Let's talk about homework!
By Kylie Bice
I recently observed a 9 year old boy doing his homework. I was apparently ‘supervising’ because he insisted that his teacher tells him an adult is supposed to watch him do his homework, although it was immediately clear I wasn't needed. He had two tasks to complete.
The first required him to improve and record the speed at which he could correctly solve 12 maths problems without a calculator (using paper & pen was an option but not compulsory). The list of problems stays the same all week and this was a Wednesday. I can see the benefit of students rehearsing maths facts in order to improve their fluency, however...he told me before he started that his record for solving this list of problems was 45 seconds. My first reaction?... 45 seconds! That's fast! I looked at the problems to see how difficult they were, and I have to say they looked daunting to me, and he happily let me know that he was the second top in his class for maths and finds these problems easy. He proceeded to solve the problems mentally (no pen, paper or calculator in sight) in 43 seconds and agreed that getting a faster time than this was probably not possible.
Here were my questions to him about this homework:
Q. What was your time on Monday (the first day he had these particular maths problems) and how many did you get wrong? A. I already know how to do them, so I got 12 out of 12 correct on Monday, and it took me 1 minute.
Q. Does the whole class get the same problems or are these just for you or some kids? A. The whole class gets the same problems.
Q. What happens if other kids haven't learned how to do these by the end of the week? Do their problems still change? A. You don't have to learn how to do them, you just have to improve your time. Everyone gets new problems every Monday.
Q. Does your teacher know that you can do the problems before you get them? A. (He thinks about this) Maybe. She knows I'm the second top in the class for maths and she says I'm smart at maths.
Q. Does your teacher sometimes give you harder maths in class? Stuff you don't know or that's hard for you? A. Sometimes, and I get harder stuff when I go to Mrs -- for extension maths.
The second homework task was to sort a collection of individual words under four headings that described the type of vowel sound in each word (eg. long vowel, short vowel etc). Each word and heading was on a small piece of paper to create a kinaesthetic activity and he told me that these were the words for this week. Again I could immediately see a learning purpose to this activity and he loved that he didn't have to write to complete it (he doesn't enjoy handwriting!). He is an excellent reader and has a strong vocabulary so I wondered if this might be a suitably challenging task for him. He quickly and happily laid the headings on the carpet and sorted the words into four columns under each heading. "Done!" he pronounced after barely 30 seconds.
Before he could pack up the words, I asked him these questions:
Q. How do you know if the words are in the right column? A. That's the way they are on the board at school.
Q. So can you explain to me why these words go under this heading? A. Nah, I dunno, they just do.
Q. Do you know why the words are grouped together or do you just remember the pattern of how they look? A. I remember the pattern 'cause I have the best memory (said proudly!)
And with that he packed up the words, put them back in his bag and ticked off his homework as 'done' in his homework book.
What is he learning here?
I don't have to understand my homework (or any work for that matter) in order to be praised.
Homework is not about learning.
I'm smart because I can do things easily and quickly.
Now for those of you who are thinking “this would never happen in my school” or “this would never happen in my class”… I happen to know this school well and I know the principal would be appalled if s/he read knew this was happening. For those of you thinking that this boy must have it wrong…feel free to come to your own conclusions, I’m just reporting our conversation. The fact remains, however, that even if he has misunderstood, his belief in this case still presents cause for concern. Now I don’t mean to ‘teacher-bash’. I'm sure his teacher is busy and I can see there is some thought going into the homework tasks to make them interesting and to reinforce concepts covered in class. It is true that it is important for homework can be completed independently and it may be that this homework is appropriate for other students in the class. I also know his busy mum is grateful for homework days that go smoothly when he can do it himself (although she does worry that he isn't learning). So it’s true there are reassuring signs here… from other things I've heard, it sounds as though there is some differentiation happening in the classroom and the school is trying to offer an extension program. I also know that from a social/behavioural point of view, this teacher has been great for this boy this year, he likes her and feels she likes him. So why is his homework not reflecting this?
Unfortunately, in my experience this is not an isolated incident. I have too often observed students doing homework that is:
too easy (what they can already do is not acknowledged).
too hard (they don't have the skills to complete the work independently).
unnecessary (just for the sake of assigning homework).
irrelevant (either not connected to the learning happening at school or the student cannot see the connection).
reinforcing ‘mis-learning’ (student rehearses wrong skill, reinforces incorrect understanding or finds a way to make it look as though the concept was learned – eg. The word-sorting task described earlier).
There must be a better way to promote learning at home than this! Here are some practical ideas to consider when planning homework:
Do I really need to give homework at all! Avoid giving homework just for the sake of it. If parents are asking for homework then take the opportunity to educate parents about the value of play and other extra-curricular opportunities such as reading, learning an instrument, having a conversation, discussing an issue, perusing an area of passion, or ways students can rehearse skills or revise work done during the week.
Differentiate homework based on knowledge/skill level/ability/repetition needed. If you are using pre and formative assessments to give you a clear understanding of students’ skills and ability, then use this information to plan differentiated homework tasks that acknowledge existing knowledge/skills. (Note: this does not need to be any more time-consuming to plan than existing homework tasks!)
Promote inquiry as homework. Posing a meaty/high order question related to topics being covered at school (or better yet encouraging students to pose their own problem) is one of the easiest ways to provide a homework option that differentiates itself.
Teach study/thinking/research or other relevant skills. This gives students a way to find out information for themselves at home to extend their learning. (And to be clear…by ‘study skills’ I don’t mean how to create a study timetable!)
Be mindful of specific needs. This is SO important! For example a student on the Autism Spectrum might need less homework, or homework that is presented visually or has very clear parameters. A student with Dyslexia may need alternative formats or extra time to complete homework tasks. A student who is gifted with a learning disability may need a high-order question but with accommodations for time or product format.
Homework should match IEP goals. If the current IEP goal is related to learning money concepts, then any homework should be well. Likewise social, behavioural and extension goals can be a focus for any homework.
Flipped classrooms. There are a lot of schools who are experimenting with the concept of a flipped classroom (or blended classroom) where technology is a key ingredient to change the focus of where and when learning takes place. This can have a huge impact on the way teachers and parents view the concept of homework.
In my work with students who have diverse abilities, including the gifted and those with disabilities or learning difficulties, traditional homework practices are frustrating, meaningless and ultimately have little or no learning value. Parents and teachers alike…let us reconsider the importance and value of homework and find a better way to build students’ skills and knowledge and create young people who love learning whether in a school or at home!
If you want to read more about this topic, try these links: