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What’s the Point of Homework?

Most teachers will tell you that there are three main reasons to assign homework:

1.  To practice concepts or skills

2.  To use class time more for direct instruction and application

3.  To foster independent work and thought.

As a former English teacher, I know that students need to read outside of class.  In a 42-minute period, students can’t spend 30 minutes every day silently reading.  Or so I thought.

When I first became a principal, I was appalled to see students reading novels aloud in class.  The teacher explained that she was certain that students wouldn’t read the book outside of class, so day after day, as a group, students read The Scarlet Letter aloud for the entire period. It took them months.  It was torture.  It soon ended.

When students prepare outside of class, the class itself can be better spent applying knowledge and reteaching what students may have missed.  Assuming kids won’t do the reading outside of class is a disservice to the kids.  Yes, it’s true that some won’t, but to shortchange all kids by reading aloud for 15 weeks is unconscionable.

Creative homework assignments encourage students to problem solve on their own and think independently.  From research papers to geometry proofs, work outside of class gives kids the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned or to create new learning.  Kids can’t take responsibility for their own learning if they’re never asked to work independently.

 So I believe in homework assigned creatively, usefully, and efficiently.  What I don’t believe in is grading homework.  Here’s why:

1.  Not all kids need to do all homework (unless it’s reading for the next day’s class).  Some kids understand quickly; others need to practice.  Why should a student who can already spell all the words on the list have to write them 5 times each anyway?

2.  Kids who need to practice or prepare outside of class and choose not to will see their choices reflected in their grades anyway.

We talk a lot about individualizing learning for kids, but blanket homework assignments don’t take into account individual student needs.  If a student doesn’t do homework and is failing, he or she should be required to do the extra work outside of class, perhaps after a consultation with the student’s parents or guardians.  Clearly, this student needs more practice.  But if the student already “gets it,” maybe his or her time could be better spent doing something else.

Grading homework is giving an academic grade for effort.  It’s not fair.  Principals need to work with teachers (and perhaps parents and even students) to establish a reasonable homework policy so that students know what to expect.  But first comes the discussion about what the purpose of homework is.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.