Sunday, February 10, 2013


I am a homework hypocrite.

I have assigned reading Alfie Kohn on homework's worthlessness for homework. (Occasionally a preservice teacher will even be so bold as to comment on the irony.) I have criticized my children's school for its homework policies.

When we discuss grading I'm on much better ground, since (a) the university requires grades and (b) I'm pretty progressive with summative assessment, using portfolios and standards based grading. Homework... the worst part is that I feel like a hypocrite. In addition, it is by far the most complained about part of the course.

Typically, for a 3 credit class in college, the professor rule of thumb is 6 hours of homework. I assign five. And since I use the workshop structure, I mean 5 exactly. Other assignments count towards the five, so I'm not cheating. No assigning timedrain problems. Students keep track of what they've done in an inventory, where they are also asked to comment on the workshop. So over the years I have weaned out a lot of my more worthless or less engaging assignments. Those that remain are pretty audience specific. I assign open ended problems, readings, web search for video or article, play assignments, get to know the tech assignments and more. Lots of variety. Each week there's a choice workshop they can use to catch up, revise an exemplar, investigate a topic of choice, extend a previous workshop, etc.

So when there's a complaint about the quantity, I feel defensive. Surely other classes ask for more with much less choice? Surely other profs are less flexible on deadlines? (Be caught up by the end of the semester, I ask for the vast majority of assignments.)  Surely there's just too much to learn from these classes to expect them to get it all during class time?

In addition to invited complaining about quantity (I'm always asking for their feedback, plus regular evaluations), students ask that I should give them more deadlines. I should make them do their work. I could, of course, and have in the past. But I want to give opportunities for students to increase their own responsibility (in terms of the conditions of learning). Especially future teachers, who will always have more to do than hours in the day.

Where I want to move with this is to give more responsibility. I will still give my home workshops, but I want to be more transparent with the goals for it. Students are responsible for meeting the goals, and my workshops are one way to do it. But if they can show me they meet these objectives already, or have met them another way... I'll be good with that.  Now to start cooking up just what those objectives are. I'm somewhat ashamed that I've been giving homework without clear objectives in my mind. Each workshop does have a learning target, but that's not the same as why I'm giving homework at all.

I'm finally writing this post since differentiating homework is the theme for Sunday Funday (worst funday ever?) this week. Check out these great posts about homework that are already there.

I'd love feedback by comment or twitter: if you're a K-12 teacher, what would you have wanted to learn about homework while in college? If you're a teacher educator, how do you handle the homework issue?


  1. I have to take issue with your calling the differentiating homework theme as the worst Sunday Funday ever. Most pre-service teachers get no training in developing and assigning homework. Seeing what others are doing to support students where they are now is terribly important.

    What would I like to see for pre-service teachers? I'd like to see honest presentation about the merits of different kinds of homework at different grade levels. I have both an elementary and middle license, and I think the issues are different and that the research I've read supports different treatment of different age groups. But most of the teachers I work with do what they've always done and complain about student noncompliance. My own personal 4th grader is doing up to 3 hours of homework a night and I can't seem to convince her teacher how crazy that is.

    Most people I talk with agree that homework should be meaningful and not just about teaching responsibility. Are we learning? Practicing learning? How should homework be (or not be) tied into grades? Should Kindergarteners be getting homework (mine personal ones did, but I would never assign it to that age)? What about middle schoolers? And so on.

    That's what I'd like to see.

  2. I was joking based on homework's reputation and the ironic contrast with Funday. Apologies for any offense. I thought it was important enough to write for it. And I paradoxically feel like a lot of my homework is fun.

    And elementary and middle school kids with no play time because of homework is crazy to me. High school, too, but culturally I feel like you've got to make a case there.

  3. John, I think that's what we're looking at: YOU find your homework fun. I find my homework (at least the math part of it) fun. Non-math people do NOT find it fun, they find it work. We engage in fun, but if work isn't required, do we do it? Some of it, perhaps, if we understand the long-term consequences of NOT doing it - stack that wood in the summer so that it's available in the winter when you need it, Dad might say, but teenage or younger kid is not going to do it on his own because it's recommended by an old guy. Here's what I see - my students who are academic-minded and would end up in your pre-service classes do homework whether I check it or not. The others, the, well, let's call them "socially motivated," do not do homework unless it directly impacts their grade. (Some don't even then. They can do enough math to figure out the impact of a zero, apparently. A point of frustration for me this week.) So: do I motivate with grades? Because for a 16 year old "you need to understand the long-term implications of factoring quadratics" isn't motivating enough. I don't know on this one... I've been trying Standards-Based Grading this year and have had some success, but I find that C-students are content with a C. They don't care that they can dig deeper into a topic in order to increase their understanding; if they've traditionally been a C math student (or better - a D math student)who is getting a C, they're okay with that.

  4. As a college professor, I think homework makes sense in college. Our students need more time with the ideas than there is during class. Do my students do as much homework as I'd like? No.