The Homework Dilemma and How to Solve It

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October 13, 2016 by Good Teachers Work Hard

Homework. The debates are endless – is it necessary? Does it increase test scores? Does it increase knowledge retention? Does homework cause high achievement, or do hard working students simply complete more homework?

In this data driven world of education, important pieces of the puzzle are not always considered. One factor that is sometimes overlooked when assigning homework is the economic situation of students. Idealistically, one pictures a student completing homework at a clean table with a parent cooking nearby, ready to assist if necessary. Pencils, pens, paper, and erasers are plentiful, and students cheerfully finish their homework just before dinner is served. However, we no longer live in the Ward and June Cleaver era. What about the students who have no electricity at home? What happens when there is no furniture in the house? Where do students with no Internet go to complete online assignments? Can a student comfortably complete their work in winter when their house isn’t heated? How can teachers expect a student to complete homework at home when that home is overrun with garbage and hypodermic needles?

For the vast majority of my career, I taught in school districts that were in economically disadvantaged areas. All my students received free lunches. When they would disclose information about their home lives, I listened intently. Many had to watch younger siblings, provide homework help, cook dinner, and get them ready for bed because their parents were working second shift jobs. Many others arrived home to emptiness after school and lacked the discipline in middle school to do their homework without the prodding of an adult. Some had to go to work with their parents in the evenings, bouncing from house to house as an adult cleaned homes, mowed lawns, or bartended. Some had no home at all, sleeping in cars or public parks. To expect students with these challenges to complete work outside of school with the same quality and at the same rate as their contemporaries who do not face such battles is ludicrous.

While teaching, I was able to find a way to not assign homework on a daily basis. There were assignments to complete at home, but they were usually project-based. Students would do their Internet research in our school’s computer lab or library (yes, I know they are luxuries to which not all teachers have access) and then compile and arrange their project at home over a week long period of time. At some point within that week, the students with even the most challenging home lives were able to find some time to complete their work. To compensate for no daily homework, I restructured my class time to best utilize every minute. I would ensure that students completed whole group assignments, small group assignments, and individual practice on a regular basis. As a professional, you can tell from such varied activities if your students are struggling with a concept.

When considering if homework is best for your students, I ask you to explore the following:

  • What is the economic status of the majority of your students?
  • Are you utilizing every minute of class time with your students in the best ways possible?
  • Can you assign non-traditional homework assignments? For example, I would ask my students to look for examples of classroom topics in their neighborhood or their homes if possible and share their findings with the class. To check for comprehension, I would frequently ask my students to write about a topic in class. The caveat? They had to pretend that they were the teacher, explaining that concept to a 3rd grade student. Teachers – if your students can accurately describe a concept in simpler terms, you’ve successfully done your job.
  • Understand the cultures of your students. In some cultures, parents are very hands off with regard to school, leaving the job of educating students to the teachers. You won’t see many of these parents at school functions — not because of disinterest, but because of their background. Knowing and comprehending the cultural differences of your students and their families should factor into your decisions.
  • Ask your administration to rethink homework policies. If your school has such a policy, it may be worth speaking to your administrators about eradicating it or implementing guidelines that instead allow individual teachers to have some flexibility when assigning homework.

Just as I have previously stated that a one size fits all approach does not work in education reform, the same holds true for homework. Teachers need to use their best judgment and common sense when deciding how to best manage homework amongst their students.

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