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Let’s take another look at homework

Katherine A. James August 29, 2022

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The March 2022 Kappan included an article by Colin McGrath, a junior at a high school in Larkspur, California, titled, “ The problem with homework: A letter to my younger brother .” In the letter, Colin tries to warn his brother Dylan, who was about to finish 8th grade, of the workload ahead of him in high school. While there is value in this purpose, the letter paints a bleak picture of what homework has been like for him. Why is this?

Colin describes going through the motions to complete assignments and then having teachers do the same when checking them: “They’ll never look closely at it to see of you actually understood it, and they’ll never reference that material again,” Colin writes. He encourages Dylan, instead, to focus attention on his “real interests” and find things to learn on his own.

The positives and negatives of homework

As educators, we have to acknowledge that, even though we want to instill in students a love of learning, preK-12 education does — like most long-term undertakings — sometimes include moments of disinterest, tiredness, and maybe even boredom. Surely many of us, no matter our ages, could understand and sympathize with Colin’s point of view. After a six-hour day at school — listening, learning, reading, writing, solving math problems, absorbing history, investigating science anomalies, and the like (even when interesting and taught well) — how many of us were eager to get home, open the books again, and continue our tasks?

In addition, as Colin explains, high school students can anticipate an average of 2.7 hours of homework a night, according to one survey — a total that’s not hard to imagine if students have assignments in almost every subject. Most of us can probably recall times when devoting our energy to pursuing these studies took away from time that we might have spent in other pursuits, whether it was watching television or playing outside with friends or gaming on the computer or engaging in sports. To be honest, even the most ardent students need a break.

Yet, during our hours of homework, most of us could find bright moments, new revelations, and sources of inspiration. Study time was not a loss, as our brains were exercised. Generally, all students really do want to learn, and they deserve the pathways for doing so.

Colin shows a strong desire for Dylan to learn, but he doesn’t see homework as the best way to do so. He tells Dylan, “Learning through enjoyment is the best type of learning, so constantly be challenging your brain to learn more about the things you enjoy.” He points out, for example, that Dylan’s interest in cooking can give him a reason to learn more math and chemistry.

Reframing homework

Colin’s negative descriptions of homework do not fit most of what I’ve observed over a 50-year career. But experiences like those he describes can have a very unfortunate effect on students. So how can we ameliorate students’ negative perceptions of homework and “sweeten the pot” to make it more appealing and effective?

First, let’s ask, “What is the purpose of homework?” I see it as having a twofold purpose: 1) to reinforce learning from the classroom and determine whether the student “can fly that plane solo” and practice what they’ve learned without the teacher present, and 2) to provide opportunities for the learner to reach beyond what they learned in the classroom and grow both intellectually and creatively.

Good teachers explain the purpose of the tasks to be done so that students connect learning at school with learning at home.

Second, let’s rename it: How about “opportunities at home”? This phrase captures that homework is not meant to keep students busy but to help them practice and grow in their learning at home, on their own. One teacher at a university in my community calls her assignments “fun at home,” and it can be! This rethinking of what homework is has potential not only to change students’ perspectives on what they’re asked to do but also to encourage teachers to make sure that what they assign really does present an opportunity for learning, whether through practice and reinforcement of learning begun in class or through expansion into new areas.

While it may be true that some teachers simply find and assign tasks from a textbook or other resource, teachers in general are among the most creative professionals in the world. Good teachers explain the purpose of the tasks to be done so that students connect learning at school with learning at home. Good teachers also create interesting challenges above and beyond paper-and-pencil tasks. They incorporate movement and hands-on activities for all ages, and they prepare options for exploring the same concept and allow learners to make choices about which activity they wish to do. We already know that group work can be very engaging to participants; now with our current technology, groups can meet online as well as in person, opening up even more options for students who prefer to learn alongside others. Another idea is to allow students to create the activities they’ll do outside the classroom; if they invent them, they will surely buy into them. And teachers may get some fresh ideas!

A balanced homework diet

Must there be homework, or opportunities at home, every night? I say yes , but the activity’s ability to inspire learning is more important than the time spent. Similar to the way we plan our meals for good health and therefore balance three nutritious meals a day (one hopes!), we can “cook up” a variety of delectable activities that engage learners at home every day. Students need to keep in touch at home with the concepts they are learning in school, and they can do so in many imaginative, interesting ways.

One approach for teachers comes from Howard Gardner’s seminal work Frames of Mind (1983), which emphasizes that every person is born with at least one strength, usually more than one. Gardner identified nine such strengths, which he called “intelligences,” around which teachers can create educational activities. Although Gardner’s theory has been criticized and sometimes misapplied (Terada, 2018), I believe that it can be a useful tool for helping teachers ensure they are assigning activities that allow learners in their classes to use a variety of methods to master the concepts and demonstrate their learning (see also Armstrong, 1994).

So take heart, Dylan. Thousands of teachers are already using many of these methods and more, and you will most likely find yourself in the tutelage of some of these teachers during your high school years. When you do, you’ll be able to see the possibilities that emerge through learning opportunities at home.

Armstrong, T. (1994) Multiple intelligences in the classroom . ASCD.

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences . Basic Books.

McGrath, C. (2022). The problem with homework: A letter to my younger brother. Phi Delta Kappan, 103 (6), 66.

Terada, Y. (2018, October 15). Multiple intelligences theory: Widely used, yet misunderstood. Edutopia .

This article appears in the September 2022 issue of Kappan,  Vol. 104, No. 1, pp. 66-67.

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  • Katherine A. James

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Alexandria Neason  is a staff writer at  The Village Voice  in New York City and a former fellow at The Teacher Project, based at Columbia Journalism School.

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