Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Call For Action: No Homework

I don't think I've ever agreed with Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews on anything, but we can find common ground in his latest column:

Throw away the expensive take-home textbooks, the boring worksheets and the fiendish make-a-log-cabin-out-of-Tootsie-Rolls projects. One of the clearest (and most ignored) findings of educational research is that elementary students who do lots of homework don't learn more than students who do none. Eliminating traditional homework for this age group will save paper, reduce textbook losses and sweeten home life. Students should be asked instead to read something, maybe with their parents -- at least 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 20 minutes for second-graders and so on. Teachers can ask a few kids each day what they learned from their reading to discourage shirkers.

Matthews might not have a good idea how to structure home reading so that it actually produces learning ("maybe" you could do it this way, for no other reason than to "discourage shirkers"), but his premise that students who do lots of homework learn no more than students who do none is correct. And important.

In a cathartic moment (I will channel Alex Rodriguez here), I can say this is the area that I didn't do very well as a teacher. I did a lot in my classroom, including homework. As a language arts teacher, some of that is forgivable--the bulk of the homework was a steady reading schedule to keep a good pace, and it was emphasized to students that they were expected to come to class, ready to discuss what they have read.

But becoming a parent changes that. When my eight year-old started the school year having a couple hours of homework per night, I was in shock. I didn't see my daughter anymore. And in talking with parents from other schools in the Metro area, there is consensus much of that is due to either A) packaged curriculum, such as a math series, or B) busywork projects. This opens your eyes quickly.

It makes one challenge some of the built-in customs that have never been challenged before. What is the authentic educational value of a posterboard display? Here's stuff I copied from the internet on topic X and made pretty with markers.

What is the educational value of crossword puzzles? Or even worse, search-a-word puzzles? With no research supporting constant drill with worksheets, why do we do it?

The answers are not pretty. We do it because it is easy to give. It is easy to grade. It keeps the kids busy. It is what schools have done for years. It is what is expected if you are a "quality" school. None of which are the answers we should care about, which is to help student learn.

My call for action is a bit overstated; we can't have "no homework" in schools. I still feel (perhaps my bias as an English teacher) that reading is important, and it is well documented that reading needs to be structured for students to learn. We also aren't going to police it; if students are engaged in a project to the point they take their work home and joyfully work on it, we'd be stunting their learning to say no.

The point is we need to reconceptualize "learning" as something other than "completing work". It needs to be authentic. It needs to be collaborative. It needs to be aligned with the Core. It needs to be constructive in nature. Everything we assign has to be weighed against these criteria. We cannot settle for the past reasons. If the work does not meet the criteria, it should not be assigned as homework.

Jay Matthews gets it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish my school district had no homework