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Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes


Authentic Homework

Last Sunday night, I received the following email from a first grade parent:

When your Sunday plans include a meal inspired by your daughter’s weekly library looks something like this:

  • She picked out a recipe she wanted to try.
  • Made a grocery list of the needed ingredients, after searching the pantry and refrigerator for items she READ in the book.
  • She convinced her mom to schlep her and her two younger siblings to the grocery store and navigated to find the items on her list...crossing off each one off of her list with a pencil in her hand!
  • Counted the basil leaves, pine nuts and measured the “pinch” of salt (after a discussion of how much a pinch should be!)
  • Ate a new food! Enjoyed it and felt proud too that her brothers and Ema all enjoyed it too.

    Wow! What a return on a weekly library book choice.

The note generated a smile. It also offered a clear example of what educators call “project-based learning” replicating how our teachers structure many of their classroom units. Project-based learning entails an authentic (real-life) task, a series of steps that engage basic knowledge of language arts, mathematics, and/or science and a final useful product. But this story also demonstrates Wornick’s vision about homework.

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. Menand 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? The answer lies in our understanding of the purpose of education, as well as in balancing the role of school and home in controlling and prioritizing our time.

We have diverse interests with different expectations about the purpose of education and, consequently different understandings of what role homework should play in that equation. If the goal of education is continuous learning and discovery, then homework will promote that while teaching them the skills they need to do that on their own. If primacy is given to the need to cover and to know large amounts of information, then the homework will emphasize memorizing and practicing skills.

We also have different understandings of the home/school balance in educating our children. Some families want all school-work to take place during the time that children are in school, leaving families time to enjoy dinner and bedtime routines without layering homework into a busy family schedule. Others want children to continue doing schoolwork at home. Some want this because it offers the parent a window into the child’s work, and others because they believe this is good discipline.

Back to my traditional answer to the homework question, and why it is flawed. That answer doesn’t address differentiation - meeting each child’s unique learning style and capacity. It doesn’t account for the sort of education that our school promotes – continuous discovery. 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. That control should be balanced.

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 even as it is often framed that way. 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?

We value 21st Century learners who have command of different literacies, take initiative, and know how to create, communicate, and collaborate. We value an education where children have agency to choose to learn and to advocate for what they value. 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, there 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 replicate something they learned at school, or to finish reading a class book, to extend a science experiment, or continue writing in their journal. That is what was so precious about the story of the first grader. She couldn’t wait to get home and apply her learning in a pretty complex way. We know that our parents understand that this is authentic homework.

Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Monday October, 30, 2017 at 09:31AM

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Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School develops students who are socially and academically prepared to meet their full potential as engaged leaders committed to a life steeped in Jewish ethics and values.

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