Saturday, October 6, 2007

Thoughts on Homework

I’m rethinking homework this semester. Alfie Kohn keeps popping up, whispering in my ear in that daily homework may not be the most effective way to help students learn.

I was sitting in a faculty meeting this week, half-watching, half-listening to the PowerPoint presentation on various school housekeeping items: dress code enforcement, improving state test scores, grant information, when up pops “Homework Committee.” Our district is establishing a committee to assess whether or not there should be a district-wide policy on homework. Our principal diplomatically attempted to moderate comments about whether or not homework is necessary. So now Alfie Kohn and his latest book The Homework Myth pops up in faculty meetings.

I have an entire collection of Kohn’s essays and books on grading littering my bookcases. As an honors English teacher, I am particularly intrigued by his work on grades and how they function in the classroom. Do letter grades actually help students understand and reflect on their learning process? Kohn argues that letter grades are merely a form of external motivation - bribes - which work for the short run, but ultimately do not help to motivate a student’s individual desire and drive to learn. Similarly, Kohn’s latest work on homework contends that most homework does not really help to reinforce or practice the skills of a particular teacher’s lesson. Instead, most homework is another form of competition for grades. Homework is used as a grade collection tool instead of truly assessing whether or not a student has mastered a particular skill. Students struggle through new material at home, potentially mislearning it, in order to earn a good grade. Kohn argues that such homework only motivates students for the short term, teaching them that education is about jumping through the appropriate hoops. Homework, Kohn argues, deters real learning.

So what is an English teacher to do? I agree with most of Kohn’s contentions. The day I return essays or quizzes, students want to sit and compare percentages and letter grades. They do not spend much time reviewing and correcting items they missed. In honors English, it’s all about the grade. As a result, I’ve started to change some of my grading practices: not giving grades on initial drafts, preferring to use comment-only grading; giving students multiple opportunities to re-take quizzes to show that they can master the concepts; and having students complete self-reflection and goal writing activities for each writing assignment. I’ve also been rethinking homework. I generally do not give daily homework in the form of worksheets. However, my students usually have reading assignments. If not, they are working on revising the draft of an essay. I’m curious what other English teachers do. What are your thoughts on homework? What are your homework practices?
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