End Totalitarian Teaching (Part 5 of 7)

April 6, 2010

This article is the fifth in a seven-part series that implores teachers to abandon their attachment to outdated, oppressive, and arbitrary control issues, in the name of harboring a more positive, fostering learning environment.  Each part of the series focuses on a different aspect of control.  Part 5 focuses on the aspect of homework.

Imperative #5: Abolish Homework

This imperative could have been encapsulated within the discussion of the previous article, but the subject of homework is such a critical one that it deserves its own piece.  I have thought long and hard about this one, and did not actually come to a decision until quite recently, having spent my first three years as an educator seriously weighing the pros and cons of homework.  Emulating the model I had been shown as a student, and lacking the necessary experience to make an informed decision, I assigned regular homework assignments during my first year in the classroom, and I struggled with the students to get them not only to complete them on time, but to complete them at all.  Meanwhile, I researched the history of homework and its purpose, and I spoke to several teachers at several different grade levels to learn their opinions and how homework served them and their students.  Gradually, I phased homework out of my approach, and with the exception of my Advanced Placement class (which is structured more like a college course than a high school course), the only homework I now assign are extra-credit opportunities.  I have determined that “homework,” as such, is only moderately useful and is entirely unfair.

Here’s a worst-case scenario: The Friday before Spring Break, I had given all of my students a “free period,” also euphemistically known as a “study hall.”  I had completed all the material I wanted before the break, and did not want to start anything new until after we returned, refreshed.  I had encouraged the students to use the time to socialize, to play, to essentially have time and space to breathe, to absorb what we’d learned, and to appreciate it.  Sadly, more than half my students spent this social hour bogged down in research and pre-writing activities, frantically trying to accomplish some new assignment they had received that very day.  What was sad was not that they were working so hard (a rare enough phenomenon), but that they were doing so because every minute of work finished in that hour was a minute of their Spring Break they would essentially “win back.”  They had been given an assignment to complete over the break.  Somewhat shocked, I asked one student, “Your teacher gave you a homework assignment over Spring Break?”  And he replied, “Yeah, and (s)he also gave us one over Winter Break, which was pretty much supposed to take exactly as long as Winter Break was.”  This is totalitarian teaching at its worst.  The purpose of holiday breaks is to take a break.

Totalitarian teachers do not understand – and it took me some time to understand this as well: homework does not equal learning.

At its root, the purpose of homework is to give the students additional practice in concepts they have recently learned in school.  To best serve this end, homework cannot be comprised of new material or material the student must learn independently.  It is supposed to reinforce concepts, not introduce them.  Given this, homework assignments are not all that important to begin with, as effective time management during instructional hours will provide the necessary time for reinforcement.  In effect, homework becomes a kind of “busy work,” especially for those bright students who don’t require the additional reinforcement.  Nevertheless, all too often do we find a brilliant student with tremendous potential whose grades are abysmal – not because he’s failing tests, not because he doesn’t understand the material, not because he’s disruptive in class, but because he isn’t completing homework.

Furthermore, homework as an institution has diverged from its purpose.  It has mutated into some kind of cruel drudgery for students and their families.  At the primary levels, students bring home assignments that cannot possibly be completed without their parents’ involvement, and the parents either cannot spare the time at all, or they will too often commandeer the project entirely in order to safeguard their child’s grade.  Either way, it is a mystery why parents are doing homework at all, when they have typically already completed the primary grades.  Perhaps they are making up (albeit against their will) for their own youth, when their homework was completed by their parents…

At the secondary level, homework is an imposition on the students’ personal lives, as well as those of their families.  A typical secondary student has at least six classes.  If each teacher gives but thirty minutes of homework (a very conservative estimate), the student is expected to spend a minimum of three hours completing assignments at home, after having already spent seven to eight hours in the academic setting.  We often hear adults telling students that school is for all intents and purposes their “job,” but any laborer who spends ten hours or more at his job will enjoy a much wider range of financial benefits and personal liberties than a typical secondary student will ever see.  This is to say nothing of the students who come home from their academic “jobs” and have to work real jobs or have to baby-sit siblings to help support their families.

Homework is just one more way that totalitarian teachers encroach upon and attempt to claim every single minute of a student’s day.  It is a method by which teachers attempt to exert their ownership over the student’s time, and to enforce the flawed argument that academics are and should be the most important priority in the student’s life.

Is there any place for homework at all?  The answer is yes, but it should be minimized.  We should abolish “homework.”  We should allow “working at home.”  The difference is subtle but important.  Nothing should be assigned strictly as homework, especially nothing that is new to the student.  Work that is completed at home should either be extra credit opportunities or simply work that the student did not have a chance (or chose not) to finish at school.  Bearing this in mind, students should be given a reasonable amount of time during school hours in which to finish their work.  Some students prefer to work at home, while using school hours to socialize.  Similarly, some of them find they cannot work at school because the environment is too distracting, while their home setting is much more conducive to study.  We should allow them this freedom of choice.  It is, after all, an important exercise in time management, a skill they will certainly need as adults with actual jobs.  Advanced Placement and Honors classes will provide some exception to this, as they are intended to more closely simulate collegiate studying.  These are the students for whom academics will matter more than vocational skills or personal time, and the expectations for independent study should be necessarily higher.  But for the average student, “homework” as such should rarely if ever be assigned, and it should certainly never be assigned over a vacation.

Abolish homework.  The school is our domain.  The home belongs to them.

2 Responses to “End Totalitarian Teaching (Part 5 of 7)”

  1. Chris Santos said

    I came across your blog from Dan Pink’s website. I disagree with the extra credit idea, but that’s another discussion. I do agree with the homework issue. I have students (8th graders) who don’t do it anyway, usually it’s pointless, but one thing I’d like to add is how many people bring work home? I don’t. I don’t grade at home – this would take time away from my family. I know for a fact that I am not paid extra for this work. Besides, the state (I’m in WA) has in its infinite wisdom decided to cram so much into the curriculum that students should know – most of which can be looked up on the Internet (I teach LA/SS) that it’s mostly forgotten anyways, so it has to be assigned as homework. Do you remember any content from 8th grade? I thought so… : ) I don’t/can’t teach all of it, it’s impossible…

    • Chris,

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. You’re hitting the nail on the head. Even as adults, we don’t think it’s fair to be asked to bring our work home with us, and when we put in longer than average workdays, we (rightfully) expect more-than-commensurate compensation. As I tell my students, adequate study requires adequate rest. The brain needs time to process and organize the information we’ve crammed into it, and it’s incredibly important to balance work time with family time.

      I’m curious about your objection to extra-credit. Do I take this to mean you don’t offer extra-credit assignments at all? If so, I half-way agree. As a college professor of mine once said, “It’s hard enough to complete the regular assignments properly without having to worry about ‘extra’ assignments. Just do the work the first time, on time.” I have tried to adopt this philosophy. However, what passes for extra-credit in my room might also be considered “alternative” or “modified” assignments. The point is to let the student earn the same points for learning the same content but by demonstrating mastery in a manner of his choosing rather than mine. It allows for creativity and personal preference. I have come to use the moniker “extra-credit” with my students rather than “alternative assignment” simply because it makes the idea sound more appealing to them. I also don’t afford them what I feel would be sufficient classroom time to complete such creative projects, so labeling it “extra-credit” makes me feel better about asking them to do the work on their own time. Mathematically, it works out precisely the same in the grade book. They just don’t realize that what they are really doing is actively choosing one method of learning over another when they ignore the “regular” assignment and “make up for it” with extra credit.

      Thanks again for visiting the site.

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