Okay, okay, you got me. I didn’t completely stop assigning homework, but over the years I changed my philosophy about homework and it made a real difference in my students’ achievement.
I used to assign homework every night. I began my teaching career as a math teacher. I assigned homework. What kind of math teacher would I be if I didn’t assign homework? I taught 7th grade pre-Algebra and 8th grade Algebra I Honors.
Wellllll, here’s the thing. Most of my students didn’t do their homework. Ever. Even if I accepted it late. They didn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. I didn’t know at first which one it was, or even if it was a combination of both. But the homework did not get done. And since I graded homework…you guessed it: my students were failing. It was doubly bad because they were getting 0’s on their homework and then they were failing their quizzes and tests because they weren’t getting the practice they needed from the homework. And since they didn’t do the homework, I couldn’t really do any sort of remediation or re-teaching because I didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they couldn’t ask useful questions because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. It was a mess. This went on for three years. At one point, I actually lost a teaching position in part because I couldn’t figure out how to get my passing rate up to an acceptable margin. My answer was: “They’re not doing their work!” But I had yet to figure out how to take that and make it NOT impact my employment.
I began to notice patterns in homework completion (or lack thereof). There were two very important things that began to crystallize.
The first thing I noticed – politically incorrectly, I might add (probably, anyway) – was that there was a strong correlation between student homework completion and demographic. Students with low SES rarely completed their homework. No matter how much time I would give them, it just wouldn’t get done. They often were career failures and were on track to drop out at 16, enter the work force, and probably live on public assistance the rest of their lives. It wasn’t pretty.
The second thing I noticed was that there was a strong correlation between student aptitude and homework completion. Very frequently, I noticed that students who were very capable but highly unmotivated chose not to complete their homework. With this population, if I called home enough and really made an effort, most of the time the parents would somehow manage to get some of the missing work completed and students who were capable of making straight A’s would scrape by with a C or a D.
What was I to do?
I had to have a paradigm shift regarding homework. I honestly don’t remember where I was – some professional development thing, no doubt – and I met a veteran teacher (I only had a few years under my belt) who was explaining her view on homework. Now during my first few years of teaching I was vehemently against accepting late work and I would only do it begrudgingly in extreme circumstances. I was also a staunch advocate of assigning homework. But the teacher I met changed my views. I don’t think she even intended to; I remember it wasn’t a discussion about the merits or such of homework, but it was just part of a larger conversation that happened to feature her views on homework. I have to paraphrase her words because it’s been too long to remember them exactly, but essentially she asked, “What is the purpose of homework?” That really made me think. Why did I assign homework? What did I hope to accomplish with it? Was it just to have something to grade? Was it so students could practice a skill? Was it to punish? Was it to reward? Was it to enhance? Was it to enrich? What was its purpose? The more I thought about it, the more I realized there were many reasons that I assigned homework. She went on to explain that if she was assigning homework for the right reasons, she really wanted students to do it and would do whatever she could to ensure it would get done because of how valuable it was to the student.
In that instant, I completely changed my outlook on accepting late work – but that will be elaborated in another post. But in the following moments, I also changed my outlook on assigning homework. I didn’t want to assign work that wasn’t meaningful. I didn’t want to assign homework because it was just what teachers did. I wanted to make sure my homework was purposeful. Was there a new skill students needed to practice? Did I need more points to incorporate into students’ grades? Was there an upcoming assessments for which students needed to review? I wanted to make sure that students would want to do their work because it meant something to them.
Next week’s post will conclude this series. Stay tuned!