“Is homework the hill you want to die on with your students?”
Teachers and students, education wonks, and parents, at one time or another, have probably wondered (to the tune of that Edwin Starr classic), “Homework: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing?” Last year this issue played out on the pages of Phi Delta Kappan, where homework skeptic Alfie Kohn squared off against supporters Bob Marzano and Debra Pickering. Kohn accused researchers like Marzano of abusing research to support homework as a viable instructional strategy and maintained that homework disrupts families and does not significantly raise student achievement. In their response to Kohn in a later issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Marzano and Pickering claimed research supports the use of homework—even at the elementary level—but not its misuse.
Bea McGarvey embraced Marzano's credo in a 2006 ASCD Conference on Teaching and Learning session on the effective use of homework. Couched in terms of Marzano's ASCD best-selling book Classroom Instruction That Works, McGarvey emphasized that homework is just one strategy. “If this strategy is working for your kids, keep doing it,” she said. “If it's not working for some kids, stop doing it.”
The purpose of homework depends on the content being conveyed, and McGarvey advised educators to ask how homework supports the knowledge they want students to learn. There's no value in homework for homework's sake, and the purpose of homework, she warned, is not to teach lessons in responsibility. McGarvey said, “It's a myth that if you give kids zeros on homework, it'll motivate them to be more responsible.”
In McGarvey's home state of Maine, surveys showed kids were dropping out because they were getting behind in homework. When kids rack up zeros on missed homework assignments, what's the lesson learned?
McGarvey said brain research shows that responsible decision making doesn't fully develop until people are into their 20s.
That doesn't mean teachers shouldn't have high expectations nor model responsible behavior for kids. It does mean that they shouldn't cut kids off at the knees over homework issues and dole out consequences that'll stay with them forever, McGarvey insisted.
“What is school about?” McGarvey asked. “Is it about having kids complete a certain number of assignments, in a certain amount of time, in the same way? Or is it about kids demonstrating knowledge on learning goals?” She advised teachers to check whether they're guided by compliance or learning goals by looking at their grade books: “Are you tracking assignments or attainment of learning goals?”
McGarvey advocates setting districtwide homework and grading policies. “If you have 80 teachers in your school district, then you actually have 80 homework policies. Not okay,” she said. “You also probably have 80 grading policies. Not okay. There should be some room for autonomy within those policies, but we should all be heading in the same direction.”
McGarvey stands behind homework as an effective instructional strategy, with the caveat that assignments be thought out and produce discernable achievement results. She echoed Marzano's call to structure homework so that “students can accomplish it with relatively high success rates so that they will complete all or large portions of the homework.”
McGarvey adds emphasis on student choice, suggesting that students be allowed to select assignments from an array of options, so that the learning goals are the same, but learners are given flexibility in how they get there.
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