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?


Jill Ward said...

I'm not an English teacher, but as a parent, I see my 4th grader come home with more than an hour of homework each night. I've been following the homework debate since Kohn's book came out, and wonder about all those moms - and dads - who work full time and don't have the resources to do extra-cirricular activities, family time and homework all in one 3-hour evening.

I even heard one mother say that homework seems to have been reversed: now the teachers get to do all the fun stuff at school, and leave all the boring drudgery for the hours after school (though maybe it was always that way to some extent...)

Jill Ward said...

Hey Jen,

I tried your hotmail account, but I'm not sure if it still works as I recently sent something there and didn't hear a response.

Here's another arrow flung in the homework debate: giving parents homework - via the NY Times

What do you think?

Jennifer Ward said...

This is similar to what I've seen, too. I'm surprised by the book bags I see elementary students lugging home. The other day on my drive home I noticed one unfortunately youngster with a bag so heavy that she was dragging it around by wheels. It looked like a piece of luggage rather than an elementary student's back pack!

As students get into the upper grades, homework becomes even more of an issue. With so much information readily available via technology, I wonder if we are trying to teach too much. And in the effort to teach breadth, are we forcing students to take home the work that we do not get to in school. I wonder why homework seems to be increasing.

Jennifer Ward said...

What an innovative idea that Mr. Frye has! Others should check out the linked New York Times article from Jillzilla's post. A teacher is assigning the parents of his students homework! What a cool way to keep parents involved.

Anonymous said...

In my math class our teacher barely establishs a new concept, and just before the bell rings assigns us homework for the new problem. About half the class doesn't grasp it initially, so when we go home to grapple w/ the project at night we make our own conclusions. Then we come in the next day and hope he doesn't call on us. When he does find wrong answers the teacher puts the kid on the spot, and acts like we've been familiar with the idea for a long time. I think a lot of the homework we receive, at least in my district, is material we should be covering in class. Honors is inbetween a rock and a hard place, b/c so much is said to be expected of us that we feel asking questions in Maths and sciences only provokes exasperation. So we try to work it out on our own, and even after the teacher explains it, and the ,method seems clear as day, one hour later your mind has reverted to the way you taught yourself. Instead of the brief truth laying in the periphery of the mind.

Jennifer Ward said...

I'm curious about your reactions to the current homework debate happening over at the Faculty Room blog. Check it out. It's all about this issue and whether or not homework is assignment effectively.

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