Saturday, May 1, 2021

What is the deal with homework?

"It all goes back to balance!"

I remember George Costanza declaring that on an episode of Seinfeld, and as I look at my students' and daughters' workload, I am wondering this: "What is the deal with homework?"

My sophomore daughter dutifully has done Zoom school every day this year, 9:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. That's a lot of Zoom! Then, she has hours upon hours of homework every night.

The racial dynamic at both the high school I teach and the one my daughter attends embarrasses me. In both schools, there is a preponderance of white teachers and at least 68 percent non-white students in each school. Basically, white teachers insist on assigning homework to non-whites, even though all homework really does is teach compliance and rule following (See The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn).

My students keep telling me they are bombarded with homework, usually "meaningless homework," which likely is redundant. I believe homework should be renamed "paperwork" because that's what it really is. I hope educators follow my basic math to see that we often assign homework thoughtlessly and based on assumptions of yesteryear.

I understand that my class is one of six on my students' schedules. Then, a lot of my students have important extracurriculars, whether it be sports, band, a particular passion or whatever (mindless scrolling and being manipulated by Big Tech does not count). Some students actually have jobs, too. Then, many have home responsibilities. So in my students' lives, mathematically my class accounts for maybe 1/8th of their time and education, 1/8th at best.

Let's do more simple math. Please try to follow this:

Let's say that a student gets out of school at 3 p.m. and the student goes to bed at 10:30 p.m. That's 7 1/2 waking hours. Let's break down those hours and where potential paperwork, or homework if we must call it, would fit.

Let's deduct 30 minutes for a shower and hygiene (down to 7 hours). Let's account an hour for dinner, an hour for exercise, another hour for household chores and two hours for potential extracurriculars (we're now down to 2 hours). That's it! Our students literally have two free hours for homework in their after-school days. But that means that our students are not allowed for socializing, Netflix, video games or any pastime. That has been voided.

But here's an ugly truth: Our students are multi-tasking their way through non-meaningful school and non-meaningful non-school, AKA life. They' hardly focus on the homework anyway. It's pointless. They're overbooked!

Back to homework, I would venture to say "Two hours max per night!" is reasonable for all classes total. However, two hours, or 120 minutes, means that each of the six classes is allotted just 20 minutes per night. So here is an obvious declaration: Mathematically, high-school teachers should assign 20 minutes of homework max in any night.

But then I even wonder about the 20 minutes. Couldn't those 20 minutes be a part of class time? How much of class is spent lecturing? Is this homework meaningful and authentic? Can it be Googled? What is the deal with homework?

I've had math and science teachers tell me that homework is necessary for their classes. They've told me that's how you build skills and reinforce learning. OK. That sounds reasonable. But then, how much of that homework is in the "sweet zone," meaning it's at an appropriate level for the student? I fear that a lot of math and science homework is either way too easy, making it busy work, or way too difficult, making it pointless.

As an English teacher, I need to see my students' writing and help them develop their skills. I also need to see them grapple with narratives, arguments, informational texts, poems, difficult texts and more. They do indeed need to do some assignments, hopefully during class time, to show me what they understand. Unless we're reading books on our own or pursuing our passions in life, I honestly don't feel my students need to concoct any assignment outside of class time.

Now, I don't have all the answers, and in my 13th year of teaching, I constantly reevaluate and am open to new things. I feel empathetic and sensitive to what fellow teachers face in the classroom and what we've been put through this year. The wringer. Basically, we've been put through the wringer.

My fear is that the systemic over-assigning of homework is a manifestation of problems in education that are under-addressed. Is school simply sorting out social class? Is assigning homework one way we do that? If school is meant to be a precursor to work, is it aligned to actual work in the 21st century or olden times?

Big Tech has stolen a lot of our kids' childhoods and put them in front of screens. I'm hoping we teachers make some smart decisions to assign less homework, help kids actually grow and get off their screens.


  1. Homework is a good thing in my opinion, however its problem is that it's excessive in the amount they give us. You can tell with 3 problems whether a student understands a concept or not, instead of 20. And the more you give, the more chance the student has to be learning it wrong. Also it really tends to wear down students' mental health, especially since nearly every teacher assigns some amount of homework each day. It builds up, and takes away a lot of time from a student's childhood.

    1. I love this point. Thank you for sharing! ... For math, why do 20 problems when three shows if the student knows it? ... Maybe through the shutdown, educators are thinking more about students' mental health and time. I hope.

    2. Agreed, I hate repetitive homework

  2. I have to say that, though homework can be a good thing, it focuses more on memorization of the topic rather than focusing on understanding the topic. You don't need more than 5 questions to check your understanding, and definitely not more than 10. Assigning homework for the purpose of understanding can really help the students in future careers since the what they understood can come more naturally to them, than what they memorized. Extra and unneeded homework can also really stunt a student's chance to just kick back and relax. Since one student already has homework from extra classes, adding even more on top of that can really stress said student out.
    -A girl from your second period English class

  3. I love your insight, how homework (and a lot of school, according to me) focuses on memorizing instead of understanding a topic. I wish I heard more teachers staying things like that!

  4. I think we should first clarify the difference between a hard assignment and a meaningless assignment. A hard assignment would be my 150 question end of year review. It's hard but not pointless as I need to prepare for the exam. But if you zoom out a bit yes it is pointless because I won't use much of the skills used like angle side angle theorem, etc. A meaningless assignment would be doing vocab assignments for words that you already know. I have to do 7 words per chapter in my health class and I can't copy the book definition even though it makes the most sense. And then we have to make up a sentence. Not engaging at all, repetitive, and nobody is gonna learn from it. But he wonders why we aren't completing the assignments. Really we should be studying topics that would actually apply to real life and not a biology lab. But if not at least make the homework fun.

    1. I hear what you are saying. How do we distinguish between hard yet useful vs. meaningless? Where do we draw the line? Again, I just fear there isn't enough contemplation on the utility of assignments.

  5. Great post (and sorry this is really long). In our local High School, homework accounts for 10% of the student’s grade. The remaining 90% is evaluated proficiency on test/quiz/classwork. So you can guess what kind of homework/study habits my son developed while attending high school. He has a “ahh fuck it” approach toward homework and studying because he could get passable grades and not have to do homework – which he chose to do when it suited his fancy. Don’t get me wrong, he poured lots of time into music, which is why he got good at it, and learned the “hard work = success” equation. But as a college freshman this year he entered university having poor study skills because he never had to do it. He was used to regurgitating notes from class for the test and getting by well enough. That skill gap bit him in the ass in spectacular fashion this last semester. There were things on the tests that we’re not covered in class! My boy – SURPRISE! - they expect a certain level of self discipline for learning the material, which you never bothered to develop when you should have DURING HIGH SCHOOL. Welcome to “The Show” kid. Better figure it out quick or you won’t be in the big leagues long.
    My point, if your student is on the “college prep” track, then homework, and lots of it, is justified. Just pile it on! This is where the over-stressed, over-achieving, 5 AP classes, sleep is optional because I have to have every moment of my time occupied, student. Enjoy the hell you signed up for and and please take those whiney-ass parents of yours with you. Don’t complain about the homework – this track is about enduring the punishment of this level of hell to separate the elite from the elite.
    If the student (and parents) want that balance you speak of, then take them off the college prep track. Do it even if they are smart and capable of running through the college prep gauntlet! That’s not the experience you value so don’t friggin do it! In this track the homework should be less and the pressure for high grades and high test scores secondary to just developing well-adjusted young adults. I’d even be fine getting rid of grades and class ranking in this track and make it all “pass/fail”.
    Essentially, this is what we did with my son after his sophomore year. We only had him take one AP course his last two years of high school, and were thrilled when he got a 4 on the AP Music Theory exam. With this “balanced” track he still got into a pretty good college with a great music program. As I mentioned before, he is struggling to figure out how to navigate the actual learning he’s now expected to do, and we’ll see if figures it out before it’s too late. But that’s growin’ up. It’s not the failure that defines you, it’s how you respond to it. There are other aspects of the college experience where he did very well and I can see how he grew up so much this first year of college. More personal growth yet to come and that what it’s about in my book.
    I do take issue with those that may choose the “balanced” track and then expect to be treated on equal footing as those in "college prep". I don't see that as racism, that’s making a choice to apply your life values as you see fit. You are giving the “college prep” establishment the finger. Yeah! You had the same opportunity as those students, you chose balance - and sanity. Stick with it and fuck the elitist bookworm pigs. You’ll have the best version of you because of it.

    1. I still say: "It all goes back to balance!"

      My girls will stay on the college prep, multiple AP class path, but I'm just hoping these classes embrace meaningful rigor and not just outdated work, work, work from yesteryear. I feel like Allen Iverson: "We're talking practice. Practice. We talkin' practice?!?" Instead, I'm saying: "We're talking high school. High school. We talkin' high school?!?"

      Thank you for sharing. I relate to a lot of what you're saying. The irony is that even though I'm a high school teacher, I see that school is way too overvalued. Yes, it matters. But, holy crap, these kids face a lot of pressure. I guess our job as parents is to help support them and understand that their performance in high school (we talkin' high school!) does not define them.

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