On Homework…And Responsibility

I was called into the Principal’s office in November of my first year of teaching. I honestly didn’t think much of the little note in my mailbox that said “See Me”. Being 22 years old and so self assured–some might have called it cocky–that I was doing a great job, I thought maybe he wanted to give me a compliment or talk about the Yankees’ moves for the winter. I really didn’t think I had anything to worry about. My classes were fine, there were no discipline issues, and despite really not having a clue about what I was doing, I had gotten to November with everyone in one piece. But, I was wrong.

“Did we make a mistake with you?”

That’s not exactly what you want to hear out of anyone’s mouth, let alone the man who hired you just three months earlier and expressed how he thought you would bring a great energy to the school.

I was stunned. I didn’t say a word, so he continued.

“I thought I told you that we have to push our kids and that you can’t let up.”

“I thought I was.”

“You’re not. I just spoke to some kids in your class and they said that you haven’t given homework all quarter.”

Wait. We were talking about homework? We weren’t talking about my relationships with kids or how I was in the classroom? We were talking about homework.

This is one of those moments that I wish I could go back and relive so I could respond in an intelligent way and with confidence. But, the 22 year old me mumbled something about not knowing that I had to give it and that I didn’t think it was a big deal. I then received a good 15 minute lecture about how homework is expected, by him and the parents, and that there are so many benefits of homework. I was told that homework teaches responsibility, helps kids practice and master whatever I am teaching, and that it shows that I take my job seriously.

I didn’t really buy it, but I did buy the fact that I liked having a job with a paycheck so I did what every good teacher does: I gave homework. And, I continued to give homework for the rest of the year and for years to come. Kids completed worksheets, assigned reading and questions, and whatever else I could think of. I had my handy homework record sheet and would go around the room, check off that it was complete or give the disapproving look when it wasn’t (and tell them to get it done so they get credit) and then start class with the review of the homework. I was a good teacher with expectations and the now with that infamous word in education, rigor.

That went on for the first eight years or so of my career. As I grew more confident in my job, that feeling of not wanting to give homework returned. I first eased my way into this by giving less of it, maybe once or twice a week. That went on for a good five years. My students didn’t seem any worse off. They seemed like good, hardworking kids who weren’t hindered by me not giving too much homework. Then, I finally did what I thought was right for my students; I ditched it. For the past six years, I haven’t assigned one homework. And, I know for certain that my students are not hurt by it.

Only this time, I am more confident in my teaching and my reasoning. And, confidence is definitely needed when going against over a hundred years of school tradition. Some in the field may look at you as the “easy teacher” or someone who wants to be the popular teacher. Neither one is true; you simply are doing something that you believe is in in the best interest of kids.

My first Principal, who was an intelligent man, meant well with the idea of giving homework. As an industry, we should want to help kids beyond the curriculum and teach them those skills and traits that will help them succeed in life. Fostering responsibility and hard work is important. Having kids master skills is obviously important. And, of course, showing them that I am serious about my job is important. Kids won’t do anything well if the teacher isn’t all in.

The thing is, though, homework doesn’t teach any of that. It doesn’t even foster that. Yet, the myths continue to be perpetuated. History, tradition, and past practice are really hard to break through, even when they are outdated.

Admittedly, I am an extremist when it comes to homework, but there are some teachers who do it well where it can have benefits to kids. But, as an industry, homework is done poorly, which is why those traits of responsibility, mastery, and rigor aren’t developed. The least credible argument about the benefits from homework is the idea of responsibility.

Responsibility Myths

Myth #1: Homework Prepares For College Responsibilities

One of the expressions that should be driven out of secondary education is “this will prepare you for college.” Education, at all levels, isn’t about prepping for the next level. It isn’t about preparing a student just for those four years of college. The education system should be preparing students to succeed in any life situation, not just for college. If a school system is doing right by kids, those kids will graduate ready to succeed in any area, not just college.

But, let’s entertain the notion about preparing a student for college. Homework supporters like to say that homework prepares students for the grind of college. Kids have to be able to have the capacity to do work on their own. They have to develop the responsibility to work on their own and manage their time. Thus, assigning a couple hours of work each night for a student is under the guise of preparing.

It’s false logic. College programs don’t work like that. Professors hand out a syllabus with the work for the semester listed. Thus, a student has to manage his/her time and stay organized, two big traits that fall under the definition of responsibility. Students are assigned reading and generally given multiple days to complete, rather than for the next day. They are not asked to complete graphic organizers, submit their answers to basic questions, or complete dittos. They are asked to manage their time, schedule work and study time, and manage multiple long term deadlines. Those are skills that develop responsibility.

Yet, that is the exact opposite of what most homework looks like in schools today. The models of schools and colleges are completely different. Homework every night isn’t teaching the traits needed to be a responsible college student.

A few weeks ago, I had a student come into my class looking particularly exhausted. I asked her if she was ok. She said that she was tired because she had so much homework. It turned out that she got home around 6:30 PM from swimming practice. After a quick shower and grabbing some food to eat in her room, she got moving on her homework. It took her about 90 minutes to complete her math. Then she moved onto to science. When the clock hit 11:00 PM, she decided that she needed sleep. Her alarm went off at 2:00 AM so she could finish her Social Studies. That doesn’t sound much like a college prep program. That generally isn’t how life works either.

Some may call that being a responsible student. Instead, it is something far from the concept of responsible.

Myth #2: Homework Prepares For Life Responsibilities

There is the myth that homework prepares students for their life responsibilities. After all, when they are in the workforce, they will put in days of eight, ten, or maybe even twelve hours. Then, they’ll have to go home every night and work for another couple of hours on additional work that is due the next day. Isn’t that how every job works?

Of course, it doesn’t. Most jobs allow for people to have lives outside of work. Some jobs may require extra long hours. And, some jobs may require that you bring home work once in a while. But, no job or lifestyle requires you to do two to three extra hours of work after putting in a full day, every single day. Most jobs allow for other interests like hobbies and even time with family.

Earlier this year, my nine year old daughter came home from school with more homework than usual. There were 20 math problems that each required two different ways of solving. There was a literary response sheet, a vocabulary exercise that required 20 words used in sentences, and the 20 minutes of reading. Add to this, it was kickboxing night, an activity my daughter loves. Honestly, I saw it and knew all of it couldn’t get done along with dinner, a bath, and a reasonable bedtime. I told her I would write a note saying that we couldn’t get it all done and that I made a decision to not complete everything.

But, my daughter loves her teacher and that love is justified. Her teacher is the best I’ve seen. She was nervous about letting her down. Ultimately, she chose to skip kickboxing. It was one of those parent moments where I didn’t know what to do. As a teacher, I don’t believe in homework, but here is my kid actually upset that she couldn’t complete it. After realizing that she would be more anxious if she didn’t complete her homework, we stayed home and labored through it all. To her teacher’s credit–and proof that she is, indeed, the best–when we spoke to her at conferences about this particular night, she brought my daughter in the room and said, “You never skip kickboxing again. You need to do the things you love. Never worry about homework.”

Some may look at my daughter and say that she has her priorities in line at a young age and made a mature decision to be responsible and do her homework. Instead, it is something far from the concept of responsible.

Myth #3: Homework Completion Proves A Student Is Responsible

Both of those stories lead us to the final myth. The way that the majority of the education industry does homework does not foster responsibility. My student wasn’t showing responsibility by forgoing sleep. My daughter wasn’t showing responsibility by skipping kickboxing. Both were exhibiting compliance.

Most mistake responsibility for compliance. Responsibility is about being able to act independently and make decisions. Compliance is about obeying a command to simply meet some given standard. Which word sounds more like a description of how homework is done in schools?

If we want to foster the concept of responsibility in schools, why are we using a system that really is about compliance?

Do this homework tonight or your grade will suffer.

Complete this ditto or fill out this graphic organizer so I have proof you did something.

Complete these 20 math problems because showing me you could do four wasn’t enough.

Are any of those examples of responsibility?

Being The “No Homework” Teacher

There is a certain label that a teacher gets when he/she decides to ditch homework. Most of it is negative. Other staff members, even some administrators, will say you are “giving it away” or look at you as weak. You’ll have to make peace with that. You are doing what you believe is in the best interest of kids. If that’s your guiding principle, you won’t be bothered by that perception.

But, being the “No Homework” Teacher doesn’t mean you encourage students to do nothing once they leave the room. It is the Teacher’s job to inspire students to want to do more, to allow them to explore areas that they are passionate about. When having a discussion in class or working on a class activity, it is important to show students where they can find more information. It is important to develop an environment where they will want to seek out more information on their own and bring it into class for discussion.

My goal with students is to have them develop a love of writing. I encourage them to use their writer’s notebook as a space to jot down ideas, write their own stuff, or just trying something. We do a lot of in-class writing, but I’ve had countless students over the years, in all levels of classes, come in with something they wrote at home. I didn’t ask them to or require them. They did because they wanted to and they had the freedom to. They weren’t complying to something I wanted. They chose to do something. That’s responsibility.

Smart Homework

Again, I’m an extremist. There are many teachers who do homework well. They all have two characteristics in common.

Choice

Students aren’t limited to a worksheet or a certain way of doing things. Students can pick what they feel they need. I recently heard an example of one particular Math Teacher that I thought was really impactful and truly developed responsibility in students. A student in his class said that they are given a list of problems to do each night. But, it is up to them as to which ones they complete. They are told to work on the ones they feel they need to practice.

The homework isn’t graded. It is reviewed in class the next day, if students ask. And, most do. That is the epitome of what it means to develop responsibility. Students are choosing to work on their weaknesses. It is practical to them. It is non-threatening and can only help.

Another way to give choice is like what my daughter’s teacher does. At the beginning of each month, we are given a menu of activities to complete. My daughter then picks ones of interest and completes them when she wants during the month. That choice and the ability to learn how to manage time has helped develop responsibility. The first month, she was working on much of it two days before the end of the month. This month, she is more than halfway through. She’s getting better at managing time. There’s that responsibility thing.

Time

All good homework allows for students to develop time management skills. That is essential to develop responsibility. Allowing students work on assignments when they are focused and able, allows them to make choices, have time for other activities, and work with more efficiently.

One activity I’ve tried is giving students all of the assignments and assessments due for the quarter at the beginning of the quarter. The goal is to help them develop the responsibility to get things done and manage their time. They could focus on things when they felt they could accomplish it best. Each class would start with a mini-lesson and then continue with them working and me having one on one discussions each day with kids.

With ten weeks, students are able to choose what they wanted to do. Some assigned themselves homework. Others made use of other time. In both years that I tried it, every student completed all of their work. That’s an extreme activity, but the concept is the same. If homework and school is to develop responsibility, then students need to be given the time to show that responsibility.

Final Thoughts

Homework is one of the more difficult topics to address in schools. It is a practice that began in the mid-1800’s. While the rate of homework ebbed and flowed throughout history, it became a point of contention after Sputnik launched. There was a feeling that we were falling behind. That feeling still exists today.

That feeling fosters the “more is better” or the “more is more rigorous” mantra. But, more isn’t better. More is killing the love of learning. There is a sentiment that previous generations did homework so why shouldn’t this one? Again, that’s false logic. My generation wasn’t given this amount of homework. We didn’t spend three or four hours per night working on annotations, dittos, math problems, and projects. We had time to go outside. We played video games. We played sports. We were never overburdened. And, we turned out pretty responsible.

We now give more work to kids than ever before. That “more” isn’t developing responsibility. That “more” is developing compliance. Kids are complying with the game of school. That certainly isn’t the intention of even the most ardent homework supporters. Do we want to develop kids who are curious and genuinely responsible? Or do we want kids who are good at the game of school and merely comply?

 

Author: Gary Armida

Has the privilege of being Em's Dad. There are a few other titles, but "Dad" is the only one that makes some sense.

2 Replies to “On Homework…And Responsibility

  1. Thanks for this article.

    I am a “no homework” educator.

    At my previous school I had to give homework (once a semester) so I could justify a tick in the homework rating column of a report card.

    I do however (especially with my older students) give extra/extension activities than cannot be completed in class time, and often those activities are so intrinsically rewarding that I get complaints from parents about how much homework I am setting!

    I got rid of homework because of cost/benefit. There are far better and more effective things that my students and I can do with the time homework takes. Too much of the time around homework is administrative.

    1. Tim–Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. It is very much appreciated.
      You hit on something that is huge; the activities are intrinsically rewarding. Kids WANT to do them. You sparked them. That is tremendous.

      And, I completely agree. There are far more effective things out there.

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