Homework as a Path to Equity

Every time I read a tweet by another educator who has given up assigning homework, I wince.  Their reasons vary from feeling demonized to feeling enlightened.  If homework is evaluated based on “completion,” I would agree we should abandon homework because of the unintended consequences.  However, thoughtfully assigned homework can pave pathways to higher levels of academics.

  • Developing self-advocacy.  I rarely spend class time answering homework questions. Instead, I teach my students to reach and persevere.  Students who have parents who push them and intercede for them have advantages.  Students who learn to push and reach for themselves narrow that gap.  Often the students who need the most practice, practice the least:  oblivious to the fact they slip farther and farther behind.  Students who turn in homework with significant gaps hear from me because I care. I work with their parents to help them understand the importance of reaching out as lifelong learners.  If the parents are not in a position to back this up, I start networking with the school’s support system and try different relational strategies to motivate the student. As parents begin to understand the long-term picture, though, there are fewer students for me prod.
  • Stretching basic skills. Some would argue homework should only be used to practice skills already mastered.  Many students need less review and are bored with much of that type of assignment.  One of the things I love about the inquiry-based ebook I’m using* is the homework interleaves (Cary, B. 2014. and Brown, P, Roediger, H., & McDaniel, M. 2014) and stretches topics. Instead of rote repetition, students develop tenacity to push through peculiarities, contexts,  and deviations from routine questions.
  • Individualization. When I see that a student has slid past a certain skill instead of mastering it, I assign Khan Academy from where I can monitor specific skills for each student.  In those homework assignments, students only practice what I see they missed or they spend comparable time working on more advanced skills determined by Khan’s adaptive features.  On Khan, students have the options of watching Khan’s video or reading text hints to help fill in their gaps.  Overwhelmingly, my students choose to use the text hints, thereby improving their abilities to read and decipher non-fiction while they fix their math issues. If those simple mechanisms fail to fix an issue, they can send me a picture from their phone that tells me what they don’t understand; and I make a plan to address it.
  • Awakening the slower processors.  Thinking in a classroom is generally bound by time constraints.  Homework allows more time for reflection.  Without many opportunities for extended time on tasks, I am concerned that students who need it will not recognize their potential.  I sometimes encourage slower processors to consider previewing material the night before so they can more spontaneously participate in classroom explorations and discussions. Processing speeds can sometimes result in landing in lower (non-honors) tracks, but extended reflection has the potential for accessing more depth.

For those who would argue that today’s students and families are too busy for homework, I would remind them that our world is shrinking.  We have the rest of the globe to compete with now, and learning to prioritize work is the gateway for such competition.  We can spend time with our families and sports and still build strong futures for these students.  By all means, they are worth it.

Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn and Why It Happens.  New York, NY:  Random House.

Brown, P.C.,Roediger, H.L.,& McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick:  The science of successful learning.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

*I use CPM but there are others.  EdReports.org is a good place to check for alignment and prevalence of “modeling” and a thorough look at the homework questions should reveal only a handful of questions for the new material and the rest should be interleaved review.

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