Homework Is Broken

Homework is broken and in need of repair. It was designed during the Industrial Revolution to produce workers who could complete rote tasks accurately. Today, we need to develop thinkers, problem solvers, and, as George Couros beautifully describes in his book, The Innovator’s Mindset ,“empowered students who have the knowledge and skills to pursue their passions, interests and future.”

Homework, in its current form, does not do that; in fact, it does more damage than it does good. It increases the gap between rich and poor, slowly robs students of their love of learning, takes away from family time, and adds unneeded stress to children who, in many cases, are already on overload.

I have often been asked if I feel there is a place in our schools for homework; my response is always the same.

“Absolutely, but not without looking for ways to do it differently.”

If I had a magic wand that would abolish all homework in American schools tomorrow, I would do it because I feel as an education system we would be better off than we are today.  But, homework done differently can have a positive impact. It can help to develop the type of thinkers we are striving to develop and it can contribute to bringing back the love of learning that students inevitably lose as they progress through their 13 years of public education.

This piece has been one of the hardest I have written because I feel so passionately about this topic as many educators, parents, and students do. Interestingly enough, several teachers and administrators I respect see homework differently. Many feel that it is a necessary component of school and growing up.  They see it as a rite of passage, a means to develop grit,  a way to reinforce what is taught in class, to develop responsibility, and, without it, they wonder how we can possibly cover all of the topics necessary to be successful in school.   

I certainly do not want to be closed minded or discount other thoughts and ideas about this concept. Maybe I am wrong; maybe kids are better off doing homework, maybe, in the long run, it does help them.

We have been doing homework in school for as long as anyone can remember so who am I to say we should change it?

Heck, Laura Ingalls used to sit at the dinner table and do her homework with some gentle cajoling from Pa. The funny thing is a lot of the homework assignments students are asked to complete today are not all that different from what we did as kids, or what Melissa Gilbert did on the Prairie for that matter.

The more I research, the more I read, and the more I talk to students, teachers, and parents, the more I am convinced that we can do better.

This was reinforced by conversation I had with my son. He is an 8th grader who is taking Regents courses, wants to do well in school, and whose biggest fear is that his average in Math and Science will fall below the 92% necessary to remain in advanced level courses.  We were taking our weekly hour and a half car ride back to his mother’s house, a time which we both enjoy because we have the opportunity to talk honestly and openly without distraction (when I can keep him off his phone.)  

Recently, I asked him his thoughts on homework, and why it is assigned.  He took a while to answer, then finally said “probably so teachers know what we understand.”

I challenged him a bit and asked if he thought teachers could really tell what kids know based on homework.

“No probably not. A lot of kids’ parents do their homework for them and most classes have group texts where kids share answers and take turns doing the assigned questions.”  

He then offered to show me a “Youtube” where Alexa did a child’s homework. I reminded him I was driving so in an effort to remain alive he described it rather than insisting I view it.

I pushed him some more on “the why” of homework and then he said something that was pretty powerful for me and should cause all educators to reflect.  

“To keep us busy?”

He didn’t say this to be a wise guy; he was honestly trying to answer my question.  This is coming from an intelligent 8th grader who cares about school and the best reason he could come up with for the purpose of homework was to keep kids busy.  

Aren’t we busy enough in our society? Is it necessary to add busy work to the developing minds of our future leaders?  The world is becoming too hectic; we don’t have enough time to enjoy, to process, to play, to be creative. We are all too busy.

Disagree?  

Try counting how many times you tell someone you are busy today or someone tells you that they are busy as well, “How are things?”  “Busy, definitely busy, but good.”  

I have started to question myself when I say this statement. Is being busy all the time so great after all? Shouldn’t we slow down? Isn’t it healthy to slow down sometimes?  In fact, in his latest book, When, Daniel Pink claims that we actually perform better when we take breaks, when we nap, when we slow down and process information.  Of course, Pink backs up his claims with a slew of data that supports his hypothesis.  

Our discussion around homework continued as we trudged along to Kingston. I was enjoying the talk and the open and honest answers from a student who lived in the homework world. That was until he asked me what I was like as a student and if I did my homework.   

I stammered a bit and decided to come clean. I explained that I usually did enough to get by, but didn’t take school as seriously as I should have and always looked for ways to beat “the game” of school.  

He forced me to explain what I meant and I felt I owed him an honest answer, even if it was a bit embarrassing. I told him stories of getting the homework from my more studious classmates on the bus or homeroom and frantically copying the answers. I detailed times when my mother had typed my papers for me, how I daydreamed about sports and girls, and then spent hours before a regents exam completing the Barron’s review book so I could ace the test and bring my average to an acceptable range.

I thought I was clever back then; I thought I had figured out the game, but many of my teachers saw through my charade and it angered them. I was sometimes called lazy (probably true), often called a wise ass (definitely true), and told more times than I can count. “Wait until you get to college, your b@#$@ will not fly there.”  

The problem with the “get them ready for the next level” reasoning is that the next level is not really what we often picture it to be. College is not about homework turned in and graded on nightly basis. Professors tell students what they are expected to learn and give them resources to help get them there. I remember being shocked when I went to my first college class and I was handed a syllabus that showed two exams  averaged together to be my entire grade. The professor didn’t care if I came to class, didn’t care if I did the readings, and didn’t care if I participated in class discussions. He only cared about my understanding of the course and my ability to demonstrate that knowledge.  

We wonder why many students are unsuccessful in their first year of higher education. Could it be because before they get there it is not about their knowledge and ability to demonstrate that knowledge, but more about their ability to follow a prescribed path set forth by an archaic system?  In an effort to have students show us how responsible they are by completing homework and other tasks are we actually accomplishing the opposite?  Could this be why some are shocked when they don’t get the job, the playing time, or make the money they think they should because they are following the rules?  

Gary Armida did a great job of describe his thoughts on why Homework doesn’t teach responsibility. I worry that the problem is bigger and that not only are we not helping, but actually hurting our children’s ability to develop responsibility, to develop grit, work ethic by making them follow only one path, our path.

The real world is not about homework. It is not about a one solution. It is about success, it is about passion, innovation and about providing others with a service they need. If a stock broker studies charts, completes worksheets, and reads endlessly but does not make you as much money as a different stockbroker who didn’t complete those tasks, who do you want managing your money?  I want a doctor who can save my life; I don’t care how he obtained that skill.  Athletes earn money and playing time by how they perform, not how many drills they successfully complete.

The reality is we live in a performance based society. That doesn’t mean that successful people do not do their “homework.” To be successful at anything worthwhile it takes work, it takes preparation, and it takes grit.

Yet there is no one method that everyone must follow. You do not get bonus points for trying hard or doing it the one and “only” right way. We all learn differently, we all have different strengths to cultivate; not everyone needs to or should take the same path.  

Yet this is how we do business in school and claim that if students do not do it “our way”, we are not preparing them for the next step.  Every great Doctor, Lawyer, Mechanic, or Athlete worked hard, found their passion, and most likely had a mentor that helped them discover the path they needed to take in order to achieve the results they desired.  

We can be this for our students. We can be their guide, their inspiration for accomplishing whatever it is that they want to accomplish, even if their immediate goal is doing well in our classes so they can get into the college of their choice. We can offer them a variety of means to accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish.  

Should students understand what is important in the course or be able to jump through a variety of hoops that may or may not contribute to their learning?

It is easy to claim something is broken without a possible solution.  In the words of Teddy Roosevelt  “Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.”  

I have been whining about homework for as long as I can remember without offering much of a solution.  Part of it may have been because I wasn’t confident enough or courageous enough to tackle such a controversial issue. It is a hard problem to conquer and I didn’t have an easy answer so once again I turned to my son, Scott, for some ideas on how to do it better.  In a way that only kids can do, he offered some practical solutions that caused me to slap my head and ask “why didn’t I think of that?”

Tell Us What We Are Supposed To Learn

Scott explained that too often in school he does not understand exactly what it is the students are supposed to learn and he is not the only one who feels that way.  

“Why can’t teachers just tell us what we are supposed to know and then give us some ideas on how to figure it out and practice if we don’t understand?”  

Hmmm, well what do you mean?  

“Well, what if our Math teachers told us the types of problems we would need to solve by the end of the week and gave us some links to videos that explained how to do it?”  

He went on to say that the teacher could then give students some practice problems with the answers and solutions so the students could check and see if they really knew how to solve them.  In other words, tell students what is expected and give them back ownership of their learning.

Do Not Grade Homework

This one was a little harder to swallow.  When I asked Scott about this, he reminded me of our conversation earlier.  

“Dad, if teachers don’t know if the kids actually did the homework by themselves how is it fair to give us a grade for it?”  

He had me there, but I asked if he thought kids who didn’t care that much about school would do their homework if it didn’t count for a grade?  

“They don’t do it anyway or copy it so what is the difference?”  

He also offered that maybe if they knew the reason why they were doing homework and had some choices about how they did it that, maybe more kids would do it.  

“My friends and I do the homework because we have to. We just try to get it done, but it doesn’t really help us learn. But, when we are getting ready for a test, we take it seriously because we know we have to actually understand it.”

Make It Fun

Scott explained something most of us know to be true: homework is so damn boring.

“It could be so much better if we could actually do fun things that help us understand better”  

I asked what that would look like and he just shrugged.  I reminded him about the Roosevelt quote and we came up with several home learning activities that would be great for his current Social Studies unit on the Great Depression.

Here are some of our ideas:

  • Create a story on Snapchat that you think a child your age growing up in the Great Depression would create.
  • Ask questions about the Great Depression on Google Classroom or a Padlet that students respond to and can share their thoughts with each other.  
  • Find an interesting article, book, or video about the Great Depression and review it.
  • Design a logo for business that you think would be successful during the Great Depression
  • Come up with five questions about the Great Depression that if answered will help you better understand it.  

Support Student Passions

Scott explained that he and his friends enjoy learning new things, but not always exactly what we are supposed to learn about in school. We both agreed that it would be great if schools supported students pursuing things they are passionate about.  

“Teachers could show us the best way to learn about the cool, interesting things.”  

I added that the best teachers could take those passions and relate it to the course goals.  

Scott thought “that would be awesome, like killing two birds with one stone”, an expression he has heard me utter several times over the last 13 years of his life.

Unfortunately, for my learning and this article, we arrived in Kingston before we came up with any additional strategies. Yet, I was able to use our talk not only to write, but as a teachable moment for my son.  

I asked him if the ride went as quickly for him as I did for me and he vigorously shook his head up and down. He told me how much fun he had and I thanked him for writing my article with me.  

“I was only talking and typing some of our thoughts into my iPad, I didn’t write your article.”  

I explained that this was exactly what writing and the writing process was. As he got out of the car and gave me my mandatory hug and kiss goodbye (I don’t care how old he gets that  hug goodbye is a must!), he said, “If we wrote like that in school I might actually like writing and be decent at it”

That statement made me even more determined to improve how we do homework in schools. It has given me the courage to tackle this issue.

In next week’s article I will discuss how together we are examining this immense and controversial topic with some of the amazing teachers, parents, and students in my District. I will also share some of the creative home-learning experiences that innovative teachers are utilizing.  I am confident that by working together we can make homework and, in turn, our schools better for kids.  

 

4 Replies to “Homework Is Broken

  1. Bravo – excellent article. I can’t help think about the opportunity cost as well. Unstructured “free” time is really good for emotional health and for pursuing personal interests, the kind of interests that fuel lifelong passions.

  2. You really hit the nail on the head. I read this with my 11th grade daughter. Homework has taken away her love of learning and made her hate school. She is bright and creative. If homework is reformed it will be too late for her but I hope you succeed!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *