Homework Harangue

“Homework increases the achievement gap between those who have and those who have not.  It hinders, and even lowers, understanding and achievement for those who do not have access to adequate, or any, support systems outside of the classroom and expands the knowledge of those who already excel.”

“I do not worry about those at the top, they can take care of themselves; I’m interested, like you, in helping the neediest and lowest of the low.”

“Never base a lesson on homework.”

“Never start a class collecting and/or checking homework.”

“There is empirical evidence that shows that homework has no marked impact on student achievement, grades, etc.  And there is anecdotal evidence that it actually hinders achievement.”

These are all paraphrased statements I heard from an instructor recently.  It is possible that I misheard or misinterpreted some of these statements, although the overall gist should be correct.

While I understand the motives and intentions behind statements like these, I question the statements in practice for many reasons.  First and foremost, I do not believe the achievement gap is the proper, or more precisely, sole, measure of the challenges facing our educational system.  It is important to measure, to track over time, and to understand, but closing the gap should not be the primary focus since you can easily close the gap by lowering the performance at the top, which I do not believe is desired.

If widely adopted though, statements like “not worrying about the top” could unintentionally result in the lowering of the performance of this nation’s highest achievers.  Since the true concern for our country must be how we compare internationally, in order to maintain competitiveness globally, letting the top fend for themselves is shortsighted.  Over the past decade, or so, we’ve fallen considerably in the world in academic achievement, by most measures, and will continue to fall if we simply focus on the lowest performing.  We need to make sure ALL improve, which is even more challenging.  Regression towards the mean, which can result from ignoring, or worse impeding, the top performers, is not a worthwhile goal.

So why give homework?  The most compelling reasons that come to my mind include:

  1. reinforce a lesson or concept introduced in class,
  2. expand or extend upon something introduced in class,
  3. allow investigation of alternatives to that introduced in class,
  4. develop higher order thinking, and
  5. prepare for the next lesson.

I also have the following current philosophies re: homework.

  • Homework will not make a student who does not understand a lesson suddenly get it, without significant effort by the student.  However, it does offer the opportunity for a student to learn, and seek help in learning, especially those who are not adept at taking notes, or have auditory or other literacy challenges.
  • The written structure of the assignment should lend itself to re-learning the lesson, even for the most challenged students.
  • Homework can help students develop methods of self-sufficiency, especially if the teacher provides suggestions and support (e.g. students can find ways to network among themselves or their community).
  • Homework should neither be excessive nor a punishment; it is not a rite of passage.
  • Homework might be a means to achieve extra credit; this is in the idea hopper.

While there is always the potential for harm to come from good, I do not believe that is a sufficient reason to stop trying to do good.  Hence, I will require homework of my students, if only to ensure they are held to a standard that they will have imposed upon them in college.  I do not think many college professors will say:  “No, I will not give homework in this course since some of you might have part-time jobs, sports, or other extracurricular activities that interfere with your study time and this no homework policy of mine will make sure everyone has the same course related circumstances outside of this classroom.”

On the other hand, if the same arguments made to support the no homework policy are correct, could they be applied to studying, too?  Should teachers and professors penalize those who have time or resources to study outside of the classroom since they may have more time to do so than others?  Doesn’t that give them an advantage over others?  Isn’t that unfair?  Hmmm…this is a slippery slope; an example of the possible unintended consequences of good intentions.  I do not think our global competitors are worrying along similar veins; however, I bet they are glad if we waste valuable time and resources with policies that might hinder our nation’s forward progress.

Does any of this mean that I do not believe that the neediest deserve the best teaching or additional support?  Not at all; I purposely wish to serve the underserved since they need the most help and my heart goes out to them.  However, in helping them, I will not ignore the higher achieving students in my class, or advocate that other teachers ignore them.  While it may be naïve, or fraught with unintended consequences, I hope to engage the higher achieving students in helping the lower achieving ones through as many group activities as possible.  I want to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, not just a car jack that lifts one or a limited number of cars.

In fairness to my instructor, he ended the class by stating that his intent was to take an extreme position so that he might move some of us to consider his thoughts and perhaps adopt elements of his teachings.  One that I liked especially, which is not included above, is his statement that when homework is crafted, the ability of all levels of students should be considered.  He made one other that I cannot recall so if any of my classmates recall, please let me know.  And I will seek you out too.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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5 Responses to Homework Harangue

  1. Ms. Rachelle says:

    This was a heavy discussion, but I am glad that you were able to solidify your own beliefs about homework. In the future, however, it seems that responding to instructors’ beliefs/statements with QUESTIONS rather than your own personal statements might be more productive for the rest of us. Because, while I may not agree with either the instructor’s or your ideals, questions open the discussion up to the rest of us and our beliefs.


    • Dave says:

      It was a heavy discussion, indeed; a discussion like that stretches all of our thinking, if we are in the right frame of mind. Speaking of which, while I understand aspects of your comment, and commend you on making your opinion known by it, please consider that discussion is just that: an exchange of ideas, arguments for and arguments against, as well as questions. It is neither necessary nor appropriate to constrain discourse, of any fashion or in most forums, solely to questions. And while opening up a discussion to others is a noble goal for participants, mere mortals, like myself, often fall short but with no malice intended; the instructor, as facilitator, owns the primary task of ensuring all opinions, and questions, are heard. Along those lines, please know that as a student in the program, by definition, you have the right, and some would say, obligation, to speak your truth whether you agree with others’ prior statements or not.


  2. Ms. Rachelle says:

    Duly noted. I actually wrote on the midterm check that I would prefer if the instructors posed more questions to us (so it really wasn’t a personal attack as much as a general lacking that I saw in that class).


  3. Pingback: Is Homework a 3rd Rail in Teaching? | Reflections of a Math Teacher Candidate

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