I have written in the past about my hatred of homework from the perspective of both a teacher and a parent, so when I heard about a teacher who had ditched the practice of assigning homework altogether, I was intrigued and skeptical. Former teacher Mark Barnes wrote in a post called “Homework: It fails our students and undermines American education”:
Students often ask me why I don’t assign homework. “I don’t believe in it,” I quickly respond. “It doesn’t tell me what you’re learning.” They forge ahead with furrowed eyebrows. “Then why do all of our other teachers assign homework?” Although I typically leave that one alone, my experience tells me that the answer isn’t at all elusive. The average educator was taught in her pre-service days that homework is a part of every teacher’s instructional handbag. You lecture, model, assign a worksheet and follow that up with homework that, in many cases, looks a lot like the worksheet. Then you test and move on. Students who don’t complete homework receive zeroes, but they learn a valuable lesson about responsibility, many teachers argue, even though there’s no legitimate research connecting responsibility to homework.
While I’ve read the research, and I know that there’s little academic benefit to homework before middle school, and even then, the benefit is limited, I’ve continued to assign homework all these years for a couple of reasons. One, students, teachers, parents, and administrators expect me to, and when I don’t I am labeled an “easy” teacher, viewed as less serious or rigorous than my colleagues. Parents may rage about the veritable avalanche of homework that threatens to suffocate their children, but in my experience, parents also view that avalanche as a badge of honor, evidence of academic rigor.
Two, I have tried reducing the homework load to almost nothing, and it has proven a real challenge. I have taught writing, Latin, and English. Writing is easy enough to deal with; we simply do all of our work in class. The assignments may proceed slowly, but at least I know all of the work is the students’. Latin is more of a challenge in a homework-free classroom, but after some tweaking, I managed to eradicate all but the most important and relevant homework assignments.
I remained a homework holdout when it came to English class, however. I have always taught novels as a cornerstone of my English curriculum, and without reading homework, we’d be lucky to get through a novel a year. I teach plenty of works, such as Shakespeare, rhetoric, and short stories, that function beautifully and efficiently as in-class readings, but I also teach Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. I love reading to my students, and do a lot of it (complete with the voices and accents, of course) but without homework time spent on reading in preparation for class discussion, we’d get through one, maybe two novels a year. In addition, my students practice grammar exercises and study vocabulary and spelling as their homework. I tried to picture a school year in which I shoehorn all of this work in to class time. I hardly complete a year’s worth of material as it is; a year without any homework at all seemed like a disaster in the making.