Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
A few years ago, I observed a frustrated second grade boy who was upset because he had to close his journal since “writing was over” for the day. I asked him why he didn’t take the journal home so he could continue writing? He answered, “Because my teacher didn’t give it to us as homework… our journals don’t go home.” That exchange sent me on a journey to look more closely at homework practices. One of the most frequent questions asked by prospective parents is “What is your homework policy?” I used to say “reading 20 minutes each night, never new material; and always meaningful review.” Even when saying this, I knew that there was something flawed in that answer.
The efficacy of homework has been debated among American educators, parents and students for as long as I’ve been in education. In an article in the New Yorker a few years ago, Louis Menand laid out the different sides of the debate. Those against homework argue that it creates undue stress and that it is either unrelated, or negatively related, to academic achievement. He notes that parents hate it because it makes their kids unhappy, or creates undue dinner-time tension. Students and teachers hate it for other reasons. Those who support homework argue that it creates useful work habits and has positive academic effects.
So what does the American ambivalence about homework mean? We have diverse interests with different expectations about the purpose of education. Some focus on values of happiness, others on discovery learning, while some emphasize the need for content mastery, and still others want to keep kids off the streets.
Back to my traditional answer to the homework question, and why it is flawed. The answer to how much time to allocate to homework is different for every single child. Children have different capacities and learn at different rates. One child may complete a particular assignment in 10 minutes while another might need much longer. The answer should be that time devoted to homework is usually a function of children’s learning differences, preferences and capacities. It is possible that a particular child is so engaged in figuring out a particular problem that s/he willingly devotes more time to that endeavor. His/her parent might be unnecessarily concerned about how long the child spent on this work. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there might be a child who completes an assignment in a few minutes, and the parent wishes that s/he had more work. These concerns are often about who gets to control “time” – the teacher, the parent or the child.
Time allocation is one issue. The other issue focuses on the assumptions behind the practice of never assigning new work for homework. That idea is premised on the belief that the child might make mistakes, or might become too frustrated because s/he is not learning the material first from a teacher. This answer is also connected to the desire to control rather than understanding how deep learning takes place. We know that sustained learning takes place through exploration, mistakes and revisions. So, why aren’t we letting children explore new material for homework? Why can’t they turn in something that is “in process” and is not perfect?
The homework debate is never really a question of too much or too little. It is a question about “to what end?” My new way to answer the prospective parent’s question is by sharing the questions and the resulting answers that drive our school’s position – What sort of education do we value, and how do we deliver that education?
The answers reflect the school we want to be: We value 21st Century learners who have command of different literacies, take initiative, and know how to create, communicate, and collaborate. Equally important, we value an education that teaches children how to listen, care, and act for the benefit of others. Given that, homework at our school could include hours of collaboration over a Google document on a project conceived by the students. It can also include a child interviewing his/her parents about a family narrative. To fulfill our mission of teaching students to communicate and to problem-solve effectively, at times there just might be a spelling list and some mathematic practice as well.
If we really want an informed citizenship that takes responsibility for their learning and for their actions, the best case scenario is learning without boundaries: Children who are so engaged at school that they can’t wait to get home to finish reading a class book, to replicate or extend a science experiment, or continue writing in their journal. We want parents who understand that this is also homework; and we strive to be a school that lets those books, science projects and journals come home.
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