Convince Me, Please.

If you are a teacher and are not regularly revisiting and reevaluating some of your long held beliefs or practices, you probably should consider doing so from time to time, I’ve always thought.  I have a teacher friend named Lucy that I consistently bother with the same issues again and again because she is a great sounding board who helps me think through what I truly believe about education and best practices.  She recently helped (re)confirm (yet again) one of my beliefs about homework while simultaneously challenging me on the issue of grade inflation.  We should all have a colleague and friend like her.

In texting and emailing her about homework policies, I came up with a list of the reasons why I do not assign nightly homework, particularly to my college prep U.S. history students.***  I thought I’d share them here in the hopes that someone else might either concur with some of my ideas or challenge me on my position. Truly, I mean that.  I would love to have a bigger conversation about this issue, and not because I believe there is necessarily one right answer for all teachers and all students.  Rather, I would like to hear others’ thoughts because I think it’s good to make sure that what I am doing in my classroom is truly the most effective practice for me and my students in our particular situation.

So here it goes.  My reasons for not assigning daily homework to my junior history students.

  1. The research on homework is inconclusive.  Study upon study has been done assessing the value of nightly homework.  As with any educational method or practice, there are both good ways to use homework and not-so-good ways to use homework.  But even when the best practices are used, the evidence about whether or not daily homework actually benefits the majority of students appears inconclusive. Generally speaking, those who would benefit from doing daily homework most often are those who do it least.  Those who probably don’t need the daily homework do it the most, but it’s often just redundant for them. Sometimes students do their homework incorrectly, leading to the need for more re-teaching and the like than might be needed otherwise.  And these are just a few of the issues with daily homework that I’ve read about in the research.
  2. I would rather my students be awake during my class than up until 2:00 a.m. finishing homework and then miss half my class because they are nodding off.  I realize this isn’t the case for all high school students, but it is the case for my private high school students.  They lead these highly over-scheduled, overbooked lives.  They attend school from 7:30 to 2:35, participate in multiple sports and clubs (which is a requirement, not an option, at my school), sometimes have part-time jobs, and have other family and church obligations.  They often are trying very hard to get into a top-notch school with scholarship money to boot, so they sometimes take ACT and SAT tutoring in addition to their heavy course loads which often include up to 4 or 5 honors and AP courses.  The culture of my school, and schools like mine, are not going to change anytime soon.  I could, of course, ignore this like many other teachers I know and respect do.  I could say that it is the student’s choice to take so many hard classes, to participate in so many activities.  But I just can’t in my heart do this.  Again, I would rather be able to maximize my class time with students who are awake and alert because they went to bed at a decent time than assign an extra half-hour of homework daily.
  3. I can’t really tell if the student’s work is his or her own when they don’t do it in class.  Did they copy someone else?  Did they get too much help from a parent?  And if they did, what purpose does the homework serve?  It hasn’t helped them, and it hasn’t served me as a formative assessment that will help me help the students.
  4. Junior and senior high school students at a private, college prep school should be mimicking what they will do in college to a high degree.  In college, students will take a few major tests and possibly write a few longish papers per semester.  The professor may assign readings and sample problems, but it’s rare that a professor will check to see that the student did the work and did it correctly.  The bulk of a college student’s work is reading and reviewing on their own, seeking additional help from the professor on an individual basis.  So for me, while I do not assign daily homework assignments, I encourage my students to read and review their class work on a regular basis.  Whether or not they do this is another matter but usually tells when test time rolls around.
  5. Junior and senior high school students are not college students, however.  College students attend class for a few hours a day at most, and then, in theory, they have many hours of the day to do that reading and reviewing about which I just wrote.  My students do not have that luxury.  Whether they like it or not, they are in their seats in a brick and mortar building for a minimum of 7 hours a day.  If 5 out of 7 of their teachers assigned just 30 minutes each of homework a night (which we know with many teachers is a very low estimate), that’s another 2.5 hours on top of the 7+ they spend in school during the day.  Again, due to their overbooked schedules, this might mean my students are up way later than is healthy.
  6. I maximize class time.  I have streamlined my classes so that we use every possible minute that we can. We start in many cases before the bell for the beginning of class has even stopped ringing.  We review constantly, moving quickly from one thing to the next.  Yes, some of my students in the beginning think I go too fast, but then they catch on and are grateful that because we use class time effectively they do not have to do tons of extra work outside of class to make up for lost time during class.
  7. My results seem to confirm that my approach is working.  I know that test results aren’t everything, but at least with regards to my AP kids, they score very, very well on a test that the vast majority of students around the country and beyond do not.  Again, that doesn’t mean much, but it does mean something, I think.

So what say you?  Agree or disagree?  Constructive feedback always welcome.

***When I say “nightly homework” or “daily homework,” I am thinking about questions, worksheets, etc.  I encourage my students to read along in their text and review their class notes regularly.  I do assign homework assignments every now and again, usually some kind of reading and responding in writing, but again it’s sporadic.  In addition, my AP students are required to read their texts and have brief online reading assessments to go along with their readings, however, this is not every single night.