Editor’s note: Brendan Craine is a junior at the Denver School of the Arts.
In my dissection of the sorer points of Colorado education, I have tried to save the best for last. Naturally, as a student, this is my greatest woe.
Let’s be fair here – this post almost writes itself. The universal student opinion towards homework is far from secret. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that every person who reads this has, at some point, expressed dislike towards homework, even if it happened a while ago.
Before I begin bringing up any points, or dissecting anything, consider that. Homework is almost universally disliked. Mentioning it to a student (especially a high school student) is an invitation for grumbling and irritation. So why, then, do we have it at all?
I am not going to spend any time debating homework as an idea. I think that our school system is far too heavily based on a platform of grading, budgets, and statistics, and I am all too aware that removing homework is not only drastic, but probably also impossible without a complete revamping of the system. I may not like it, but I’m not going to waste any time yelling about it.
I will also not talk about homework amounts. Whether or not six hours of homework is too much is an entirely different debate. It’s assumed that third graders will do less work than high school sophomores, and that’s really the way it should be. As we advance on to more complicated subjects, it’s natural that they would require more work.
Finally, I readily admit that, as a student who has to deal with homework on a nightly basis, my opinions are far from neutral. I have no way to balance that, aside from plain open-mindedness. Hopefully, my points will still be valid.
So, if I’m going to pick apart homework, I’m going to need a working definition. So, what is homework?
It’s practice, and that’s it.
Whether you’re reading and re-reading a history text to memorize dates and figures of the French Revolution, moving equations from factored to standard form, or just repeating the same letter in cursive over and over, all you are doing is practicing. Nothing new is learned through the activity of repeating a task, aside from being able to do it more quickly and more naturally.
This is even the case with history, since while individual dates and events may change, the process of learning about and understanding history remains static. In fact, history tends to repeat itself often enough that it could be argued that the individual dates and events are irrelevant.
So, based on that, there is one problem I see with homework right off the bat: We are graded on it.
Why is that a problem? Well, homework is intended to be practice. I have no problem with the idea of working to become better at something – I already do it without prompting – but to grade on the practice doesn’t seem logical.
For instance, are Olympic athletes given scores based on how much they prepared for the event? No. And yet, that’s what homework has become, because our system demands frequent grade updates, and therefore, frequent assignments.
So, the first thing to change about homework:
Stop grading on homework. Yes, even if it’s just a completion grade. Completion grades make absolutely no sense, even in the current system. We have a 0%-100% grading scale, and a completion grade can only be one extreme or the other.
Students, however, don’t learn in absolutes. To grade me on whether or not I turned in a piece of paper with some writing on it immediately puts me on par with every single other person who did the same, even if they all got the questions correct, and I did not. The grade isn’t based on learning or understanding, and it doesn’t make sense. To continue the simile, it’s like giving every athlete a gold medal just for competing.
The natural argument here is that, once the grading is removed, so will be the incentive to do any work, since a student who did no homework and one who did all of it will receive the same grade for it – no grade at all. The only difference, of course, is that the second student will have a much more concrete understanding of the material, and is likely to do much better on any quizzes, which is why my next point is…
Replace the lost homework grades with quizzes and tests. Students take quizzes and tests very seriously. This is because with homework, the mindset is one of “students vs. teacher”, (“Ms. So-and-so gave us so much lit homework to do! Ugh!”) which tends to foster dislike and hostility towards the teacher.
This is opposed to quizzes, which have the mindset of “student vs. all the other students,” a much more productive environment, especially among teenagers, who enjoy feeling like victims. Suddenly, the teacher becomes more like an overseer, spurring the students to compete against each other. Plus, quizzes can be immensely diverse in their grading – almost as diverse as students.
The main benefit here is that a student has the freedom to regulate his or her own workload. Instead of being forced to stay up studying until 12:30 each night, I have the option to go to bed, (and be more awake and able to learn the next day), without it affecting my class grades. Because I want to do well on any quizzes, I will study as much as I can – but also as much as I feel I should.
The only person who really knows when they’ve mastered a set of dates, a mathematic method, or the themes of a novel is the person who is mastering them. This prevents more intelligent students from being stuck with what is essentially “busy work.” If they have mastered the coursework, then they can stop studying. A greater amount of control would also mean a higher level of maturity and structure in students, since it would be necessary, but not required, to organize one’s time. Making something like that a requirement makes it hard to obey, but students will make good choices on their own.
Finally, the most important point:
Homework should never be a substitute for teaching. This is very important, because there really is no substitute for good teaching. I have been in several classes where the teacher does nothing more than review the homework. That really is no good, especially in the fast-paced curriculum that most high schools have. Ideally, I’d be given an opportunity to try something, and then have it explained, and then be able to try again with my new knowledge.
Right now, only steps one and two in that process are taking place, and there isn’t time for a step three. I am aware that this is partially because of the poor student/teacher ratio, with as many as thirty-five or forty students in a single class. That’s something that needs working on, too, but not in this post.
The one problem with what I’m suggesting is that what is being taught in the classroom needs to parallel the studying that the students are doing. This would especially be an issue in a history class, since the teaching tends to be very sequential. However, if period in history were broken up into very small chunks and taught a week or three days at a time, then the students could study that chunk for any amount of time during the period when it was being taught, then take the test on it, then repeat.
Overall, the most important thing is to focus on the fact that school is meant to be about learning. As soon as learning is sacrificed for grades, structure, or just “getting through the year”, then changes need to be made.
A successful school system puts control in the hands of the students, and puts them in a position to make good decisions, or suffer the consequences of making bad decisions. The more the educational system is based around forcing students to be responsible, the more they will resist, and this is especially true with homework.
Anyway, I better call this a wrap, because I need to get on this math assignment…
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