The Homework Talk

As I wrote about a couple months ago, I struggled for a while with students not doing their homework or not benefiting from their homework. I also struggled with realizing how little information it gave me when they did it. There are many reasons but here’s one that most teachers can sympathize with: when I grade homework, I have no idea whether it’s the student’s work, a tutor’s work, a friend’s work, a well-meaning parent’s work, or something copied off of Yahoo Answers. I also found that as long as students saw they got a grade, they didn’t ever read my feedback on homework anyway… so it started to feel like a gigantic waste of time.

After some reading (Alfie Kohn, Dan Meyer, Tom Whitby) I felt justified in my doubts. In fact, I became inspired enough to apply to speak about this at a local TEDx event centered on education. It was a really interesting process. After several iterations of my speech outline, the organizers decided that my talk would be only three minutes long. This seemed a little daunting, but it actually gave me the freedom to be concise and cut out a lot of the filler, so that what was left was the most important things I wanted to get across. I hope that it is  enough to make people question the usually automatic practice of giving homework, at the very least.

Here’s the video – let me know what you think!

Not Doing Their Homework

So, I’ve been seriously questioning the use of homework this year, especially after reading a large amount of Alfie Kohn over the summer. Last year, I had a large group of students who would not do the homework, despite parent interventions, tutoring, advisor interventions, and very lenient deadlines. Most of them did not do well on tests, either, and I found it easy enough to keep pointing to homework as a panacea… “If he would only do his homework, he would understand!”

This year, I have a smaller group that doesn’t do their homework, but they’re different. They’re nerds. They like math, programming, and science. They ask great questions in class, dive into problems readily, come up with really amazing intuitive solutions, explain things to their peers, and strike me as the type of students who really could excel in math or science. But they don’t usually get the homework done… and honestly, I can’t say that they need to. They don’t ace every test, but they care about math and seem to understand the material a lot better than their grades would portray because they’re being punished by missing homework.

There’s something wrong with this. If you observe my class, you would likely pick these students out to be some of the top students, but they’re not (in terms of grades). I think my need for “fairness” and “objectivity” has kept me from seeing before how that homework grade is really affecting many students in the wrong way. On the other hand, I have a small group of students who struggle in class but always do their homework, and their grades are overinflated as a result.

Sadly, my grades don’t seem to be reflecting what students actually know. Giving grades in general is something I also struggle with, but as long as we have to do it, I want the grades to mean something.

Some other great posts about homework that I’ve read recently make me think I’m not completely insane for wanting to give it up:

Tom Whitby: The Homework Option Plan

Dan Meyer: Why I Don’t Assign Homework

Shawn Cornally: Stop Grading Homework, Please