Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

Rethinking My School’s Homework Policy

Since becoming a more connected educator, I have learned much from my professional learning network about the pros and cons of homework, especially at the elementary level. With my student handbook needing an update, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my school’s beliefs regarding this topic.

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Cathy Vatterot, author of Rethinking Homework, offers a reasonable view of how educators can address this touchy subject. With her recommendations, along with information and experiences shared by my colleagues, I made some substantial changes to my school’s homework policy. Text in bold are my potential additions; language with strikethrough may be deleted.

HOWE SCHOOL HOMEWORK POLICY

Homework is an out-of-school assignment that contributes to the educational process of the child. It should be an extension of class work and should be related to the objectives of the curriculum presently being studied.

Homework may include additional practice exercises, reading of material on a specific subject, in-depth extension of classroom activities, or independent project work related to the subject. Instructional time is maximized and consists of introducing new material, so drill and memorization review and reinforcement become an important part of homework.

Effective school research indicates that a positive correlation exists between expanding opportunities for learning and academic achievement. Most children, therefore, will have some homework each school day. Homework may include problem solving, completion of assignments introduced in class, projects, reading ahead in the textbook and other tasks as assigned by teachers. The daily amount of time depends upon grade level, varying from 10 to 45 minutes daily at the elementary level. In order to attain the maximum benefits from homework, your child is responsible for completing homework assignments on time and as directed.

The homework policy that has been established at Howe School indicates that all students will, on a regular basis, receive homework assignments for completion outside of the regularly allocated class time. The amount, frequency and nature of the assignments should be based on the teacher’s professional judgement, students’ needs and reflect the child’s grade, subject and needs. Homework will vary by instructional level, with assignments potentially increasing in length and frequency as the child progresses through the grades.

Homework fulfills the following purposes:

To review and reinforce classroom learning by providing practice with an application of knowledge gained.
To teach children responsibility, neatness and organizational skills. To promote family involvement, school connectedness and two way communication between home and school.

The following amount of time is expected what you might expect for homework daily (excluding Wednesdays):
Grades K and 1st – Approximately 10-20 minutes
Grades 2nd and 3rd – Approximately 15-30 minutes
Grades 4th and 5th – Approximately 20-40 minutes

Note: These expectations will take into consideration a child’s ability and nature of assignments. Any child not completing homework assignments will be expected to stay inside during the noon recess to finish the work.

The following expectations exist for teachers, all children, and parents.

Each teacher will: assign meaningful homework; take into account the capabilities of the class; assign work that will benefit each child and give all children feedback on assignments.

Each child will: learn to accept this responsibility; complete the assignments on time and with high quality; and develop good study habits.

Each parent must: nurture that responsibility in his/her child; encourage his/her child to complete homework assignments; provide for a climate that will foster educational endeavors; and stress the value of hard work and good study habits.

All children make far greater advances in academics when homework is given frequently to extend the school day. Additionally, Academic gains are greater when parents take a vital supportive role in helping the child fulfill his/her responsibility. Ask your child’s teacher for helpful hints in more information in helping your child complete homework assignments.

Students who do not complete their homework at home are expected to complete it before school or during noon recess.
HOMEWORK – MAKE-UP WORK REQUESTS

As a result of student absences, sometimes make-up work is requested. If a child is absent for one or two days, make-up work may not be sent home prior to the student’s return. We are anxious for students to get well. Reading a library book is encouraged. Although we appreciate parent requests, teachers need sufficient time to gather materials. If a student is absent more than two days, please contact the office before 8:30 a.m. so the teacher has time to prepare materials by the end of the school day. With classes of 20 or more students and the possibility of several absences, it takes a significant amount of time to honor make-up work requests. We appreciate your understanding.

I am also sharing these possible revisions with staff and families. When we briefly discussed this topic as a faculty, beliefs were expectedly all over the place. Having a strict policy does not honor where everyone is at on this topic. My hope is that the changes we make will reflect best practices, knowing that it may always be a work in progress.

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Where are you at on the continuum of homework in school, especially at the elementary level? How would you revise this policy? Please share in the comments.