Behind the Homework Debate

(As seen in DisruptED TV Magazine)

When I posted a survey on Twitter asking one simple question and it got over 70,000 impressions, I knew that I wasn’t the only one struggling with the homework debate. Almost 3,000 people voted and more than 300 commented.  All I asked was, “Do you assign homework?”  Educators from around the world offered their opinions, experience, and insight.  When asked to moderate #AltEdChat, I chose the topic of homework because I definitely wanted to learn more.

The homework debate goes to the core of what we believe about school, childhood, families, and equity.  Homework discussions have become a microcosm for issues that we are struggling with in education and as a society.  In education, we generally consult research for such impasses, but in this case, that only further clouds the issue because the research is almost equal for both camps.  It is also rather inconclusive since it’s impossible to make generalizations such as “improves student achievement” without quantifying such factors as age, demographic information, current grades, etc. 

Is school’s purpose to instill discipline or to intellectually stimulate?   On one side of the homework debate there are those that state that homework supports a work ethic and a sense of responsibility.  Homework is assigned daily and the student should be held accountable.  The opposing viewpoint is that we should allow choices for students to delve deeper or share their learning based on interest.  If we dig into this a little bit we definitely see shades of the 20th century versus 21st century learner debate.

Parents’ role in education.  We talk a lot about parental engagement and how want to get more parents “involved” in the school community.  Since we want parents to be more involved, we invite working parents to coffee with the principal at 9:00 am, ask them to attend Title 1 meetings, and assign daily homework and projects that require purchasing material and spending hours building volcanos.  There are of course, parents with the time, resources, and interest that would enjoy these family learning opportunities but how often do we stop to ask parents which homework practices best support their family?  What would posing that question and using its response to create practices that support students do to the relationships between the stakeholders?

Equitable access to a quality education.  We know that not all children have parents that have the time to sit down and do homework or to even monitor its’ progress.  Many teachers cite the need to provide additional practice in key areas to help students reach standards.  Homework is done privately so it seems like a great opportunity to offer individualized support.  On the other side of the debate, however, what if there is no support at home?  Is it possible that by assigning homework we could be further marginalizing this child because now they have a (usually public) consequence for not finishing their homework?

Homework has the potential to be an authentic bridge between school and parents.  All homework decisions must be student centered.  The reason why homework is generating so many complaints from students that are overwhelmed, teachers that assign it in vain, and stressed parents is that we are not working together.  Empowering teachers to make decisions that are best for their students’ educational needs after considering parents’ feedback supports learners. If homework is the connection between school and home, then we need to meaningfully connect, ask questions, dialogue, and consider all viewpoints. 

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