th graders, I assign homework for two purposes: 1) Review the lessons for the day, and 2) Help students get into the habit of setting aside regular, daily time.

    I tend to give students a “regular” and a “challenge” math piece. I expect them to read or write for 30 minutes per night.

    The goal is to not require parents to help. I don’t want to assign anything students cannot do on their own. I don’t want to plan my lessons based on the assumptions that students have done something in their free time. Also, I don’t want students’ final grades to be based on homework (with the exception of “responsibility” for getting work back and forth from home to school).

    Great post. We must always know why we are doing (or not doing) what we are doing.

  17. It seems very difficult to obtain information from the children themselves as to what exactly they are being taught. The children seem to think that what they are being taught is a strictly private matter between themselves and their teacher. Should not the children be encouraged to express themselves more clearly on this particular subject.

  18. I think that homework is valuable and good practice. I think this teacher gave out a little too much homework. Some kids may have sports or cheer leading after school. And if you know that they’re struggling in math why would you give them 40 questions and expect them to do it all in one night? The teacher should have only given them about 25 questions.

      1. You shouldn’t give students different amounts of homework. Like I said you should give them about 25 questions or 20 to 30. Its wrong to give kids 40 questions without any help. If you know that they’re haveing problems in math or reading or any other subject you should talk to them after class about whats going on.

  19. An interesting discussion that I came across: The Great Homework Debate. It seems that teacher Sarah Camp has used my post as a discussion point in her Grade 5 class and students have shared their opinions on the value of homework. I just asked them a question in the comments and hope to see a response from them.

    I wonder if the last comment here, from ‘paige’, is actually a response from that class?

    1. yes I am from her class! she is an amazing teacher and im glad we got to read this artical for our homework. Thanks for responding.

  20. Wow! I was so surprised to see you add a comment to my student discussion page. Their comments were quite surprising to me, because I am not a fan of homework. The comment above from ‘paige’ is a response from my class. I will be certain to encourage my students to respond to your post on the discussion page. Thank you so much for entering the discussion.

    1. Hi Sarah,
      I’m honoured that you used my post as a discussion topic, and I enjoyed reading your students’ thoughts on homework. Please know that I actually liked seeing Paige’s comment on my post and have no problem with students entering into the conversation on my blog as well as in your class discussion! 🙂

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