Thursday, September 18, 2008

Homework II

In a recent Action Research study, parents were surveyed to determine how they feel about homework. This is a dangerous study. It is a false hypothesis.

Do you think they ask the wrong question? Perhaps better ask how students are affected by homework, not the parents. As the author of the study said, a literature review reflects mixed results for the benefits of homework. Many parents demand homework, as do school boards. What an interesting study: how PARENTS are affected by homework. They are not the only stakeholders. Yes, homework results in stress. Parents do not understand homework, students do not understand it and teachers do not know how and when to assign it. There are a combination of factors that render homework useless for those for whom it would have the most benefits.

Homework in the elementary panel has been an activity that has proven to be misunderstood, devalued and misused. It is with great excitement that a Barrie school has announced a 'no homework' policy. This is rather a shock to me. My experience has taught me that reviewing new material to put it into long-term memory is important for learners. Other educators have felt the same. In the primary grades some families need direction: young children do not need homework but they should spend time reading. Some children arrive in the junior grades without having mastered math facts, addition facts, and times tables really help students grasp more difficult concepts. The extreme reliance on calculators in higher grades truly irk me.

The purpose of homework

Homework is given in order to complete, review, reinforce, apply, integrate, and extend classroom learning as well as to prepare students for future learning. Some homework is assigned that is simply busy work, intended to appease senior staff who demand that teachers give a particular number of minutes of homework per day. This is more true at the elementary panel. The early years are not the place for homework per se. Some teachers assign homework in high school in order to assign marks. They have based marks on a percentage for many years and they have failed to examine the practice. Some parents demand a certain amount of homework; this too needs to be examined. Policies based in past practice need be reviewed. A ban is simply not the way to go. A critical reflection, based on the students, individual needs and the purpose of the work, needs to be visited. Until then a ban is ridiculous enough in and of itself.

Homework content

Homework must be meaningful. It must be seen to be important. It must be something that will add to the body of knowledge, to refine or reinforce skills. It should not be busy work, with no real value. Some teachers do not understand this concept. They must determine the reasons for homework in the elementary grades. If they determine a reason for homework then it should not be banned. I spent most of my career delivering curriculum to special needs learners. Many of these students do not finish work, need help that we could not provide in a busy day, and it made sense for them

This debate has gone on for a long period of time. I always set out a homework policy that respected both students and parents. The purpose of homework must be clear. The parents and students must understand it. It has to be work that will give some value to the learner. For many kids who cannot concentrate in class, completing a few math questions at home is a good idea. For those with literacy or numeracy skills to assign simple tasks like reading or a few math questions, it is good practice for them to sit down and go over them.

The timing of homework

My policy incorporated a time-out policy. Parents need to say NO to homework after a period of time. Parents can bargain with students: do 5 or 10 questions and we'll stop. Some parents demand that children finish every question, and this causes stress.

I always set out a policy that if after 20 - 30 minutes the students cannot complete the work then they should stop. There is no point trying to complete the impossible. For the brain to put learning into long-term memory it has to review new learning. A good stab at a few questions is excellent and completing 5 questions for one student may be as effective as another completing 20 in the same time.

Teacher’s roles

The big problem is that the faculties do not teach teachers how, when and why to assign homework. Otherwise, there are many factors that complicate the successful homework assignment. Some parents demand homework, others disdain it. Many students cannot master the mechanics of subjects (like math) without practice, and students refuse to practice. The text books, especially in math, are not written simply to teach basics first, and then to encourage higher level thinking skills. They are written for high-ability learners, which confounds those who are struggling and they then give up. The homework assignments can be useless for many successful students. It is a highly individualized process that is not adapted to individual learners. And it must be adapted.

Administrator's roles
It is up to the administration to determine how and when teachers assign homework. Young teachers have not necessarily done their homework and do not understand the purpose of it. With each school, and school population, it must vary and be adapted to the students it serves. Many children from Asian backgrounds understand how much homework can add to the learning process. Their parents demand that children have work to do after school. Other parents cannot help with homework and a homework club, supervised by adults, can provide a means by which students can finish work they do not understand or could not finish as quickly as their peers.

Parent’s roles
Parents need to find a time and place for homework. A homework plan helps them set out goals and clarify expectations. Parents must talk to teachers and teachers must convey their expectations. For many, of particular cultures and experiences, homework is a necessary part of their schooling. There are many things a parent can do if they desire to assist their child with skills.

Who should set policies about homework?
It is time that we seriously reconsidered homework in the light of current research on the topic. In the younger grades it is usually unnecessary. In the older grades it helps students create a habit of discipline and prepares them for independent learning and research skills that will be crucial in secondary school and in the workplace.

It is not up to trustees or school boards to provide policy and procedures for teachers. I can understand students wanting some input, but that, perhaps is something to be negotiated at the school level. It is up to teachers, and senior staff, to examine practices, with input from School Councils. Every family and every child is different. A policy does not meet the needs of all learners. Teachers must be given some credit for creating a classroom curriculum that meets the needs of individual learners.

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