A Schoolteacher's Musings · Blog 365

Why I Didn’t Jump on the No Homework Bandwagon

As I am quickly coming to find out, there are a lot of trends in the teaching world. Now more than ever, ideas for the classroom spread like wildfire through the [very useful] avenues of Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Teachers Pay Teachers and more. Some trends in fact are started by a teacher somewhere who had a great idea – which got put on social media and then went viral – and teachers are made to feel the pressure of the idea that “I’d better go along with this idea if I want to be a with-it teacher.”

Some of those ideas are genuinely amazing and well-thought out and inspirational. And I am all for sharing ideas in the teaching community so that we can share our successes with one another.

But what I’m coming to find out is that what may be wildly successful for one teacher may not always garner the same kind of success for another.

And perhaps their thought process and reasoning was apt and appropriate for their situation but might not be quite as apt for yours.

Such is the case with the “no homework” idea that swept across the country this fall.

In case you didn’t see it, a teacher’s letter home at the beginning of the year wherein she stated that she would not be assigning any homework this year went viral on Facebook.

The idea quickly caught on and there are now entire schools who are also following that philosophy and not assigning any homework to their students. You can imagine how ecstatic the kids are at those schools.

But is the idea a “one-size-fits-all” for teachers and schools across the board?

One would be tempted to think so, especially when teachers sagely “quote the research” to prove that homework doesn’t actually help kids. Because you know that as soon as you say, “research shows” no one can argue with you – after all, research is our gold standard these days, right?

However, I’m also quickly learning in the teaching field that for every bit of research to support one idea, more research will come out in a few years to support a vastly different idea. Or there’s probably even current research proving the opposite point. In a nutshell: do your research about your research.

That aside, here are my two reasons why I could not, in good conscience, jump on this particular bandwagon of teaching trends:

1) The Type of Homework is What Matters More than Anything
Yes, they are probably right about certain types of homework not helping kids – and I think they’re talking about pointless homework. You know, the generic worksheets that teachers hand out because they feel guilty that their students aren’t practicing enough and they feel like the students should at least be doing something in the evening so parents know what they’re doing at school.

I will freely admit that I’ve done that before. But what I came to discover about said worksheets is that the kids who already know it will breeze through and it doesn’t help them to grow at all – and the kids who don’t know it will either just not do it or do it completely wrong. In which case you’ll have to re-teach it in class anyway or let them think that all those mistakes were correct.

That is pointless homework. But is there homework that actually has meaning and value and can challenge students? I believe there is if it’s chosen strategically.

Because the other “research” out there supports the idea that if you take well-organized notes in class, and then review them and interact with them again within 24 hours & 7 days, you will be more likely to retain the information for the long term. So if we are teaching our students to take excellent notes in class and teaching them how to creatively interact with their notes at home (teaching it to a parent, highlighting/re-writing in different colors, writing questions about things they still don’t understand – these are all AVID strategies, by the way – not my own!) – the homework suddenly changes from mindless practice to engagement with their learning.

That kind of homework, though, takes more intentional teaching and time – and if some teachers are being honest, they’d rather not take the time and simply not assign homework.

The other two things that I assign weekly to my students that I simply cannot let go of are spelling practice and reading with journal responses. Both of these are things that students can do relatively independently and both will help them grow in the long run.

People argue that spelling tests don’t help kids become better spellers – and yes, there are the kids who just memorize for the test and forget – but the long-term purpose is not necessarily the test, but the daily practice. Unfortunately we don’t always have class time to practice our spelling words (besides studying their patterns at the beginning of the week), so home is the next-best option. And if you give 16 options for writing them out in a Bingo grid, it might be a little more exciting (scrappy practice has been wildly popular this year – so far I’ve received spelling words on a soda can, blocks of wood, a plastic shopping bag, and a Ritz cracker box).

And you really can’t argue with the research that says daily reading at home will help students to grow as readers and thinkers. When I was homeschooled as a kid, that wasn’t actually called homework – that was called a leisure activity. But some kids won’t read unless there’s some kind of requirement and accountability option (some don’t even then) – and so you make that part of their homework and ask them to respond to their reading in a journal so that you can track their progress (again, 16 options for Reading Bingo make it a whole lot more exciting than writing summaries).

When our thinking about the type of homework changes from, “What worksheet can I send home that somehow applies to this week’s lesson?” to “What kinds of activities can they do at home to reinforce the habits we’re working on in class?” the homework itself becomes more meaningful.

2) The Age of the Students is Also Highly Critical for Determining Homework Importance
The teacher that wrote that letter taught second grade. And I would tend to agree that for K-2 students, there really isn’t a lot of need for homework. But in high school and college? Yes, there actually is a need for homework – because you can’t do all of the reading and research projects and papers in class like you can in elementary school. The rigor of outside work rises along with a student’s cognitive development – so slowly introducing more and more homework as they get into older grades isn’t such a terrible idea.

I’m not saying that we give homework just because “when you get to middle and high school you’ll have homework” – again, that can lead to pointless worksheets. But it would be a giant jump to go from seven years of elementary school with no outside work to middle school where you’re expected to do papers and reading outside of class.

We need to be consistently teaching students the skills they’ll need for the next step up, and if I’m teaching 5th grade, getting them ready for middle school is absolutely crucial. Their maturity and responsibility are quite capable of handling a few assignments outside of the classroom, and that home/school accountability piece will be helpful to establish now. The amount of homework certainly doesn’t need to be exorbitant (I do disagree with them having hours of homework a night in elementary school – that’s certainly not necessary), but 30 minutes of reading and responding and 10 minutes of spelling practice? I’m pretty sure that’s not going to kill a student.

At the end of the day, homework is not what truly matters the most in an elementary school classroom. I think we can all agree on that. I have some students that don’t do a single piece of homework the entire year, even after chats with parents, conferences, and explanations of how to do it. I’m really not going to waste my energy chasing those students down and making sure they do every last piece of their missing homework.

I’d rather focus on helping them with in-class work – the kind that really counts for their grade – where I can see their understanding of a topic face to face and immediately address misunderstandings and challenges. That’s where I hope to see growth in my students, and that’s where I will encourage them to put their best effort.

But seeing kids last year who were previously self-proclaimed dislikers of reading read 4-6 books a month by the end of the year and get excited about telling me about them in their journals? That could only happen because of our reading homework system, and I will not for one second doubt the value of it.

I certainly don’t know everything about teaching, but I have learned that if you truly examine your practices and have solid reasons for them, then you will do what you believe is best for your students. If that’s no homework, then great – assign no homework to them. If it is carefully selected meaningful tasks that challenge them, that is also great – assign those tasks to them.

But whatever you do, don’t give in to trends because that’s what all the hip teachers are doing. Pave your own way proudly and you will inspire those who are closest to you – the students that have been entrusted to your care.

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