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Rethinking Homework Book Study

Homework is almost universally hated: most teachers despise nagging and bribing students to do it then having to grade it when kids finally comply, parents hate being the ‘homework police’ for assignments they neither understand nor find valuable, and students would rather be doing, well, nearly anything else. I’ve changed my own homework practices repeatedly over the years, but I always feel like I could make my assignments more meaningful and my policies more relevant. It goes without saying that I was pleased to open my mailbox and find an advance copy of ASCD’s summer release Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott. Also known as The Homework Lady, Dr. Vatterott is a world renowned advocate for homework reform and an expert on ingrained beliefs about the inherent “goodness” of homework.

Her book is divided into five sections, the first proving most interesting to me personally, as it explores “The Cult(ure) of Homework”. Vatterott gives a brief and fascinating history of homework in America, then summarizes five largely unexamined intrinsic beliefs about homework. I found the most provocative belief to be that homework teaches responsibility:

Responsibility is often a code word for obedience. When we say we want students to be responsible, are we saying we want them to be obedient–to do what we want them to do when we want them to do it, to be mindless drones, blindly obedient to authority? One teacher said she thought not doing homework was a sign of disrespect for the teacher! When we say homework promotes self-discipline in students, does that mean being self-disciplined enough to do something they hate to do because its their duty?

More such introspective provocations are presented in the second section of the book, which explores homework in the context of the new family. Vatterott touches on the war between teachers and parents, exposing the tendency of teachers to perceive parents as incompetent or wimps when they don’t insist their children complete homework accurately and expeditiously. She juxtaposes this with the parents’ perception that teachers presume the right to control students’ lives outside the classroom and dictate how time is spent in the home. (Ouch.) The author thoroughly explores the importance of balancing academics and family-chosen activities and includes the effects of economic diversity, then gives five realistic tips for re-negotiating the parent-school relationship. The homework surveys and checklists provided are helpful and ready to use.

Homework research and common sense–a duo that many fail to connect–are Vatterott’s focus in the third section. She summarizes the findings of past and current homework research (which I was already familiar with), along with research limitations and common false conclusions that are unaligned with findings (which I was not familiar with). She points out the strong bias toward homework:

Both Cooper and Marzano, after stating that the research shows no benefit of homework for elementary students, nonetheless proceed to recommend homework for elementary students. Cooper claims it should be given for the purpose of developing good study habits and positive attitudes (a recommendation not backed by any research)…Both researchers have such clearly ingrained biases toward homework that they don’t appear to see the disconnect between the research they are citing the recommendations they are making.

Vatterott then dives directly into a common sense look into the research (Ten Things Teachers Know About Learning) and points out the correlation between homework research and the commonly held philosophy of ten minutes per night per grade level. The author maintains that classroom teachers have valuable knowledge of what individual learners need and should not be slaves to the research: just because homework has not proven to be useful in many cases doesn’t mean that teachers should abandon the concept.

So how then should teachers design effective homework practices? In the fourth section of the book, Vatterott discusses limitations of the old homework paradigm and how to shift to a new one, including guidelines for designing quality homework tasks, differentiating for student needs, and moving from grading homework to checking it through quality feedback. Her suggestions are surprisingly practical and relevant to the time-strapped and curriculum-inundated teacher, and in my own classroom, I’ve decided to immediately implement some of the ideas for helping students self-assess.

Vatterott uses the fifth and final section of the book to explore homework completion strategies and support programs. She gives many helpful tips on diagnosing completion problems and rectifying them through specific classroom strategies (including a critical look at both homework incentives and punishments). She then describes dozens of school-wide approaches to support students in completing homework, including programs that find time during the school day, curricular and scheduling options, and after-school arrangements.

I found myself resistant to most of these formalized ‘homework support’ programs due to my own bias: I believe homework SHOULD teach students self-discipline and responsibility, and resent the idea of using limited school time and resources to ensure students complete work I expect to be done independently. I bird-dog students all day long to make sure they complete the work necessary to succeed: homework is the only assignment for which they are required to be completely self-motivated. At what point do we stop trying to save students from themselves? If the assignments are high quality and the amount and type is developmentally appropriate, is it so unreasonable to expect students to consistently complete homework accurately and on time?

Vanderott directly confronts this traditional perception that students must prove themselves and their learning through homework:

When it comes to learning, it’s not about finishing the work; it’s about demonstrating learning. Can students prove that they know what they need to know? How can we determine how well they are learning, and how can we help them do better? If we can assess learning without all those homework assignments and the students have learned what we wanted them to learn, we don’t need the homework! This is a hard pill to swallow if we believe students must do as they are told, and that not completing all homework is a sign of laziness and insubordination. But if we become so concerned that children have not been compliant, we lose sight of the role homework should play in learning. Focusing on enforcing our own power as teachers, we become afraid to trust students, afraid they’re going to “get away with something”–so we sometimes resort to punitive solutions that backfire. Author and educational consultant Rick Wormelli raises an interesting point about homework. He asks, “Why do we expect 100% compliance in getting homework done on time? After all, we don’t expect all students to get A’s or to behave perfectly all the time.”

To that end, Rethinking Homework is certainly an apt title. It’s an informative read for anyone who questions the endless homework battle waged everyday between parents, teachers, and kids with no clear delineation of who is on which side. The author’s approach is equally respectful and non-condescending toward all parties; homework is not the enemy, nor are any of its participants or perpetrators. Vatterott makes it clear: homework practices can be improved through concrete and attainable steps so that reasonable amounts and types of homework are used to enhance learning, allow student practice, provide feedback to the teacher, and instill confidence in students. The quest for change is certainly work, but as Vatterott argues, it is valuable and important work.

 

We teachers don’t really like homework.  It’s not really that fun to plan.  Its not really that interesting to grade.  And, despite what many students may believe, it’s not really that pleasurable getting them to turn it in.

So why do we give it, day after day after day, year after year? Why do we weave it into the very fabric of how students are graded and judged? And why do we give so damn much of it?  Are we sadists? Do we hate students, parents, and ourselves?  Or is it our way of retaliating from the abuse we’ve received at the condemned end of the “Everything-That-Is-Wrong-With-Public-Education” finger-pointing firing squad?

All fair questions. But in Cathy Vatterott’s eminently readable new book, Rethinking Homework (ASCD, 2009), we find that there are no clear or simple answers to these or many other (much more compelling) questions. However, that does not stop her from exploring and explaining the myriad issues surrounding homework “cult(ure)” and offering compelling reasons and accessible strategies for upgrading to Homework 2.0.

The book is split into 5 main chapters that essentially cover history, dynamics, research, practices, and strategies.  The effect is that the reader gains knowledge of homework’s history as well as the philosophical underpinnings that maintain the traditional paradigm and frame the current debate.  However, Ms. Vatterott was not given the moniker The Homework Lady because she knows the history of homework.

Her suggested methods for thinking about, planning, and giving homework have relevance for a wide audience that includes teachers, administrators, professors, and parties interested in reforming education for the sake of all students.  Because while this is a methods book for practitioners, it is, at its heart, a book about equality in education. She aims no lower than reforming (or rethinking) homework for the sake of all students.

The Cult(ure) of Homework

Citing numerous research articles, Ms. Vatterott begins by taking the reader on a historical tour of homework, highlighting the attitudes and catalysts surrounding the practice.  While the journey feels like a swing, with public attitude making regular arcs between two main camps (Pro-homework vs. Pro-No-homework), she handles the ride with a steady and engaging hand.

In seeking to lay “bare the culture of homework,” she offers “5 largely unexamined beliefs about children and learning”.

  1. Belief #1: The role of the school is to extend learning beyond the classroom.
  2. Belief #2: Intellectual activity is intrinsically more valuable than nonintellectual activity.
  3. Belief #3: Homework teaches responsibility.
  4. Belief #4: Lots of homework is a sign of a rigorous curriculum.
  5. Belief #5: Good teachers give homework; good students do their homework.

It is from these flawed beliefs that she goes on to frame the culture of homework as a dogma.  “Homework culture is a complex mix of moralistic views, puritanism, and behaviorism.” (p. 13) Her examination of these three components leads to a brief exploration of the “forces driving the current pro-homework/anti-homework debate.” (p. 16).

  1. No Child Left Behind
  2. Media and Technology
  3. The New Mass Hysteria.
  4. The Balance Movement

These histories, beliefs, and forces combine to form the foundation from which Ms. Vatterott frames the execution of her central goal: “to create a new paradigm for homework that focuses on academic success for all students.” (p. 96)

Homework in the Context of the New Family

The second chapter effectively unpacks the shifting dynamics of the “standard” family structure and the role new parenting styles play in disrupting the traditional relationships between schools and families.  It is a fascinating chapter that highlights a range of  factors affecting the interactions between teachers, schools, and parents. “A diversity in family values makes it even more likely that those values will clash with the values of individual teachers.” (p. 27)

This makes perfect sense and only becomes more complex as Ms. Vatterott exposes the layers and layers of diversity operating in today’s demographics of parenthood.  Depending on who you are and what your values are, the problem with homework might be any number of things.  By aiming to fix any one of the problems, we only create or exacerbate issues elsewhere. We begin to see that homework is in great need of a comprehensive overhaul.

Some of the diversities that influence perspective on homework include:

  • Parenting styles
  • Beliefs about the place of academic work in life
  • Parent involvement in homework
  • Economic realities
  • Power structures at home

While any one of these topics could create enough fodder for a Malcolm Gladwell book, the brief exposure to them has the cumulative effect of making the homework dilemma seem downright impossible to solve.  I imagine that that is precisely the emotion Ms. Vatterott is aiming for in her readers at this point in the text, because the remaining structure of her book seeks to offer knowledge and strategies for implementing a new paradigm.

She begins the rebuilding process with 7 steps for “Renegotiating the Parent-School Relationship” (p. 46):

  1. Get real.
  2. Resist the temptation to judge.
  3. Revise expectation of parental support.
  4. Suggest (do not mandate) guidelines for the parent’s role in homework.
  5. Establish formal methods of parent-teacher communication.
  6. Set parents’ minds at ease about homework.
  7. Endorse a set of inalienable homework rights.

Though it is not expounding on in this book, these step have value far beyond homework. There is a renegotiation going on right now between the public and our education system.  However, the idea of resisting “the temptation to judge” does not seem to be one of the core strategies being utilized in reform efforts by any party.

Homework Research and Common Sense

While much of the chapter explores a range of research topics related to homework (as the title suggests), she spends equal time dissecting the methods, problems, and biases of research in this field.  In many ways it feels like Ms. Vatterott is tilling the soil by unearthing assumptions and preparing minds for the planting of new seeds.

It is an effective approach, as it readies the reader for her final two chapters in which she lays out strategies for providing homework that works for all students.

To begin with, she offers 4 general findings related to homework research:

  1. The amount of time spent doing homework is positively correlated with achievement.
  2. Homework appears to be more effective for older students than younger students.
  3. As more variables are controlled for, the correlation between homework and achievement diminishes.
  4. At each grade level, there appears to be an optimum amount of homework.

After spending the middle portion of the chapter highlighting the limitations of the research, she provides “Ten Things Teachers Know About Learning”:

  1. Quality Teaching Matters
  2. Skills Require Practice
  3. Time on Task Matters
  4. Task Is as Important as Time
  5. Learning Is Individual
  6. Children Differ in Readiness and Developmental Level
  7. Children Differ in Learning Style
  8. Children Differ in motivation, Persistence, and Organizational Skills
  9. Frustration Is Detrimental to Motivation and Desire to Learn
  10. Homework That Is Not Completed Doesn’t Help Learning

This section is a curious addition to me.  I wonder who it is intended for.  The teachers who know this? The teachers who don’t? The parents who question what teachers know? Or is it included to remind all readers of the building blocks that form the foundation for constructing knowledge and creating homework routines that cultivate understanding?

Practices and Strategies

The second half of the book focuses entirely on developing homework practices and strategies that work.  “The ENTIRE second half?!” you ask?  Yes.  No one said it would be easy and simple to create a new paradigm for homework. In fact, as with creating any lesson or unit, Ms. Vatterott makes it clear that giving homework should be a very intentional act built on sound pedagogical practices, clear objectives, and nuanced approaches.

It is here that Ms. Vatterott distinguishes herself from the rest of the pack in the Great Homework Debate.

As a pragmatist she understands that homework, love it or hate it, is, and will be, a part of our educational landscape for a long time to come (though I suspect she aligns herself closer to the no-homework camp than with the pro-homework camp).  Utilizing skills she’s developed as a teacher, principal, and professor, Ms. Vatterott showcases her skill at facilitating professional development, with grounded practices balancing theory with the reality of application.

Her strategies for helping teachers create and assign homework are firmly rooted in practicality, backed by clearly stated rationale and research, and held together by her keystone commitment to helping all students experience success.  This commitment drives her to create myriad materials to enable any teacher of any age create a game plan that works for them.

It is in these chapters that the value of the book as a resource for teachers, administrators, and professors training pre-service teachers  is undeniable.

Conclusion

Cathy Vatterott has crafted a timely and useful guide for understanding and transcending the recurring debate related to traditional homework.  She makes clear that if we truly aim to utilize homework as an integral curricular component that enhances instruction and learning, we must be ever vigilant to examine what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we can do it better.

Additionally, I think it is a necessary, though dangerous, book for parents.  After reading many parents may find that Ms. Vatterott’s recommendations have not been assimilated into their child’s classroom and this could be frustrating.  Such frustration may well lead to conflict before understanding.  However, if that frustration can lead toward increased collaboration with schools or to more informed conversations with policymakers, it may serve to hasten meaningful reform in education.

For now, it is a worthwhile read for teachers and principals seeking to elevate homework from a blindly accepted practice to a tool that contributes to cultivating lifelong learners.  For preservice teachers, it is a text that will help him/her question norms they see in action, and to daydream of practices more aligned with equality and excellence for all.

Image: Ignacioleo

Tags: academics, ASCD, Cathy Vatterott, Diversity, Education Reform, homework, Learning, NCLB, Parent-School Relationship, Rethinking Homework

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