Nan Austin

March 19, 2014

Homework: There’s got to be a better way to make ideas stick

Homework: We all had it. We all hated it. But putting aside the history, does it help and are there ways to make homework work better?

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Homework. We all had it. We all chafed at it. But does anybody have a better idea?

My folks assumed there would be homework – the more redundant and boring the better – because suffering builds character.

A generation later, redundancy stifled creativity. Boring our brilliant children was unthinkable, suffering not tolerated. The pendulum had swung.

A University of Phoenix College of Education survey conducted in October found nearly all teachers, kindergarten through high school, see benefits in doing homework. The online Harris Poll of 1,005 teachers found kids through fifth grade get an average of 2.9 hours of homework a week.

Middle school teachers give an average of 3.2 hours each. Some schools have grade level meetings in which teachers divvy up when major history, English, science and math projects or tests fall. By high school, however, every academic teacher stacks on roughly 3.5 hours’ worth, and managing the groaning load becomes a valuable life skill.

My dyslexic husband groaned more than most, but he took away a life lesson he passed down: Always finish a paper at least two days early. Take it to the teacher and ask how it could be better. That’s how he made it through high school and, after computers with spell-check came along, college.

Here’s my top homework question: Does serious fun trump drills?

Veteran science teacher Barbara Worrel says yes. Homework she gave focused on reasoning, with only half a page to do it in. Many assignments had to come back in 20 words or fewer.

“I’d give one question, something they had to figure out or build without parent help. Something they can do on the bus, watching their little brother or sister. Don’t make it so they can’t finish it,” Worrel told future teachers at a California State University, Stanislaus, College of Education conference this weekend.

Unfinished class work should not be sent home to finish, she warned. “It will disappear into the black hole of Calcutta that is their backpack and never return.”

But here’s why most teachers give homework: to see how well students understood the lesson. Some 60 percent of teachers in the Phoenix poll cited that as the top benefit of homework.

For all who think technology has no place in the classroom, read that again. More than half of teachers say they find out if their students got one lesson well after they’re on to the next ones.

In a packed classroom, kids can quietly fall through the cracks, but new tech and new teaching methods can help. “Checking for understanding” is the lingo used for having all the kids hold up wipe-off boards or plastic sheets to show their answers. See a raft of wrong answers? Try another tack. Only a few? Maybe a second example.

Simple, speedy ways to check what students grasp during a lesson could let homework focus on serious fun, helping kids understand even more.

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