Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The issue of homework

Well, last night my wife and I ran into our first piece of "homework from Hell". Our seven-year-old daughter who has just started Grade 2 in the regular, English stream brought home a review sheet about patterns. The sheet was double sided and contained approximately ten questions where the students were asked to work with patterns. Each question required the student to do more than one thing, for example in one question the students had to identify the pattern as increasing or decreasing, fill in the next two numbers, and write down the pattern rule. Each individual question was very reasonable but with all the questions and all the parts, this was a lot of work.

The upshot of all this is that after 40 minutes of work supervised by either me or my wife (we switched off twice because of how hard this was for us) the sheet was only about 2/3 finished. As my daughter asked plaintively if she could stop, I agreed. I wrote a little note to the teacher in my daughter's agenda about how long she had worked and how much got done. We will see how the teacher responds, if at all.

Now, the big deal about this is not the piece of homework and how long it took. I suspect that this will be an isolated incident. However, if we repeatedly get pieces like this, my wife and I will deal with it.

The big issue that I recognized is that my wife and I are both teachers. Not only do we have a good sense about how much homework is too much or too hard (most parents do, in my opinion) but we have the confidence and the means to express our opinions and make sure that they are heard by the teacher and the school. Just for starters, my wife and I are both on the school board email system so it is dead easy for us to fire off an email to the teacher.

But I started thinking about parents who do not have as many links and insights into the school system. What happens with them and their children if the teacher starts sending home too much homework, or work that is too hard? And I suspect that the answer is not good. I am willing to bet that when parents do not have the knowledge and/or the confidence to talk and negotiate with the teacher and the school about homework their children get buried under the mound of work they are told to do.

All this reminds me that, as a teacher, I need to be really careful and thoughtful about homework. There is a lot of debate in educational circles about the value of reducing homework. In my Honours Specialist upgrade course we had to do some research on the pros and cons of homework. Not every student benefits from homework while at the same time some students definitely do. If we want our students to get the maximum value out of their education we teachers need to find a way to build in some flexibility.

I am working on an idea to offer students choice in homework while still making sure that the homework is helping them. That however, is a topic for a future post.

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