Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Great American Homework Debate


As summer begins to wind down, my thoughts have inevitably returned to my classes and the students I will encounter on the first day of school. Like most teachers, I have begun asking myself two important questions: what did I do last year that worked and did not work, and what should I change this year to improve instruction in my classroom?

Last year, I can recall many strategies and lesson plans that worked well and helped my students to learn more about history. I can also think of one thing that did not work well last year and contributed little to the my students' understanding of the subject. That one thing was homework!

Therefore, I have decided to dramatically change my homework strategy by not assigning any homework in any of my classes. Period.

Why am I making such a drastic shift in strategy after teaching and assigning regular homework for some twenty-five years? The answer is simple. It is no longer effective and virtually unnecessary for my students to learn what they need to know and be able to do in my classroom. Homework has become, in a word, obsolete!

The stark reality is that on any given day in most of my classes, only a third to a half of my students actually turn in homework when it is due. The rest turn it in late or simply refuse to do it at all. The end result is that I spend valuable classroom time reminding students that they have overdue assignments. When they do finally turn in their late assignments, the work is often barely acceptable and no longer relevant to the current lesson.

My students learn nothing from the ordeal, and I become frustrated because I spend more time being a "homework cop" than teaching. Even those "grade-grubbers" who regularly turn in their assignments on time most probably copied the answers from somebody else or cut and pasted from the internet. The entire effort has become an exercise in futility. So why bother?

Some will argue that I am overreacting and throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Homework, they argue, teaches students to be responsible and helps to reinforce basic concepts and ideas covered in the class. Besides, they will have to do homework in college, so students should get used to doing homework in high school.

These traditional arguments in favor of regular homework miss the mark completely. Students learn nothing from homework if they refuse to do it, and if they turn in homework that is copied or plagiarized, they have only learned how to cheat. In most cases, they have learned zero, zippo, nada about the subject matter.

As for homework in college, forget about it! Most college professors do not check homework, even if they assign it. I have earned three college degrees and do not remember a professor ever collecting homework. Papers and essays are assigned in college, but this hardly compares to the kind of busy work that most high school teachers assign and most students forget to do.

Yes, I did say busy work. I am more than convinced that 98% of all homework is exactly that - work that keeps students busy but contributes nothing to their education. In my classes at least, there seems to be little correlation between homework grades and test scores. I frequently encounter students who get A's on their exams without turning in a single homework assignment. And I often have students who turn in all of their homework only to fail the test. Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture.

To be clear, I will continue to assign projects and papers that students will be expected to turn in on an announced due date. This, after all, is what will be expected of my students in college. But I will no longer assign the regular homework/busywork that I have usually collected at the beginning of each class.

I am not alone in my thinking on this issue. Parents have long questioned the validity (and sanity) of having their children work on homework for hours after dinner. Some schools have adopted a so-called ten-minute rule to limit the amount of homework assigned. Students, according to this standard, should receive a maximum of ten minutes of homework for each grade completed. Other schools have decided that homework can only count as a small percentage of a student's overall grade - usually ten percent.

Author Alfie Kohn has written in his book, The Homework Myth, that homework is "all pain and no gain." He points out, correctly, that no study has found a definite connection between homework and academic achievement. The data simply does not exist.

So this year my students will no longer have to think up creative excuses for not doing their homework, and I will not have to spend valuable class time playing homework cop.

This year, the dog will have to eat some other kid's homework!