Monday, April 7, 2008

The Great Homework Debate

Currently, the Toronto District School Board is putting the finishing touches on the draft of a new homework policy. As reported in the Toronto Star,

Based on thousands of interviews with parents, teachers, students and community members, the draft policy would ban homework in kindergarten, confine it to games and family activities up to Grade 2, allow a gradual move to independent homework by Grade 6, but keep it to no more than one hour right through Grade 8.
For the board's 89,000 high school students, the new policy would prohibit more than two hours of homework a night.


While the parenting public seems to largely agree with this proposal, citing family vacations, outside school activities, etc. as of at least equal importance to homework, as a retired educator I am ambivalent about the policy for a number of reasons.

First, when my kids were in high school, there is little doubt that much of their out-of-school time was spent on school assignments, although some of that time was allotted to term work such as essays, projects, etc. As a parent, I sympathized with the pressures they were under. However, with the support of both me and my wife, there was the virtue of their developing good work habits due to these demands and, I like to think, some character as well.

Next, the keen advocates of reducing homework time seem to be conveniently forgetting that much of the rigor of after-school work arises from the massive changes of the 1990’s that the Conservative Provincial Government, guided by the high school graduate Premier, Mike Harris, and his Grade 10 dropout Minister of Education, John Snobelin, imposed on the Ontario Curriculum. With the elimination of Grade 13, the curriculum expectations for all the other grades became much greater as compensation. In order to meet those expectations, homework inevitably increased.

As well, most high schools in the province operate under a semestered system, forcing the amount of material to be mastered into half-year units. Obviously, when the system doesn’t have a full year to inculcate a particular subject, much more is needed outside of the classroom.

Much of the discussion in Toronto has centred on penalties for late assignments, with the powers that be suggesting it is unfair to thus penalize students. What they fail to consider is that a lack of sanctions is only going to encourage more students to be tardy in their work habits. Couple this with current curriculum discouragement of teachers giving zeroes for assignments not done or plagiarized, and you have a potent recipe for encouraging both indolence and cheating.

Finally, what troubles me about the two-hour maximum for homework in high school is how this will be measured. Will each subject be allotted an equal number of minutes to assign? How does one measure how long it takes the average student to complete a set task? Will the slower student be automatically excused from class requirements, and if so, won’t he or she inevitably fall behind in the course? As an English teacher, if I assign 20 pages to be read, is that unreasonable for the slow reader? How do I teach the literature if it isn’t being read?

I know that all of the points I’ve raised are of a pesky and practical nature, the sort rarely considered by the visionaries who make policy. Unfortunately, it is the teacher who is left to contend with all of the practical difficulties that arise from the ensuing constraints, usually with little or no support and guidance from administration.

3 comments:

Brian Kays said...

It would seem that our Canadian brothers to the north also contend with legislation that runs counter to the ideas of what education really is. However, the more legislation that is passed down, the more effective school has at schooling and the less effective it is as education, which in the end might be the purpose if you follow the Prussian idea of why compulsory education was introduced.

You pose valid questions about how this type of thing can be accomplished, and in the end, it can never be accomplished to the letter of the law. It does however, or at least it would in the US, allow for more litigious action against schools for breaking said legislation, placing further financial burden on school districts.

A question I would ask would be "Should homework be assigned or even graded?"

I would say homework is an invalid representation of real life. Most often times exploration of a topic, in the real world, is done at ones own pace and ones own will. To enforce certain restrictions on the search for knowledge, whether in two hour groupings, or in specific assignments, would run counter to my belief in the amount of freedom required to develop ones own educational identity.

On top of that a students grade should be representative of their performance, or if we are talking a strictly academic nature, their final product. Homework, in my book, would be classified under preparation, something required by the virtue of educating oneself and should not be factored categorically in the final assessment. Preparation itself would and should be self-evident in the final product being assessed.

Lorne said...

Brian,

I really don’t disagree with anything you have said here. With regard to the question of whether or not homework should be graded, since it is really a process rather than a product, the way I used to handle it in the classroom was to check homework periodically and place a small mark under participation if it was done. As I told the students who almost always had it done, if they missed it only a few times, their mark would not be adversely affected. The truth of the matter was that it really contributed very little to overall assessment, but I felt I had to have something in place both as a motivational tool for the indolent, and a small reward for the meticulous student.

Brian Kays said...

Lorne,

Couldn't agree more, in the past when I worked the in private school system I checked to see they had done some amount of homework, however I never assigned exact assignments. I gave them about 20 different things they could do and they had the freedom to do as many as they felt they needed. This gave them freedom to engage themselves as they felt was best. Often times students worked well with this system, some did as few as 1, others did as many as 10. They quickly realized that if they weren't engaged in the subject they didn't do well on the test. However these students had some type of motivation.

My program at the time was set up in this fashion. I selected three goals that students had to choose from, mind you this was a physics class. One avenue was for non-science majors, one was for those who wanted a science major, and those that wanted to be challenged (I referred to it as university level) . This gave students an opportunity to choose their own goal that they wanted to accomplish. Few students ever took the basic route, as most of them, when given the option, wanted to challenge themselves. They set their goal they wished to achieve, and we assessed them based upon how well they met those goals. Each route had different set of requirements and topics that needed to be explored, they were also given a wide variety of assignments in each category, but no one assignment was mandatory (each category had a number they had to accomplish like 7 problem sets, but was not specific as to which ones), other than final assessments. Students and parents seem to really enjoy this system. Each student was required to assess themselves every week, then a larger assessment at the end of the month. Most times students were pretty harsh on themselves.

However this was a private school, where students have yet to be downtrodden by the system that continually categorizes, separates, and judges them. Here in public school I am not allowed to do that. I was expressly informed that homework must equate to 30 percent of a students grade, combine that withe 30 percent for labs, a student could get a zero on every test for the entire year, do all the homework and labs, and still pass the class with a D-, which is considered passing for graduation. Heck a student could score 25 percent average on all the tests, and pass with a C-. Which is obviously not the true representation of their learning. I am unsure how this system would work in public school, often times students are so disenfranchised they fail to see the point of the learning, which makes it hard to motivate.