How Much Homework Is Enough? Depends Who You Ask

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I probably should read “You, Your Child, and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education” by Sir Ken Robinson [published March 2018]. In a short cut way, I scanned through an “adapted excerpt” on the Education Week web site titled “How Much Homework Is Enough? Depends Who You Ask” which was linked from Sir Ken Robinson’s FaceBook feed – and to which I posted a comment (my first time ever, btw).

My comment read “The title and article suggests that the problem is quantity. I would posit that the bigger problem is actually quality. Repetition and application is part of learning for most students…and using the learned knowledge outside of a classroom setting is useful practice towards a lifelong love of learning. However, there is clearly an attempt at substituting quality with quantity. So basically we have a lot of homework with low value and little motivational factoring.”

I kept it quite brief, and had a few drafts before clicking to post. School homework is a touchy subject for many people, and I have commented on this topic from the start of this wiki, particularly stirred by Alfie Kohn’s “The Homework Myth” which I had read in 2011. Since that time, I have taken a critical eye of the homework that my kids have had to do. In my assessment, most of it was junk quality (the meaning of junk here is similar to how it might be used for junk food and junk bonds, or one man’s junk is another man’s treasure). It’s consumable by the masses, but the benefits and circumstances are iffy.

What is the meaning of homework (I am asking this in the same philosophical mood as the question about the meaning of life)? In my view, homework today is a tool of convenience for the education system. Their primary purpose is to differentiate students and justify the education system. But it can be so much more…more fulfilling, more motivating, more purposeful, more about growth and more embraceable.

The typical mode of homework operations reminds me of the criticisms raised by Adora Svitak in her 2010 TED Talk “What adults can learn from kids” in which she touches on reciprocal learning. Is there reciprocity in homework? Nope. From what I’ve observed, teachers are on a mission to get through the curriculum and show grades along the way. Checking homework is a chore (often caffeine-fed) to teachers and for many subjects, it boils down to comparing a homework to an answer guide. That is one of the consequences of the volume of homework that is addressed in the Education Week article.

I think it’s fairly obvious that the problem is the quality of homework. There is a massive QUANTITY of homework because the QUALITY is absent. The quantity is there to compensate for the inability to design homework to optimize for active recall, short and long-term retention, and individual needs. Further, homework perpetuates the problem of the focus on memorization by requiring only convergent thinking (aka logical deductive reasoning). To become a more sophisticated element of learning, homework needs to include divergent thinking in the process. Get that Growth Mindset (tip of the hat to Carol Dweck) into the mix. Train the students to make assumptions and give it a go. Explore the impossible and possible together.

What if teachers were required to design or re-design homework assignments on a regular basis? That is, they would be limited on how much they could rely on textbooks, the internet and other teachers. They would also not be allowed to re-use a portion of their homework from the past. Make it acceptable for the homework assignment to be imperfect. In fact, make sure the students understand that the homework is imperfect and have them deal with it. How enlightening would that be?

I think re-inventing homework needs to be a project that a team needs to work on in future YCISL workshops.


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