Homework Cure: Change the System

The Real Value of Homework

There is a debate about the value of homework. The debate rages in school districts, states, faculty meetings and homes. There are parents who insist on homework and there are parents who feel homework is an unnecessary intrusion in their child’s life. There is no one solution. I recommend flexibility in the classroom and curriculum. What do we do if we are unsure of the value of homework? The following are some (not all) ideas to guide your thinking. If you want to change the system examine your cherished beliefs and promote flexibility in the classroom.

Question cherished beliefs like ‘School should be fun’.

School can be fun. But there are no guarantees. This idea that school should be fun permeates much of the discussion of educational reform. It sometimes goes like this: Memorization of facts is bad – it’s no fun and not necessary. Memorization of rules (i.e. grammar, algebraic rules – just to name two) is not fun or necessary. What are the limits here? Let’s look at something that happens both in school and outside of school to get perspective.

Think of two recreational activities that are fun: music and sports (both of which are frequently done either as solo or group activities). Have you ever seen an interview with a sports or a music celebrity in which the celebrity says, “Oh I never work out or practice. I’m in such great shape and have such a perfect memory that I don’t need to exercise or go over what I’m supposed to know how to do.” You never hear that and if you did, you wouldn’t believe it.

If I miss practice…

I saw an interview with Vladimir Horowitz, the famous concert pianist. He was asked about the value of practice and he said, “If I miss one day of practice I notice it. If I miss two days of practice the critics notice it. If I miss three days of practice the audience notices it.”

When I was working in nightclubs we used to rehearse on Monday afternoons. We would learn the latest songs and go over any rough spots in our act. But if the band leader didn’t call the new songs until Friday night, the intervening few days were just enough to let the more complex songs slip from our memories and cause a performance train wreck on stage. We needed to practice and we needed to do it daily until the song was learned.

It’s not just me that feels that way.

I was studying films scoring and small ensemble arranging at UCLA. One of my instructors was also a studio pianist. He told us that before each session he would warm up playing through a book entitled Hanon The Virtuoso Pianist In Sixty Exercises For the Piano. Talk about boring. My instructor said he’d played through Hanon so many times that he had many of the exercises memorized but he still felt it improved his performance to warm up that way.

In defense of drills for practice…

‘Drill and kill’ is one of the pejoratives critics use to disparage practice. On page 77 of Hanon in one section on The Trill, Hanon tells us, “It is of interest to note that Mozart used this exercise for the study of the trill.” Yes, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the toast of the crowned heads of Europe, actually practiced boring exercises to keep his skills up. I figure if it’s good enough for Amadeus, it’s good enough for me and my students.

Playing a song well on Friday night was great fun. Going over a song dozens of times to memorize it for performance was drudgery but necessary. Running for the winning touchdown is fun. Doing wind sprints and hitting the weight room to get in good enough shape to compete without injury is boring but necessary.

Anything which requires knowledge or skill requires practice
that is the purpose of homework.

Reconciling no homework with homework.

Flexibility in curriculum, testing and grading are the keys to answering the question of what is best for your child, i.e.: is this homework necessary for your child? We teachers are rarely given the opportunity to be flexible in our teaching. There are many conflicting issues that constrain the use of homework.

What if you or your child could opt out of homework without being penalized in their grading or evaluations? That’s fine for those kids who have mastered whatever skills are being taught. Many parents who question the value of homework don’t realize that going to soccer practice, practicing a musical  instrument, or doing household chores all qualify as homework. They are practice and reinforcement of things learned. Why should school work be any different? Students need to practice what they have learned.

Selecting a level to teach

What happens when children who are ready to advance are in a class with a significant number of kids who haven’t mastered prerequisite skills and/or kids who were just passed along? [Read what I said about social promotion here]

I’ve taught such diverse classes and it’s hell to reconcile each child’s homework needs with the demands of the ‘one size fits all’ curriculum of the school district. It is also very difficult to convince some parents [see Homework: to Do or Not To Do] that we teachers might just know what level to teach to and how to accommodate each child’s individual needs. And I’ve had enough experience with computerized instruction to know that even the best programs frequently need a living breathing teacher to help the kid past rough spots.

Do I teach to those who are at grade level leaving those who lack the prerequisite skills behind [see Dog and Pony Show]? Do I teach to the lower end of the skill level, boring those who already know the stuff. Or do I teach to a middle ground? How do I grade? Do I give credit to the kid who lacks prerequisite skills, attends every day and really tries, but never masters the material?

When I had smaller classes and was allowed to teach each child at their own individual level and pace I made great strides in helping each kid. As the curriculum tightened and the school district went to an ‘every child is going to college’ emphasis my success level dropped. One of the consequences of this ‘every child is going to college’ policy is that homework and classwork become generic rather than specific.

One size does not fit all.
Flexibility is the key to assigning the correct homework for each child.

The obsession with college, the lip service given to diversity, equity and equal education coupled with the business model of financing schools and the emphasis on teacher evaluation tied to test scores, all work at cross purposes and serve to undermine the very high standards we are trying to achieve.

If you liked this blog post, I’m sure you’ll like my book

What Happened to David

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