The Homework Conundrum

Unlike Alfie Kohn and others, I believe that homework has meaning and carries benefits. This is partly because I teach at the high school level. You can’t discuss Plato if you haven’t read Plato, and the only time to read Plato is outside of class. If you read Plato in class, then there’s no time to discuss it. It’s as simple as that. The subject matter in high school demands independent work.

It does in elementary school as well, though not quite as much. Children do need to read books at home, sometimes for school. There isn’t enough time in the school day for all of their reading. They need to practice math problems, a language, a musical instrument. If they are writing a report, they need to go to the library to look up information. At the same time, they need free time—time for play, exploration, thinking, and being with their family and friends.

Now, back to high school. The homework volume doubles and triples for an unfortunate reason: if you give students a reading assignment without a writing assignment, many will interpret this as no homework at all. So you pair reading assignments with questions. There’s the conundrum: to help ensure that the homework gets done, you end up doubling it.

This means more work for teachers as well as students. I have 259 students in all, and I carry large stacks of homework home. I find it important to read and comment on homework (and enjoy doing so) but sympathize with students’ complaint that it takes a lot of time. What can we do about this—in general, throughout our schools?

Students shouldn’t have to write for every subject every night. It makes sense that they should read on some days and write on others. But they have to treat the reading as a serious assignment, even though it doesn’t result in a concrete product right away.

For this to happen, we have to stop treating concrete products as the be-all and end-all of education. Yes, education should result in good work, but students should learn to hold things in their minds, to work without immediate results. They should develop integrity as students, pondering the material even when there’s nothing to turn in.

Students don’t develop these habits overnight. The best way to help them get there is to set a good example. That means showing them, in class, how to take interesting things into the mind, to make sense of them, to question them, to ponder them again. If I am introducing my students to Blaise Pascal, I expect them to remember what I tell them—and to bring it up in class discussion or on an exam. But I expect still more: they should be willing to enter Pascal’s Pensées (or the short selection we will be reading this week), puzzle through it, recognize its argument and its subtleties, and carry some of it with them.

It takes a long time to build such practice. An individual teacher can encourage it, but it is really the work of a school and of many schools. The life of the mind is almost a lost concept; we need to revive it. It begins with a strong foundation in elementary and middle school—not only in math and reading, but in literature, history, science, music, art, and drama. Students should memorize and recite poems from a young age, so that they develop an ear and a repertoire. They should learn to work through math problems that require skillful framing. In addition, they should learn to persist with things that they do not fully understand: sentence structures that bewilder them at first, terminology that seems out of reach, or melodies and harmonies that seem at first too complex to sing.

Last week a student told me that she had struggled with a passage from the Book of Job. She read it slowly, again and again, and started to glean its meaning. That’s what should happen on a larger scale. When students take the reading that seriously, there’s no need to check up on them every day—and they arrive at greater, not lesser, understanding.

But it is all too easy to cave in to the cultural demand for immediate rewards and punishments. Turn in your homework, and you get two points. Don’t turn it in, and you get a zero. Kids understand that language, and it makes sense that they would. It isn’t bad as a starting point; it can help them get on track. It should not be the end goal.

Homework should have meaning, but meaning does not arise in a vacuuum. It comes with the subject matter, with cultural values and habits, and with persistent teaching.

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5 Comments

  1. Very interesting points. I actually give little homework most of the time, but the kids learn very quickly that the content of it, especially when there is no writtten assignment, will show up in the class discussion and assignments, and I will not review it. It takes some kids longer than others, but eventually they all start doing it. Another demand that may result in extreme homework overload is that some schools require a certain number of grades per week, causing some teachers to simply assign extra “stuff” to meet the quota.

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  2. Thank you for your comment. I am inspired by your description of your approach.

    As for your second point, I previously taught at a school where we were expected to assign homework (with writing) every night. The homework could be trivial, as long as there was something. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than 10-20 minutes to complete. This approach clearly had drawbacks, since it encouraged busywork. I’d like to think that I didn’t assign busywork, but I probably did now and then.

    There’s another problem: what substantial assignment takes only 10-20 minutes to complete? Yet, if students receive an hour’s worth of homework for every subject, how will they have time for anything but homework? The ideal would be about 30 minutes per subject (on average). But even that seems skimpy (for the individual subject) yet adds up to a lot.

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  3. Mathematics homework has something of a different purpose, because although math is really about ideas, there is a significant procedural portion. It requires practice. And language requires practice as well, but it is less of the overt focus at the high school level. Before students start any practice in class, I ask them to write down a goal for that particular short period of time. When they are finished, I ask them to reflect on how well they were able to focus on their practice, and whether they were able to see improvement. Choice of what they practice–within the unit we are studying–is an important part of this, because clearly not every student needs to be practicing the same skill at the same level, nor is capable of it. I think these two things coupled together help a lot in getting students to move toward taking responsibility for their learning. You may want them to read Plato, but the student ultimately will do better if she decides for herself what she wants to get out of reading it. But it cannot be simply wide-open: complete free choice is overwhelming and most people will avoid it by making no choice at all. I usually give no more than 4 suggestions on possible areas to focus on during practice.

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  4. 259 students! Blimey! I’ll never complain about my class loads again!

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  5. Ha ha… Well, I see them only twice a week, so it’s probably the equivalent of a typical class load. Still, that’s a lot of students and a lot of names to learn. I’m getting there.

    It’s my own doing, since I wrote the high school philosophy curriculum last spring and offered to teach it all. It’s a big undertaking but also a delight–planning lessons on the Book of Job, Plato, Aristotle, Pascal, etc. I teach part-time so that I can reserve time for writing (and reading and lesson planning).

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