Sunday, October 25, 2009

Homework--How much, how little

I have struggled with the homework problem since I became an education major many years ago. At the college level it is a standard procedure--"read the next two chapters for Thursday lecture," or "Complete the lab exercise No. 115 and write up your findings." At the college level one does not measure the time or the quality of the homework required. But the college makes an assessment that the recipient of the assignment is an adult and can plan their time well. Perhaps.

At the grade school level I first encountered the homework problem during my first year as a fifth grade teacher. Music teachers give homework assignments--"PRACTICE. We have a concert coming up." But there was no written work and I could tell at the next band practice whether my assignment had been accomplished or not. Simple. However, in a fifth grade class of thirty-eight students if I assigned a page of arithmetic problems to do or to write two paragraphs of at least three sentences each on the subject of VALUES, I would have to read and grade those papers at some time in the coming week. That was a selfish point of view for me as far as I was concerned. Grading homework papers was either done after school or at home after dinner.

And to complicate things some parents wanted homework for their child and others were against it. It was about fifty-fifty for and against. As a new grade school teacher I wasn't sure what to do so I quizzed my colleagues. About fifty percent thought that children should have homework and an equal number were against it. Oh dear! As is my style I went to the library to check on the research. Equally confusing.

Before I proceed, let's look at some questions and puzzlements about homework. What do we want to know?

  1. Do children who do homework score higher on tests then children who do not do homework?
  2. Which is better, homework for grade school children, middle school children or high school children?
  3. Are the results of homework the same for low income schools as compared with upper income schools? (single moms and dads vs full families)
  4. How much time is effective for homework? Ten minutes? An hour?
  5. What do teachers think of homework?
  6. What is the reason for the homework?
I have a few other questions that I didn't have to be concerned about when I first started teaching like, Does the homework require a computer? Is there a family member at home that can help? Will the kids tweet their answers to each other? Fun stuff.

What follows are my opinions which have not been influenced by research. I haven't Googled these questions to see what the latest thinking is. In fact, I suspect I have mellowed a bit over the years but it has given me time to think about all this.

As one grows older the question, "Which knowledge is of most worth," which probably precedes Plato's thinking becomes more pressing. Cognition I learned as a child become in some instances useless while other learnings stand by me. I write this at the moment reflecting that I can type (keyboarding in the modern vernacular) but all those hours "learning" spelling seems to have gone by the wayside as my computer checks my spelling as I go. Actually, I seem to have become a better speller with the advent of the computer and spell checkers. Interesting. I wonder why? Writing with a quill pen is forgotten as I write with a ballpoint. So as John Dewey said long ago, "Change Happens."

So the question on homework is what homework is important. And why? We have two possibilities. One possibility is to cram more stuff in the young mind. That is what is done at the college level--"read the next two chapters." OR is it to firmly fix it into the young mind as in do the even number arithmetic problems on page 79. The material has been taught in class and now the teacher wants to have the students do enough to ensure that they know how to do the problems. This is called putting it into long term memory. A good example in the elementary school might be the time tables. Get them into memory.

What we know over the years is that home work seems to have little effect on test scores although that research has always been purely limited. We never measured how long that homework lasted or if the value of the subject was improved or lessened. And homework in the grade school seems to be a bit more effective then homework in the middle school and the high school.

Again, this is my opinion--cognition learning is a left brain activity while enjoying that learning is a right brain activity. Actually that is highly simplistic and a number of you will be letting me know, however, my point that I am trying to make is that we need time to learn which allows the two parts of the brain to work together. I think grade school children would learn more efficiently if allowed to play at home after school. And I think high school kids have a need to interact and present themselves to others in extra curricular theater, sports, music, service clubs. Yes, we need right brain activity for the left brain to work effectively.

Just my thoughts. However, but let me inject some politics at this time. Yes, I know I promised you I would not make this into a political forum. But here is my question--what if we extend the school day and the school year? Should we still have homework? And when will there be time for right brain activities?

I'm against longer school days, a longer school year and I'm against most home work. Except where I want the student to put something into long term memory. I am for more play, but even that term is under scrutiny.

So I have a homework assignment for you. Go find a teacher and thank him or her for what they do with students. Once you thanked them, find out how they feel. One page double spaced due next week.

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