Several years ago I began including the following statement in my students' IEPs:
HOMEWORK assignments should meet the following criteria:
- The student can successfully complete the assignment with no assistance.
- The student can complete the assignment in a reasonable amount of time.
- The assignment focuses on essential understandings and big ideas that have lasting relevance.
Our former coordinator of curriculum and instruction (and building administrator), not only agreed with these criteria, but also told me, "This should apply to all students, not just those with IEPs."
Why should teachers question homework?
First, practice does not make perfect. Imperfect practice can make imperfect. Struggling students often do homework incorrectly and, as a result, reinforce bad habits. I've observed the most effective teachers using in-the-moment coaching during class (the workshop approach). Because these teachers do not use homework as a crutch to make up for inefficient use of class time, they sense an urgency to wisely use every minute of class. Effective teachers maximize class time and minimize homework.* Although homework can have a place in effective education (see below), wise teachers first ask, "Is there a way I can facilitate my students' learning without depending on homework?"
Second, homework can exploit issues of inequality within the student population. Many students do not have support at home to complete cumbersome assignments, while others have access to professional tutors. If homework met the criteria listed above, these equity issues would decrease.
Third, excessive homework often encourages a school-centered worldview. However, in reality, much of life's most important learning occurs outside the classroom (creative play, music, athletics, religion, and other extracurricular activities). School is a full-time job. Homework is essentially overtime. Wise teachers respect this reality.
Is there a place for homework?
Strategically assigned homework that meets the criteria listed above can benefit students. Students need opportunities to build organization skills (including time management, goal-setting, and task completion skills).** Furthermore, as students mature, they should be learning how to learn on their own. Meaningful, self-directed learning that is personally relevant to a student can be guided effectively by teacher-coaches. This kind of learning often requires experience, exploration, research, creation, and design outside the classroom. It's learning tailored to students' interests and future work. It's the kind of model often used in quality graduate programs.
So ... here are three questions teachers can ask before assigning homework:
- Can the student complete this assignment with NO ASSISTANCE? Homework is for students, not parents or tutors. Remember to check students' IEPs for reading level, processing speed issues, etc.
- Can the student complete this assignment in a reasonable amount of time? Remember to adapt appropriately for all students. What takes one student ten minutes might take another student an hour.
- Does this assignment pass the 20 year test? (It focuses on essential understandings and big ideas that have lasting relevance.) No busy work!
NOTES:*As a parent of nine children, I've observed something that applies to all academic levels. (I've had children in learning support classes, co-taught classes, average classes, and the most advanced classes.) Simply put, there has been no correlation between homework load and effective learning. In fact, if there has been a pattern, it's contrary to conventional wisdom. My children's most effective teachers usually were the ones who gave less homework.
**I once heard a teacher argue for the importance of homework. She asserted that most of her students completed their assignments on time. She attributed this to the way she incentivized homework completion: All students who completed 100% of assignments on time for the first half of the quarter were exempt from homework during the last half of the quarter. Of course, this raises an obvious question. If students can go an entire month and a half with no homework and still successfully learn, is homework really essential? In reality, the benefit of the teacher's homework probably was more related to building responsibility in her students than it was in developing content knowledge.