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How the Best Teachers Approach Homework

By Brian P. Gatens March 12, 2015

I think assigning homework is one of the most misunderstood actions we take as educators. The act of extending the school day into the home is filled with promise, but it’s also fraught with issues depending upon how it is used and the context through which it is used.

When done properly, out-of-school work can lengthen and strengthen a child’s learning, but when assigned casually and with little thought, it serves mainly as a wedge between parents and children.

Let’s look at how the best teachers approach homework:

They see homework in a larger context

Teachers need to bear in mind how time time families have to help students with homeworkWhen assigning homework, the best teachers realize that families must be able to find the time needed to complete the assignment. In the best case, the child should be able to work independently at the kitchen table, but if the homework is overly long or complex, the parent (who may have other children to care for or other responsibilities to meet) will have to dedicate time to helping out.

It is reasonable for teachers to expect parents to check homework and do some review with the child, but assignments that require large amounts of parental attention should be reconsidered.

They know what homework should accomplish

Homework serves three main purposes: reinforcing what’s been taught in class, preparing students for the learning in the next class and enabling them to think deeper about the work. It should not be used solely to “drill and kill” a subject.

Repetitive worksheets are usually counterproductive — instead of developing learning, they foster student boredom. Homework as punishment is another terrible use of a student’s home time. There is no greater way to turn off a student to writing than to have them write as punishment. Instead, homework should reinforce what was learned that day, or offer an at-home opportunity to extend the learning.

They can explain why homework is helpful and necessary

Homework has been a part of the educational landscape for so long that many teachers assign it with minimal thought or explanation. The best teachers take the time to explain to their students the benefit of the assignment, and how it will help them to gather a fuller understanding of the subject.

By the way, if you can’t explain the homework in those terms, perhaps you should reconsider assigning it. A full explanation of homework in your classroom culture is a great way to start your Back-to-School Night presentations.

They set parameters, but they remain flexible

A common criticism of homework is that it rewards students who live in stable homes. Many children live in homes with two-worker families or have little to no access to educational support after school.

Make sure your students have a home structure that supports the completion of homework. Rather than stop assigning homework, instead be flexible and make necessary changes to help them. This may include letting them work in your room during lunchtime, staying after school or changing the assignment to make it easier to complete independently. Modifying an assignment isn’t “dumbing down your work.” It’s showing compassion.

They aren’t using homework to communicate academic rigor

Many teachers feel a need to assign a lot of homework as it becomes, in their eyes, an example to the parents of the challenging nature of the classroom. In other words, a lot of homework means a successful classroom. Also, many parents interpret a lot of homework as an example of academic rigor.

Unfortunately, it’s not. Instead it’s merely the assigning of a lot of work. Nothing more. Nothing less. Rather than use homework as an example of academic rigor, teachers can send home regular email updates (easier today more than ever) and invite parents to review student work through online resources.

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