Friday, November 19, 2010

The Purpose of Homework

Recently, a member of my PLN, Russ Goerend, sent out this tweet:
Would you do the homework you're assigning?

It is really quite a profound question. I have found myself thinking about it off and on since he tweeted it. It is a question I have often wanted to ask the teachers with whom I work as well as my daughters' teachers. Not because I question the homework they give (though in all honesty, I often do), but because I want them to question the homework they give.

The homework debate can get very heated and I am not writing to add flames to the fire. I don't see homework as inherently evil, but I have seen some pretty evil assignments. I think Cathy Vatterott, in her book Rethinking Homework, gives teachers many angles to think about in assigning homework.

One consideration she highlights is the purpose of homework. She delineates 4 main purposes. The first is prelearning. I like to think of this as building background knowledge. Homework for this purpose may be as simple as these directions: Tonight for homework, find two people who can tell you something about the Civil War. In class the next day, what the students share can be the beginnings of a group KWL chart. When using homework for this purpose it should not be graded. Hopefully, homework assigned for prelearning would involve tasks that are motivating to students and get them thinking about the specified topic. If that is the goal, there is no reason to give a grade.

The second purpose for homework is checking for understanding. I'd like to think that was the purpose for my daughter's math homework last night. What her teacher would have found out was that she had very little understanding. However, knowing that probably wasn't the purpose and that she would end up getting a grade for an assignment she didn't know how to do, my husband spent 30 minutes figuring out how to do the math so that he could teach her what to do. This was after I spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to do it. I think my husband should get part of that teacher's salary for doing the job of teaching that concept. (By the way, the concept was: stupid-slope-y-intercept-graph-crap. At least that was the way I texted it to my husband to get him out of the deer blind!) When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. A teacher can tell by checking the homework if there was understanding. If there wasn't, it becomes the teacher's job to determine what needs to happen next in their teaching to get to that understanding.

Practice is the third purpose. I think this is what the math teacher intended last night's homework to be. But a student can't practice something they are not close to mastering. It only builds resentment and confusion for the student--and sometimes the parent! When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. When a basketball coach instructs her players to practice free-throws at home, the players don't earn points for the ones they make. The points only count in the game. Homework for the purpose of practice is like free-throws.

The fourth purpose for giving homework is for processing. Getting students to think more about the learning that took place can extend their understanding. Processing might take the form of a learning log post reflecting on what was hard and what was easy in that day's lesson. This is information that a teacher could then use to determine where instruction needs to go next. When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. The information that a teacher gets from student processing is invaluable to further planning of instruction, but should not translate into a score.

You should have noticed that Vatterott does not believe in grading homework. For any reason. So don't even try the "teaching responsibility" argument. Here is what she says about the flaw in the concept of homework teaching responsibility:
The flaw in this concept lies in the implementation--when students don't complete
homework on time, late policies punish them for not learning responsibility! So if
don't complete homework on time, doesn't that mean that the teacher has failed
to teach them responsibility? If that is true, the logical act would be to reteach
them without penalty. Instead, the use of late policies judges students for not
learning responsibility and then fails them as a result. (p.89)

The next time you give homework, think about your purpose. Consider what you will do with the information you get from it. And ask yourself, Would you do the homework you're assigning?

Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking Homework. Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


  1. Great points, LeeAnn. This is one of those things that I wish I could go back and do over as a teacher. I think I often assigned homework just because I felt it was expected and not because I had a real purpose for it. I agree that teachers can, and on occasion should, give meaningful homework, but as an quasi-administrator and a full-time parent, very little of what I see is purposeful by the teacher or meaningful to the learner, and it is almost always graded. Unfortunate, but true.

  2. There are so many things I've learned in the 6 years I have been out of the classroom. Sometimes I think about going back in so that I can practice some of what I "preach." Trying to make a difference in changing other teachers' perspectives and practices is harder than just practicing those changes with my own group of kids!