Information Age Education Blog
School Homework: Think Outside the Box
The nature and extent of homework assigned to students has long been a controversial issue. My 9/18/2014 Google search of the expression school homework produced about 145 million hits. What are the goals of such homework assignments? Are the goals being accomplished? What does the research literature tell us?
I view every person both as a lifelong leaner and as a lifelong teacher. In every interaction I have with another person, I both learn from that person and help that person learn from me. When I think about goals of education, I think both about the “traditional” content that is taught and also about the goal of helping every student to become better at being both a lifelong learner and a lifelong teacher.
Thus, when I think of homework, I “think outside the box” about what we might do to make homework contribute to helping every student become a lifelong learner and a lifelong teacher. This IAE Blog entry provides some general background about homework and then explores a few of my own “outside the box” ideas.
A Brief Introduction to Homework
Tom Loveless’ article, Homework in America, provides a historical background and some recent research findings (Loveless, 2014). Quoting from his article:
Homework! The topic, no, just the word itself, sparks controversy. It has for a long time. In 1900, Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, published an impassioned article, “A National Crime at the Feet of Parents,” accusing homework of destroying American youth. Drawing on the theories of his fellow educational progressive, psychologist G. Stanley Hall (who has since been largely discredited), Bok argued that study at home interfered with children’s natural inclination towards play and free movement, threatened children’s physical and mental health, and usurped the right of parents to decide activities in the home.
But a recent report from the Brookings Brown Center on Education casts aspersions on these findings [of increasing levels of homework] and others like them that regularly crop up in the media (they've even produced a video summarizing media representations of homework burdens and contrasting them with their findings). The report looks at students' self-reported homework loads over the past 30 years, as tracked by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Their bottom line? "With one exception [the lower grades of elementary school] , the homework load has remained remarkably stable since 1984."
I have long enjoyed reading Alfie Kohn’s thoughts about such challenging educational questions. Here are some brief quotes from Alfie Kohn’s article, Rethinking Homework (Kohn, January/February, 2007).
After spending most of the day in school, children are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few people ever stop to think about it.
It becomes even more curious, for that matter, in light of three other facts:
1. The negative effects of homework are well known. They include children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities, and possible loss of interest in learning.…
2. The positive effects of homework are largely mythical. In preparation for a book on the topic, I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the research. The results are nothing short of stunning. For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school.…
3. More homework is being piled on children despite the absence of its value. Over the last quarter-century the burden has increased most for the youngest children, for whom the evidence of positive effects isn’t just dubious; it’s nonexistent.
A Child’s Right to an Education
Our current formal schooling system has been developed over hundreds of years. Nowadays, most of the world is committed to providing children with at least an elementary school education. Quoting from the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959).
Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights, without distinction or discrimination on account of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, whether of himself or of his family.
The child is entitled to receive education, which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgement, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society.
Such broad statements do not provide details on the nature and extent of the education, the resources to be made available to students and teachers, qualifications of teachers, facilities, and so on. They do not provide details about the roles of parents, guardians, siblings, and others living in a child’s home. Thus, it is not surprising that there are huge differences around the world in the quality and extent of the education that children are obtaining. Each country develops and implements its own ideas and traditions on the length of a school year and school days, goals of schooling, and what education occurs outside of school.
Possible Purposes of Homework
Historical and relatively current data on the amount of homework assigned in U.S. schools is available in the article by Lawless (2014). The nature and extent of homework assigned varies considerably by grade level and in schools throughout the country. Often the homework is an extension of the in-school work, consisting mainly of extra practice on topics being taught. This may be in the form of drill-and-practice worksheets to be completed at home. As students develop their reading skills, homework may include reading assignments, or perhaps reading a book and making a report on it. As students reach upper grades, homework might be part of a long writing assignment—perhaps a term paper. These types of homework assignments are supported by a belief held by many adults that the regular school day is not long enough and so needs to be extended through the assignment of homework.
Besides required homework assignments, many students cram for exams, and many students read widely in areas that they personally find interesting. In their senior year of high school, quite a few students take special cram-types of private instruction to prepare them for state tests as well as for the SAT, ACT, and other college entrance exams.
School systems and parents throughout the world differ greatly in their expectations for students to do additional studying after the traditional school day ends. In countries that have very high-stakes tests for students graduating from high school, there tends to be considerable emphasis on many hours of “studying for the test” in after-school programs. These are often called cram schools.
For example, students in South Korea and Japan who score highest on the national tests achieve admission to the “best” universities. This situation leads to many students spending several hours a day in special test-preparation schools. Such extra instruction may continue year after year, starting when students are quite young.
Some Personal Thoughts about Homework
The totality of human knowledge is immense and is growing very rapidly. Our formal schooling system is faced by an ever-changing task of deciding what to teach and what to expect students to learn. Extending the school day (through cram schools and homework), and extending the school year are two ways to “cover” a little bit more content and/or for students to learn a little better the content that is covered.
It is obvious to me that this is a losing battle and a poor approach to designing and implementing an educational system. The growth of accumulated human knowledge cannot be accommodated by merely extending the length of the school day and school year. Besides, there is much more in a good education than just preparing students for local, state, national, and perhaps international tests.
I believe that one major goal of homework is (or, at least should be) providing a bridge between home and school. This is especially important for elementary and middle school students. Appropriately designed homework can allow young children to demonstrate to parents, guardians, and siblings what they are learning. It allows parents, guardians, and siblings to provide input into this learning process. This is an important component of every person being a lifelong learner and a lifelong teacher. The process of helping another person learn is also a process of learning. (My readers who are teachers know that you have to teach something several times before you really understand it.)
Can you imagine a homework assignment that leads a student to tell a parent:
Today we learned why a new sentence needs to start with a capital letter and end with a punctuation mark followed by a blank space. When writing was first being invented, they just strung words together, with no capital letter to start a sentence, no punctuation to end the sentence, and no blank space before starting the next sentence. This made reading very difficult.
Such a homework activity puts the student in a role of being a teacher. How can a teacher prepare students for this type of homework assignment, and then obtain feedback on its actual occurrence? One approach is to spend time helping students understand what they are learning in terms of being able to communicate this information to others.
An in-class activity might well include students doing such communication in pairs or small groups. To help students the first few times such a homework assignment is given, a teacher can provide students with a note to parents describing the nature and purpose of this type of assignment. The note might also include a brief paragraph about the current topic students are studying. The next day in school the student can be asked to write a brief paragraph (in essence, a journal entry) about the interaction that occurred at home.
Now, lets explore this concept of student as both teacher and learner a little more. Here is an activity that any parent can routinely carry out.
When I see a child playing a game, I strike up a conversation using questions such as:
• What are the goals in the game?
• How did you learn this game?
• Was it hard to learn, and are you getting better at it?
• How can you tell that you are getting better?
• Do your friends play this game? If so, how do you communicate with them about the game?
• What would make the game better?
A parent can learn to initiate such discussions and/or a student can learn to initiate them. The basic idea is for parents and their children to have discussions about learning in a game-playing environment. Both students and their parents learn, and the process encourages student to do some metacognition and “deeper” thinking about the game and the process of learning to play the game well. Parents who routinely engage in such question asking with their children—and actively participate in exploring and understanding answers—are making a good contribution to the education of their children.
The same kind of student-parent interaction can occur based on new music a student is learning to enjoy or new YouTube videos the student has found interesting. These types of homework activities empower the student.
It is easy to extend this teaching/learning paradigm. A child can ask a parent, “What did you learn today that you think I might find interesting?” A child and a parent together can make up a question and then seek an answer in books and/or online. Such student/parent interactions can be encouraged as a regular part of assigned homework.
What You Can Do
If you give “traditional” homework assignments to your students—or if you are a parent expecting your children to regularly be assigned traditional homework—ask yourself “Why?” The time a child spends doing traditional homework with the help of a parent might better be spent on higher-level, deeper thinking types of interaction such as my examples suggest. If you agree, then follow Star Ship Commander Jean Luc Picard’s command to “Make it so.”
Kohn, A. (January/February, 2007). Rethinking homework. Retrieved 9/18/2014 from http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/rethinkinghomework.htm.
Loveless, T. (3/18/2014). Homework in America: Part II of the 2014 Brown Center report on American education. Brookings Institute. Retrieved 9/18/2014 from http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2014/03/18-homework-loveless.
United Nations declaration of the rights of the child (1959). Retrieved 9/18/2014 from http://www.un.org/cyberschoolbus/humanrights/resources/child.asp. See also more recent documents such as http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx.
Readings from IAE Publications
Moursund, D. (2014). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/Empowering_Learners_and_Teachers.
Moursund, D. (9/16/2014). Being curious about curiosity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/18/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/being-curious-about-curiosity.html.
Moursund, D. (9/6/2014). Making school more relevant to students. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/18/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/making-school-more-relevant-to-students.html.
Moursund, D. (4/13/2014). Play together, learn together: Science, technology, engineering, and math. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download a free Microsoft Word copy of this book from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/213-play-together-learn-together-stem.html. Download a free PDF copy of this book from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/212-play-together-learn-together-stem.html.
Moursund, D. (3/27/2014). Understanding and mastering complexity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/18/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/understanding-and-mastering-complexity.html.
Moursund, D. (1/28/2014). Good learners. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/18/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/good-learners.html.
Moursund, D., & Albrecht, R. (11/04/2011). Using math games and word problems to increase the math maturity of K-8 students. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download a free Microsoft Word copy of this book from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/210-using-math-games-and-word-problems-to-increase-the-math-maturity-of-k-8-students.html. Download a free PDF copy of this book from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/211-using-math-games-and-word-problems-to-increase-the-math-maturity-of-k-8-students.html.
Many parents and math teachers fail to understand the underlying purposes of the Common core State Standards Mathematics. The following video provides examples that illustrate the underlying foundations of the CCSS Math. Parents viewing this video will gain increased understanding of why they have difficulty in understanding the math that their children are learning in CCSS-based instruction.
Boaler, J. (6/16/2014). Why Students in the US need Common Core Math. Stanford University. Retrieved 10/1/2014 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOOW0hQgVPQ.
Quoting from the website:
The video gives research evidence on the reasons Common Core mathematics is needed in the US. It addresses the tasks and questions used in mathematics classrooms, mindset, problem solving, and advancement and tracking.
It is indeed a lot more difficult today for parents to help their children doing their homework. But children still have questions. To help them success in school, digiSchool has launched a new service. digiSchool Homework provides homework help to students from secondary school to university. For free, students can post a question or an exercise and ask for the help of the community of the website. Technology at the service of education!
I think today more than ever, teachers have failed in their motive of giving students homework questions / assignments because they are overloading the kids with the mentality that the parents will take over teaching as soon as the kid gets home form school!
I missed a lot of my resting time after a hard days work because of helping my kids with their extensive homework which has to be answered overnight hence causing them to trans night and this you must agree is bad for their health. I think the intent and reasons for giving homework questions has been out done by laziness among teaching staff and the aim of punishing the parents at home. I have never ever been given homework help by my parents.