Homework has been a hot topic for discussion for a number of years, and teachers, students and parents have all produced arguments for both points of view, with most discussions ending in a stalemate.
To address the issue of homework effectively, we first have to understand the purpose of homework, and then decide if current practice meets the criteria. Simply put, the purpose of homework, like school in general, is to increase the knowledge, skills and understanding of the students.
Let me start by suggesting that we ban the word “homework” from our classrooms, starting today. The word has such negative connotations that we are not going to get students or those who advocate against homework to accept it as a worthwhile activity. Let us call it what it is supposed to be: “home learning” or “home study.” Both phrases are positive and suggest worthwhile learning experiences. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use “home learning.”
So, now that we have replaced homework with home learning, students have to understand that one purpose of home learning is to develop long-term self-motivation and study habits, an important concept in the reality of today’s need for lifelong learning. Their lives after school, college or university may require them to change jobs or careers as many as ten times, and to careers that may not exist at the present time. Their success in making these transitions will depend on their willingness and ability to learn independently.
Home learning is also about reinforcing, extending and applying the concepts, skills and knowledge acquired in school. Recent studies on the effectiveness of home learning stress the importance of the preparation for home learning provided by the teacher. If home learning is going to be successful, students need to have a clear understanding of what they are studying, why they are studying that particular topic, and have the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding to complete their assignments. How can students be expected to learn at home if they do not have sufficient ability to do so?
Every home learning assignment then, should have a clear purpose that is communicated to each student. Is it to reinforce skills, develop more understanding, expand knowledge, or all of the above? The teacher must ensure that the students understand the scope of the assignment and how to go about completing it. Further, review and marking is important for learning, and students need to understand the marking criteria before beginning an assignment.
Let us imagine, for a moment that your boss asks you to go out into a field and throw a rock. If this is all the direction you are given, you will be completely at a loss as to what to do. Such questions as:
Which rock am I supposed to throw?
Why am I throwing this rock?
How should I throw it?
Am I supposed to throw it in a specific manner or direction?
Does it matter how high or how far I throw the rock?
Does my job depend on how well I perform this task?
I am sure that you can think of many other questions that might go through your mind; however I think that almost everyone would be frustrated with the purpose and relevance of this assignment and the lack of criteria as to how to complete it.
Your boss may have a very good reason why he has asked you to throw the rock, and he may have expectations as to how he wants you to accomplish this task. He may, for example, be putting together an interoffice sports day and is wondering if you would be a good candidate for the rock throwing event. However, no matter how valid his reasons for asking you to complete a specific task, if he does not convey the “why” and “how” in some detail, and ensure that you have the skills to complete the task, you will feel total frustration, disinterest and even anger, and you will have very little motivation to even attempt the assignment.
One of the big advantages of modern technology is that teachers can have their own web pages on which they can post information on lessons and assignments for each class, communicate one-on-one with students, and add suggestions for extensions to assignments or projects. This form of communication can be very helpful to students and may even help to motivate them. Parents’ involvement and support in their children’s education has been shown to increase student achievement levels dramatically. Information about home learning assignments, projects and upcoming tests that is readily available online for parents supports parental involvement.
Home learning and the needed focus, concentration and discipline are difficult habits to learn, and students need support and encouragement to develop these skills. When appropriate home learning assignments meet the students’ needs and level of understanding, home learning becomes an essential component of a good education. Not only does it develop understanding and mastery of a topic or skill, it encourages students to apply their knowledge to new situations, and helps to develop self-discipline and motivation.
So the question is not whether or not students should study at home, but rather, does the home learning consist of appropriate, worthwhile tasks that increase knowledge and understanding, and develop an interest in self-motivated lifelong learning?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Mennie is the driving force behind Root 7 Educational Resources (www.root7.ca), a website dedicated to helping teachers and parents by providing high-quality math resources that are easy to use and to incorporate into lesson and unit plans. He also offers math workshops, information and assistance to teachers, students and parents.
Jim has nearly fifty years experience in mathematics education having taught math at all levels from grade five through AP Calculus, planned and taught university courses, presented at conferences, given workshops and taught in-service courses, written and edited textbooks and other resources, and worked as a mathematics consultant in Canada and overseas. Jim can be contacted through his website or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2011 issue.