Sunday, September 4, 2011

Homework -v- Learning

The weekly #elemchat happens in the middle of the night in Switzerland, so I can't participate "live" in it, but I always look forward to Sunday morning and reading the various tweets that have come in overnight.    The subject this week was homework, one that everyone in education seems to have an opinion about, parents, students, teachers, administrators.

Now first I have to make a confession.  I haven't actually assigned any homework for the past 12 years, which is how long I've been an IT teacher.  Before that, when I was an elementary homeroom teacher, I assigned a lot of homework as it was the school's policy that students would do an hour a night for 4 days a week at the top end of elementary school.  This hour was usually split into 3 sections - a sheet of maths that "reinforced" what we'd done in class that day, some sort of writing activity and the remaining time of the hour devoted to reading.  In this school the homework was returned on the following day, and as a teacher I would spend some time in class checking it.  Then I would spend more time chasing up the students who hadn't completed it.  Perhaps some of these students might even be required to miss their break in order to catch up with the homework they hadn't done the previous day.  The crazy thing about this was that all students were told it was an hour a day, Monday to Thursday.  If the maths and writing took up a whole hour, then the students didn't get to read at all.  If the maths and writing took up 15 minutes, then the students were expected to read for 45 minutes to complete their hour of homework.  Clearly this policy met the needs of very few of the students, some of whom spent the entire hour focused on something they were bad at or perhaps disliked and never got to do something that they might have enjoyed.  A list of things to do, and a time for them to do it in, is not empowering and it's definitely not learning!

When I look back on this now it seems that a large amount of time each day was spent on these sorts of administrative tasks:  explaining what the homework was, checking to see that it was done, coming up with consequences for the students who had not done it - and all of this time took away from the real purpose of being in the classroom:  the teaching and learning.  Perhaps if I'd spent less time on all these things, the students would have had more time in class to learn and to practice their learning.  Perhaps the need to "reinforce" that learning would have just disappeared.  When I look back at all the time that was focused on homework I think most of it was a complete waste of time - of mine and of the students and of the learning - which is what the time at school should have been devoted to.  I don't think that the homework that was set ever really extended the learning that was going on, and in many cases I think the class time spent on setting, checking and monitoring the homework actually got in the way of reflecting on the learning.

For the 12 years that I've been an IT teacher I haven't set any homework at all.  In the beginning this was because everything that the students produced in the IT lab was stored on the school servers and was therefore not accessible to the students from home.  It wasn't possible for them to continue from outside the school, but if they needed more time to work on something it was always possible to give them extra time in school in our drop-in lab or on the classroom laptops.  Over the past 5 years or so, however, almost all of the things the students are doing with computers are very accessible from home.  We use the internet for investigating, we use Web 2.0 tools for organising the results of our investigations, for communicating and collaborating with others and for creating and showing our understanding.  While I have never set homework, I've often pointed out to students that the same tools that they are using in school are available freely from home.  That anything they start in school could be continued at home if they wanted to.  Even without this prompting, students are often excited about what they are doing and ask "Can I do this from home?"

Last week I was talking with some teachers and the subject of homework came up.  At their school, homework is given out on a Monday and collected in on a Friday - students can work on it at their own pace during the week.  It occurred to me that there were some serious problems with this policy, for example some students do all the work on the first day it is given out to "get it out of the way".  This means they are in some cases doing the maths homework to reinforce the maths being covered during the week before the lessons have even been taught!  Some students are doing all their homework on the last day and perhaps rushing to get it finished.  If these students misunderstood something covered at the start of the week, a whole week of learning might in fact be lost before the teacher collects it in to check.  So even before yesterday's #elemchat, as a result of this discussion I was asking myself: What is the purpose of homework?   Many teachers continue to give out homework without really addressing this question.  Many schools have homework policies that mandate a certain amount of homework be set by teachers each week.  Many parents expect their children to bring work home to do and don't really question it either.  Some parents, however, do question it and say that their children spend many hours in school each day and that time at home should be family time or that it should be a time for children to play or relax.  Some of these parents know that homework and learning are in fact two different things.

Basically homework is schoolwork that is done at home.  Many educators who participated in the #elemchat questioned why this schoolwork was not being done at school.  Edna Sackson came up with a wonderful suggestion.  She said "I think writing, maths etc should be done in school.  Homework should be reading and thinking," and asked why school learning needs to be reinforced at home: "Isn't it done well enough in school?"  She said:

Photo Credit:  The Joys of Homework by Cayusa  AttributionNoncommercial


  1. Hi Maggie!

    Glad you liked my comments. I have always bucked the system and refrained from giving written homework. It just didn't feel right. Kids spend so much time at school, they need to play and relax too. I agree that homework is really schoolwork done at home. So use the school time more productively (eg don't waste learning time chasing and checking homework) and then you won't need to send any home :-)

  2. I missed the #elemchat dialogue as well but I was delighted to read your reactions and ideas about homework. Refreshing and most definitely I will pass your comments on. Few parents are aware that some teachers actually don't assign homework. Thanks for sharing.

  3. As a working parent of 3 children I wholeheartedly agree that time at home should be about play, relaxation and family time. Homework turns our home into a stressful environment with arguments about what the teacher intended, which is the 'right' way to do something aside from the denials about having any in the first place.