Homework in High School: Should We Assign It?

Lately, the question of homework has been coming up in all kinds of educational discussions — on Twitter, in blogs, on parent chat groups, in Facebook entries. Wherever I look, I see people asking: Should we give students homework? If so, what kind of homework? Does homework improve learning?

These are crucial questions and ones that we should be thinking deeply about. However, our conversations are often confused by the fact that many of us define the word “homework” differently. Since we don’t share a common definition, our discussions can quickly become incoherent: we’re arguing about different things without realizing it.

We’re also frequently talking about different age levels — when we discuss homework, it seems obvious that we can’t compare a 6-year-old with a 15-year-old. And yet, so often we don’t clarify this. Elementary students do need more time for play, just as high school students need to be learning how to effectively manage their time and balance their life. So, as a secondary educator, here’s where I stand on assigning homework in high school. First, however, I want to start by defining exactly what I’m talking about when I mention “homework.”

What is homework?

Definition one Definition two
Busywork, worksheets, low-level comprehension questions, oodles of repetitive math problems. Meaningful projects that students choose for themselves and that are guided by personal interests.
Assigned at the end of a 45-minute class that involves review of previous homework and a lecture by the teacher, and ends with, “Okay class, for homework tonight, I’d like you to…” Classes are 75 – 90 minutes long, and after a 15-minute mini-lesson or discussion, students begin to work. The teacher conferences with students, helping those who need it.
Assignment is entirely done at home. Assignment can be completed in class. Students who need extra time can finish at home.

To clarify, when I talk about homework, I’m using definition two: a workshop model, in which the homework is an extension of an assignment started in class with plenty of teacher support.

Why give homework at all?

The other day I had a conversation with a twelfth grade student about the homework load and she said, “I don’t think we have too much homework, the problem is that some days we don’t have any, and other days we’re overloaded.” I asked her to give me an example and she said, “Well the night before last there was no homework at all. I kept checking to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake, but there was nothing. Then last night we had to work on a sonnet, we had some grammar boxes to complete, and we had a two page essay due for our coding class.”

I know that students have coding once a week, so I asked, “When was the essay assigned?”

“Oh,” she laughed, “Well, it was assigned last week. I know, I know, I could have done some of that on Wednesday night, but I guess I’m disorganized.”

This points out one of the most important reasons for giving homework to adolescents. When we ask students to complete assignments at home, we’re not just covering content, we’re also teaching them important life skills, including:                                                              

  • prioritizing tasks
  • tackling work they don’t actually enjoy
  • managing their time
  • avoiding procrastination
  • working independently

 

Learning how to keep an agenda and to manage their time  are some of the 21st century skills that are essential to our students’ future success.  They’re the strengths that students will need in order to do well both in life and in their careers. We can scaffold and teach these skills in school, but they are mastered by learning to independently complete homework well and on time. In the long run, learning to prioritize tasks and organize their time will teach students crucial life skills that will ultimately help them be successful.

So, I’m going to make myself unpopular by saying, “Yes, I think homework should be assigned in secondary school.” I’m sure many of you won’t agree with me, but disagreements are a good thing: they help us see other points of view and refine our thinking. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this complex issue.

6 Comments

  1. Homework was always an interesting battle for me, teaching music to middle school students. Students needed to practice outside of class to improve…no question about it. And I wanted to encourage them to build the habit of taking their instrument out at home regularly. But I didn’t want to log minutes or anything, because really, students 1) needed different amounts of practice to master the material, and 2) counting minutes does NOT = learning!

    My not-perfect solution was to have students write/record either a snippet of their practicing or a reflection about what they did. It WAS a part of their grade (I know this might make me unpopular!), but I kept it to no more than about 7% of their grade…so if they did not do any of their “homework” but aced everything else, they could still get an A in the class (because if they could demonstrate all of their learning well, why should they not get an A?). I’m not 100% sold on my solution, but that’s where I ended up after weighing several factors. I would love to hear other thoughts!

    • Aubrey, I agree with you. There are some things students need to practice if they want to get better. It’s clear to me that students who read a lot on their own have stronger vocabularies and stronger writing skills, but I don’t want to kill reading pleasure by making it mandatory. It’s a fine line and I struggle with it constantly. I do like your solution of making the homework part of the grade, but not so high that it can actually have a negative effect. I think that’s fair but also motivating.

  2. I agree with many features of this Carla. Love your writing style too I especially like that you explain/address WHAT we mean by homework. I dislike work that is mind-numbing and boring for all ages of students! (As a parent and as an educator). If work is meaningful that is a different story all together. You mention kids need time to play–a reason often cited to avoid too much/any homework in earlier grades. Well older kids (teens) and even older kids (adults) also need it. Play shapes the brain, opens up the imagination and invigorates the soul (to steal Stuart Brown’s words). Can we think of ways to make work-at-home evoke the creative energies of our students? Can we think of how to make that work play-like sometimes at least?

    • I definitely agree that older kids need time to play and be creative. That’s why I don’t think there should be homework overload at any level (though it’s hard to gauge – some students take much longer than others to finish an assignment). I also agree that homework should be creative, but I do have to say, no matter how we try to make homemwork “fun” most adolescents would really prefer to be hanging out with their friends or surfing the net and I find them harder to engage than the younger students. It’s a never ending struggle! 🙂

  3. Carla: I thought that your blog post was sensible and well-written! I loved that you pointed out the life skill of organizing and balancing time! When I taught middle school history, I created a generic time table so that students could plan out their time at home. Most kids never used it, but some students LOVED it! They created a new copy every week and planned their homework, social, and family time. The students that were organized never had a problem with “homework” (which was always “If you didn’t finish in class, finish this at home). Thank you for blogging about this topic! It’s refreshing to see the other side!

    • I love that you took the time to teach your students time management techniques, Rachel. I think this is such an important life long lesson for students. And it’s especially effective when parents get on board to help. The generic time table is a great idea – I’ll try using it with some of my students who are really struggling in this regard.

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