My reflection upon reading Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, and speaking with Cathy Vatterott at the ASCD Annual Conference in San Antonio, TX this March.
When I was in high school, I associated homework with “work” and learning with “class.” I didn’t often complete my homework because it wasn’t until I was back in class that the learning took place. At times, I found practice to be helpful, but I would often choose to stay after school with teachers who would do homework alongside me; other assignments would be left undone or–gasp–copied from friends.
I never liked homework because I was happy to learn through extracurricular practice. I loved Marching Band, Symphony, acting, and even a few sports. I hated doing work that I felt was “filler,” just something to take up my time in the name of being busy.
The perpetual cycle of homework assigning, procrastinating, copying, failing, collecting, grading, re-assigning, berating, complaining about, mindlessly completing, guessing and stressing is one I gave up on a long time ago. When I made it to college, I realized that most of my “homework” was assigned in an unwritten and self-directed fashion that supported some larger goal or project in a course. There was no mass-assigning and grade milling going on.
I neither had the option to pad my grade with busy work nor to fail because of my failure to learn what should have been taught with me. My first job in the professional world (that is, outside of campus and service stations or grocery stores) proved to provide a similar incentive to learn on my own. If I wanted to advance or do better at my job, then I had to take an interest in something on my own time.
My boss would always answer questions and I wasn’t expected to take on extra work, but it was inherently rewarding to do so. The synthetic and tedious practice of using homework as a measure of learning is one that many teachers leave unexamined. It’s done because, well, it always has been and well, gosh I’d be the easy teacher if I didn’t assign homework! If I’m the easy teacher then I’ll lose my professional standing, control of my class, and I’ll end up with a bunch of worthless slackers next semester! Is this really a student-minded reason for either assigning homework or not?
Cathy Vatterott doesn’t think so. Her book examines the cult of homework in schools today. Through the lens of an experienced middle level teacher, she shows us that parents, teachers, students, and administrators have been going back-and-forth on the practice for a century. The debate has been fueled by varied political entities, the media, and maybe even a teacher or student here and there. The most significant shifts occurred during periods of national struggle. The cold war made us fear that we were behind the Russians in the Space Race and so we packed our kids’ bags with science and math books and told them to study more.
In the 1980s, we experienced extreme economic strife and so our malaise and mediocrity were attributed to, of course, the lack of homework and rigor in schools; still, more was piled on without much consideration as to why. In my own comparison, I would liken the increase in homework to planting all of your fields full of tobacco. Short term gains are high, but if there’s trouble and you can’t sell, it won’t feed your family. Homework provides a short term illusion of engagement, productivity (gives teachers and students that “checklist high”), but ultimately it does very little to produce a person who can create new knowledge that is useful to society.
I assigned myself a bit of homework while considering this book’s effect on my practice: a sonnet, 14 lines of poetry (mine has a fairly open meter and no rhyme) ending in a punctual couplet. I also chose to remix one of Shakespeare’s most well known, Sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to simplistic rote learning?
Thou art more widely accepted without question
and disproportionately contributory to student failure
than most problems. Hast thou no desire for good?
Rough winds do you keep from childrens’ faces,
those darling buds indoors, no gold complexion
or hope of leasing summer’s date. Thy eternal risk
of rising mediocrity do you warn, by chance our nation
do you serve with rigor, but ’tis it at cost of vigor?
Your policy, with ease is enforced, moving onus
from thee on high, your hot eye–the office–shines
top-down upon complacent workers, suffering virtuously.
So long have these carrots, these sticks taunted
So long lives this–homework–and takes life from thee.
Are there good reasons for assigning work outside of school? Perhaps. “Homework” is mostly a keyword in this book for things disconnected, unsupported, and graded. Vatterott (and I) are condemning the equivalent of unfunded mandates in education. Students shouldn’t be sent home to do things they can’t do without your support.
What do you think about homework?