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Roman Kraft

“Homework is full of power. It can create barriers or it can be constructed to connect families and schools.” – Taucia Gonzalez

I don’t really want to write about homework. But like all polarizing issues in education, the topic attracts people on social media who take stark positions, and I care very much about how this can erode the space for progressive discussions. The most recent stark take is a book called Ditch That Homework by Matt Miller and Alice Keeler, and published by Dave Burgess, captain of what was formerly known as Pirate Press.

I’m not writing about that book because I’m not going to read it.

While I work at a very privileged international school, I spent many Saturday mornings volunteering to help children in downtown Brussels with their homework at the Garcia Lorca Center, which offers parents some free child-care. Since my French is comsi-comca, I often worked with the younger kids. Sometimes the work involved determining the gender of 20 or 30 familiar nouns in French, and then looking them up in the dictionary. This is neither fun nor easy for young children, and having an adult to help them flip pages and make a game out of the task went a long way to avoiding frustration.

The kids completed their work with pride, in a careful cursive script that flowed from the nib of their fountain pens with the most utter and intense concentration I can imagine coming from an 8 year old. After they finished their fairly rigorous French homework, I encouraged them to draw and write a story that they wanted to tell, which more closely resembles the homework that I assign to my own students. We would read books together. Sometimes they liked to play ‘Madame’, and I obligingly followed their dictées, writing down the words they told me to write while they corrected my spelling.

During our open house night in September, I stand up and promise the parents of my Grade 8 and Grade 9 English students that I will not drown their children in homework. Anything that students have for homework will be a continuation of what we work on in class. Students should read for pleasure every day.

When I taught Grade 2 in the middle of Abu Dhabi’s desert, I only gave reading for homework. I spent hours and dirhams making packets of leveled readers that I read with students in small groups, and that they could take home, read, and color. My lack of more formal homework shocked the parents and the local teachers. My kids learned how to read English, many of them better than they could Arabic.

As a teacher who has worked hard to make homework meaningful and equitable, I am disturbed by the stark call to make homework ‘obsolete’. Miller and Keeler write:  “Homework is a habit we’ve kept in education for far too long, and it’s time for us to ditch it.”1Justin Schleider has written against Keeler’s blanket statement here.

The statement sports a progressive veneer, and at root, touches on three issues: equity, the negotiation of the home and school relationship, and how we construct the boundaries of progressive discourse.

‘Homework’ functions as a slippery word in education. Given that the category could include exercises copied from a grammar book, building a wooden ship, writing your own creative stories, or reading a pleasure book, what useful generalization could be drawn about all of these activities?

After considering the different things that homework might mean, Alfie Kohn concludes that “Even when you take account of all these variables, the bottom line remains that no definite conclusion can be reached, and that is itself a significant conclusion.” But bad research on homework shouldn’t automatically lead us to the conclusion that all homework is worthless. In Rethinking Homework, Cathy Vatterott argues that “Seldom do the studies factor in the role of good teaching or adaptations that teachers make for individual students. This picture is in sharp contrast to the current body of research about learning and the methods of more progressive educators.”

The case against homework is a species of what John Mighton has called the “argument from past failures.” Teachers have assigned poor homework in the past, so the only alternative is no homework.2In the context of math, teaching algorithms has fallen out of fashion because we know how horrible drill and kill is, right? “A paper will cite come past teaching practice that was not particularly successful – for example, the rote teaching of algorithms – and then claim that the only alternative method is the method of teaching that the paper supports.” Of course, this conclusion does not logically follow. Instead, we could teach algorithms properly and in an interesting way. <ref. John Mighton, The End of Ignorance, p, 220. It’s at this point that we prematurely narrow the space for progressive discourse about education.

Homework generates such heated debate because “it is a standard created at school for behavior to take place in the home,” as Ken Goldberg puts it.3Cathy Vatterott uses this quotation from Goldberg, K. (2007, April). The homework trap. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago. Teachers need to respect and be aware of this relationship between school and home, and Vatterott reasonably suggests that “renegotiating the relationship will require teachers to compromise, respect parents’ wishes, and relax a bit.”

Writing from the perspective of a parent, teacher and researcher, Taucia Gonzalez suggests that educators “can diffuse the power hierarchy by building parents’ voices into homework procedures.  This would require more overlap in the two homework roles of making decisions about homework and making sure the homework gets done.”

One way to address the power hierarchy is to build meaningful choice into homework and to ensure that homework is directly connected to a larger meaningful project. If we assign 30 math problems or reading comprehension questions and have them due the next day, this leaves students and parents in a tight corner. I often ask kids to keep working on their writing – a story or an essay – at home so that they can continue to practice specific skills that we have learned and worked on that day, such as writing dialog. The homework is then part of a longer series of soft deadlines leading up to a larger project, such as a portfolio of short fiction.

It’s also important to remove the punitive culture that can emerge around homework. If we attach shame and points to any part of school, even something that should be intrinsically fun, we kill off goodwill and interest. Students that don’t complete homework need support and differentiation, not late marks or zeroes.

Unequal Childhoods

 

A common objection to the idea of homework, and many other practices in education, goes like this: Finland doesn’t do it, and their kids are high-achieving and happy. Like so many myths about Finnish education, the ‘no homework’ one isn’t true (though they have shorter school days). More importantly, any comparisons between educational systems and outcomes must take into account social and economic factors, such as the ongoing legacies of discrimination and oppression, and the rate of childhood poverty.

According to a report by the Harvard Family Research Project on students in the United States, “by the time they reach 6th grade, middle-class students have spent 6000 more hours in learning activities outside school than students born into poverty.” These learning activities cover everything from trips to museums to music lessons. In Unequal Childhoods, Annette Lareau labels the typically middle-class approach to parenting as concerted cultivation. Yet even for middle-class parents that have the cultural capital that should reduce friction over homework, Lareau documents cases where “educators frequently adopt a relatively rigid definition of what constitutes helpful behavior; parents’ actions that fall outside those bounds are ignored or discredited.”

And if we step outside the middle-class concerted cultivation lens to view homework, we must confront the ways that homework impacts children who live in poverty. A teen who is cooking for their family, taking care of siblings, or working to help make ends meet at home, does not need homework to teach them some grit or responsibility. The school system also actively alienates and discriminates against students who are Black through ‘zero tolerance’ policies, which pushes students out of school into the school-to-prison pipeline. We must understand the power hierarchy school generates with home life in these contexts, while at the same time avoiding a deficit model of students.

In Multiplication is for White People, Lisa Delpit takes on the culture of low expectations that harms many poor children of color:

“Many researchers have identified successful teachers of African American students as “warm demanders.” James Vasques used the term to identify teachers whom students of color said did not lower their standards and were willing to help them. Warm demanders expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”

According to Delpit, one such teacher, Ms. Willis, was clear about why her students “needed to do homework; at the same time she acknowledged that students were not always in control of their lives… However, she gave students ideas for ways to resolve issues that might arise and take control of unforseeable events. There were no excuses.” Delpit points out that care and concern are “necessary components” and that the relationship between teachers and students needs to have “a sense of trust, confidence, and psychological safety that allows students to take risks, admit errors, ask for help, and experience failure.”

Now, while Delpit does not argue that we ought to assign homework, I think it is safe to read her argument as saying that under the right conditions, we ought not to shy away from homework either. Vatterott summarizes a list of assumptions we should challenge when we assign homework:

• Do not assume the child has a quiet place to do homework.
• Do not assume the child has a parent home in the evening.
• Do not assume the child’s parents speak and read English.
• Do not assume the family has money for school supplies.
• Do not assume the child has access to materials such as paper, a pencil sharpener, scissors, glue, magazines, or a calculator.
• Do not assume the child has access to a computer or the
Internet.

Good practice with homework is continuous with good practice with assessment more generally: don’t grade homework, make sure homework relates to skills you are teaching (are you teaching how to make a paper mache of a character from a book?), provide choice, and differentiate. If we ground homework in the deeper principles of knowing our students, families, and community, and opening channels for real dialog, then homework doesn’t need to inevitably fracture the relationship between home and school. Taucia Gonzalez writes, “Homework is full of power. It can create barriers or it can be constructed to connect families and schools.”

We can work to slowly and appropriately build the capacity of all of our students to work independently through providing ample class time dedicated to the work that needs to be done, while we conference with students and provide them time to ask questions. Gradually, we can ask them to spend time at home continuing to work on important projects. We can also build community resources through our schools and public libraries that offer help with studying and homework.

I think parents want to know that we take an individual interest in their children and how they learn, and if the work that students do at school – and sometimes at home – shows that, then this would go a long way to building connection. But making blanket statements about the necessity of homework, or the necessity to eliminate all of it, only traps us into the back-and-forth that makes for frustrated and frustrating twitter salvos.

______

I have benefited from listening to many voices in this thread, especially Dr. Naomi Barnes, Andrew Campbell, Adele Stanfied, Fred Haas, Jessica Torrence, Kelly Christopherson, and Justin Schleider.

References   [ + ]

1. Justin Schleider has written against Keeler’s blanket statement here.
2. In the context of math, teaching algorithms has fallen out of fashion because we know how horrible drill and kill is, right? “A paper will cite come past teaching practice that was not particularly successful – for example, the rote teaching of algorithms – and then claim that the only alternative method is the method of teaching that the paper supports.” Of course, this conclusion does not logically follow. Instead, we could teach algorithms properly and in an interesting way. <ref. John Mighton, The End of Ignorance, p, 220.
3. Cathy Vatterott uses this quotation from Goldberg, K. (2007, April). The homework trap. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.
I footnotes