Isn’t it strange how sometimes your best learning comes in your worst moments—those moments when your stress and exhaustion levels are so high, it’s hard to even formulate a coherent thought.
This year was a particularly challenging September for me. Between helping my anxious daughter adjust to Kindergarten and helping teachers launch their Reading and Writing Workshops, I barely had time to breathe, let alone think.
What was especially challenging this year was that some of the challenges I was facing with my daughter were the same ones I was facing with the teachers I work with.
I recently remarked to a friend that my professional and personal lives were colliding and I didn’t think I liked it. The collision, although exhausting, was ultimately extremely powerful and brought certain topics to the surface
One of these topics was homework. Whether I was at the park with my mom friends, or in the midst of my workday, the topic of homework always seemed to find its way into the conversation. In both my personal and professional conversations, there were questions, concerns, likes and dislikes. And like many complex ideas, there were lots of opinions.
Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie using 800 meta analyses conducted by researchers all over the world discovered that homework has little impact on student learning (2016, Fisher, Frey and Hattie, p. 165-166) As both a parent and an educator, I am not surprised by their findings. I have heard countless stories about kids feeling overwhelmed by homework. Even more disheartening, I have seen kids as young as five view reading, writing and math as things to avoid at home rather than things to dig deeper into and have fun with. Over the years, I have also seen countless examples of homework that didn’t impact student learning. On the other hand, I have also seen homework where kids have learned something and dare I say enjoyed it.
One reaction to this research, is to stop homework altogether. Many schools have done this with great success, but that is not the only solution. As a matter of fact, these authors suggest that both teachers and parents think about how to revise homewwhat so that it is helpful. Regardless of where you fall on the homework conversation, this research should give everyone pause. Teachers don’t want to spent hours preparing homework that is not helpful, nor do students want to spend time doing uninspiring homework that doesn’t help them learn the material at school. In this blog, I talk about six different ways that parents and teachers can work together to help make what kids do at home more impactful and more joyful.
I hope this post generates an honest dialogue about homework with all of us keeping in mind that homework is a complex topic with many moving parts.
1. Put time limits on homework:
Some schools/districts have considered what authors Cooper, Marzano and Pickering suggest; Assign homework with time limitations. (Cooper, 2007; Marzano and Pickering, 2007). Cooper suggested 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade). The National PTA also endorses these guidelines. The purpose of time limits is to make homework less stressful so that the love of learning is not squashed. It also leaves time for kids to play outside and get enough sleep. (Read on to find out how play and sleep impact learning.)
2. Be explicit about the purpose of the homework:
If homework is to have a greater impact, then teachers, parents and students need to be clear on the purpose of each homework assignment. Most homework in the elementary grades tends to fall into the following categories:
Practice: This is something that the teachers have already taught in school. This homework should require minimal parental intervention because it’s a time for kids to practice what they have been already been learning.
Preview: This homework should be brief and whet the child’s appetite for what is about to come.
Extension: This homework takes a previous skill learned and shows students how to use it somewhere else
Improve Communication: This would be a homework assignment that gets parents and kids talking to one another. My daughter recently had to do a poster for homework so her classmates could get to know her better. Little did I realize that I would get to know her better as well. I was surprised to hear that when she grew up she wanted to be a gymnastic star and that her favorite place to be in the whole world was home (Be still my heart)
There are also non-instructional purposes for homework such as time management, self-confidence, and peer interaction. Personally I believe these purposes become increasingly more important as kids get older. While I want my five year old to get better at time management, she is not managing her homework–I am! I would rather build her sense of responsibility by getting her to make her bed, carry her own backpack and put her dishes in the sink.
3. Foster stronger parent/teacher communication
Many parents and teachers who have spoken out in favor of homework say that homework helps a parent not only better understand what the child is learning at school, but also ascertain whether or not they understand it. While that is true, teachers can achieve this without making everything a homework assignment. They can send notes home letting parents know what they are working on and then give optional and varied ways to support this at home. This gives parents the same information, but lets them tailor it to both their child and their lifestyle.
4. Foster a greater love for learning:
Because engagement is a vital part of learning, the homework that our kids do should be engaging! Ellin Keene’s book, Engaging Children, helps readers understand why engagement is important to the learning process and what we can do to promote it: https://www.amazon.com/Engaging-Children-Igniting-Deeper-Learning/dp/0325099499/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1538829205&sr=1-1-spons&keywords=engaging+children+ellin+keene&psc=1 Teachers can make reading, writing and math more engaging at home by offering parents ideas on how to do this or sending homework home that achieves this. For example, my daughter and I love to play Yatzee. Sure, it is fun but at the same time she is practicing counting, adding, recognizing numbers and scheming. 🙂 Playing Yatzee is more likely to bring about a love of math than filling out a worksheet that has her practicing the same skills. We also love to read funny books together: Presently we are reading Pippi Longstocking. Ariana has been into jokes lately so we are composing our own joke book. Wouldn’t it be great if a homework assignment were to borrow a board game from school as a way to practice math? Or perhaps read a beloved book together? Or maybe parents and kids could co-author their own book? All of these types of ‘homework’ help foster a love of learning and will make kids more receptive to instruction at school.
5. Emphasize the role that outdoor play has on learning:
I often hear parents talk about how they wish their children had more time to play outside to get a ‘brain break’ While it’s true that kids need brain breaks, outdoor time plays a much bigger role in helping kids learn than simply giving them a break. Did you know for example that the upper arm strength that kids build while climbing helps with letter formation? Check out this article: https://www.ot-mom-learning-activities.com/upper-body-strength-kids.html Kids time at home would be better spent with more time outdoors, building upper body strength and less time practicing letter formation
6. Emphasize the role that sleep has on learning:
Check out this article that talks about the role that sleep plays in memory and learning: https://www.tuck.com/sleep-and-learning/ I have seen examples of homework where kids are copying words over and over again with the hopes that this copying will help them remember the words. Many kids are losing sleep in order to complete this. We can better serve our kids if we make sure they get enough sleep. Did you know that 3-5 year olds need between 10 and 13 house and 6-13 year olds need between 9 and 11 hours? My daughter is almost 6 and is at her sharpest when she gets 11 hours. That means her bedtime should be 8 on school nights.
The work/play we do with our kids at home should not only be engaging, but also helpful to the learning process. When it’s not, it’s time for teachers and parents to talk with one another and find solutions.
Teachers and parents: I can’t wait to hear what your questions, thoughts and concerns are.