Once upon a time there was an eager young student so excited to start the school year. Our young hero couldn’t wait to see old friends again, meet new ones, jump into new learning topics and, yes, even get back into a schedule. The first few days were all that the student expected and all was good and right in the world. Then, as happens in all good fairy tales, darkness loomed on the outskirts of our hero’s perception. A ripple of unease made this young one begin to despair. How is it possible to overcome the tragic arrival of . . . The homework package.
You know what I mean. That bundle of photocopied black line masters intended to force our students to develop good organization and work completion habits while quickly numbing them into non-thinking, compliant creatures of habit. While I must admit that I have seen some good homework assignments in elementary school, most are not so good. They are often repetitive right/wrong, follow-the-same-pattern-from-September-to-June, time wasters that our struggling students dread and/or ignore and our high achieving students either whip through or ignore.
I was asked earlier this week what my opinion is in the great homework debate. I may have shown my hand a bit already here, (I have a horrible poker face, even in writing) but I actually hesitated before I answered. On the one hand, most of the research I have read shows that assigning the traditional black line master-type homework is at best minimally beneficial and at worst actually detrimental to student achievement in elementary school. On the other hand, I don’t want to provide a quick answer that could be construed to mean I think students should only think, read, write, and problem solve between 9 am and 3 pm, five days a week. On the other, other hand I also know that parents either beg teachers to send home daily homework for their child or stand around the arena/gym/school parking lot bemoaning how 8 year old Johnny was up until 11 last night in tears trying to finish the 40 math questions the teacher assigned.
Once I considered all of those hands, this is how I answered. Homework, I think, should mostly be about encouraging students to read and write in forms that interest and work for them. It should be about encouraging them to wonder, hypothesize, consider and problem solve about the world around them. It should also be about climbing trees, organizing bike races in the park, and having thoughtful conversations with family members. And it should be about students who eagerly continue following up independently on learning they started in school and are too excited to leave behind at 3 p.m.
I understand the problems with this kind of homework. It’s nebulous and doesn’t fit nicely on an 8 1/2 by 11 paper. Parents don’t know how to direct it, help with it, or how to use it to measure how well little Johnny is doing. It also relies on the student having educators who have supported that student to be metacognitively aware, intrinsically motivated, self confident, and passionate about learning. That is a tall order.
But at some point I think we have to consider how, if our expectations of what learning looks like at school are evolving, our expectations of what learning looks like outside the classroom might have to evolve as well.
How do we help our hero live happily ever after? I think we need to consider carefully how to add value to student learning instead of just maintaining it. We have to have conversations with parents, students, and other educators about what this could look like. We do need to consider how we can promote self regulation and the other learning skills in whatever we decide, since these are the skills that make our hero, well, heroic.
Fairy tales are often a battle of black and white, with so little grey to cloud our understanding. The homework debate still has lots of grey. How do you interpret the grey?