Wow, my post title reads like an Onion headline. But in fact, I didn’t read it in the Onion. I read it on Twitter.
Jackie Ballarini asked:
The question is worth thinking about, because it gets to the heart of some pretty deep issues. What is a grade, what is homework, and what is our role as teachers? I’m afraid my opinion will be in the minority and I’m okay with that. Just don’t be too harsh in the comments.
I personally am a fan of homework. I assign it. This year, in my second year, I’m assigning less of it than last year. But it allows me to focus on concepts in class, and has students practice more skills at home. We spend about 1/2 the class learning concepts and building up to being able to solve problems. The other half is solving these problems. Then I assign homework to have students try things on their own, individually, away from their desk partners and with some time between when they first saw the material and when they see it again. Why homework?
1. It forces students to naturalize the skills they’ve learned in class. I think there is something valuable about doing the same problem, but with different numbers, five times over. It drills home basic procedures. Some of my students can’t see something once and remember it. They need time to work through it on their own. And doing it again and again actually does help them.
2. It allows me to have students grapple with slightly newer situations, that we don’t always cover in class. I do this more with my Calculus class than my Algebra II class. Homework has been, at times, an extension of class. (Just to be clear, this isn’t me saying “oops I ran out of time, so you have to learn this new material on your own.” I actually choose a preliminary list of problems, and then revise the list based on where we got to in class.)
3. It is an easy way for me to make sure that all students are learning. If homework were optional, I know that the students who most need to do it to practice their skills won’t do it; and for the most part, students who don’t need it as much will do it. (Note to self: definitely an important point that I should think about.) But yeah, homework is a way for me to easily make sure that students who don’t always get things immediately have time to practice them — and a consequence is that students who do get things quickly have to do some extra work which might be unnecessary.
Clearly though, there are problems with homework. The most apparent being that it is not individualized and not all students need to spend the time on it to be successful. And certainly I agree that coming up with alternative ways to assign homework might be fruitful and worth trying . However that won’t be my concern here, today, in this post.
Back to Jackie’s question. Most of the responses I saw on Twitter were of the “give the kid an A!” variety. And I totally get and respect that point of view. How can one argue against the fact that the student knows the material? And if the student can get straight As without working, and can even teach the material to other students, why would we demand that this student spend the unnecessary time to do what they already understand? Why force busy work upon the student? It doesn’t seem legit.
I see all that.
And yet, I actually believe that the student should be penalized for not doing the homework.
If a grade is merely about the ability of a student to solve problems well, I say okay, give the kid an A. But I don’t see my role as a teacher as only teaching students to work problems. (That is my primary goal, though.) Even though they are in high school, my students are kids. Think to you in your classroom everyday. These kids are learning what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. They are learning what expectations are and how to meet them (or what the consequences are of not meeting them). They are learning how to act with maturity and handle responsibility.
I mean, holding a trashcan in front of a kid so they can spit out their gum, or encouraging them to come to you for extra help, or congratulating them on doing a fantastic job at the basketball game or the school dance concert — these actions affirm implicit values that you are trying to instill in your kids. Yeah, and one of the values is accepting responsibility for your actions.
The students knows that they should be doing their homework. Even if is the most mundane, boring, piece of busy work ever assigned. But the teacher has set up the expectation. And in my opinion, even if the student gets an A+ on every exam and the most perfect angel, the student should then be asked to face the consequences. (And in my class, since homework is factored into the grade, the consequence is that the student’s homework grade would greatly suffer.)
My question is: if we don’t penalize the student, what message are we sending? And if the consequence of not doing the homework is that the student gets an F for all the homeworks that weren’t completed, so be it. The expectations were there, the consequences were laid out, so I say: follow through.
I guess by following through with the grading system that I had been using all year, I am pretty much saying to the bright kid who can’t be bothered to do homework: “Hey, sometimes in life, we all have to do things we don’t like. Things we don’t think we need. But we have to do them anyway.” And guess what? I’m really okay with promoting that value. Welcome to the larger world.
Now I have to end this with a small note. This post isn’t about Jackie’s student. I don’t know her classroom, her student, or her policies/expectations. It’s all highly individual. But if this happened in my classroom, with any of my students, and with my policies/expectations, this would be the consequence.
 There is something really great about Dan Meyer’s class setup, where if you know the skills, you get the grade. If you don’t know the skills, you don’t get the grade. Most notably, it allows students to be active agents in their own learning process. And if a student drops the ball and doesn’t learn something, he or she has the opportunity to pick the ball up again. In Dan’s classroom, grades aren’t punitive but encouragements and sites for individual improvement. However that isn’t my classroom (yet) and I doubt there are many around like it.
I was thinking of trying something next year more along the lines of Jonathan’s comment at the end of Dan’s post:
I assign 3 pieces: practice, regular, and challenge. Everyone does regular, and one of the others. So the stronger kids get a couple of challenge problems, and the weaker kids get a fistful of easier exercises to build up some proficiency. And since it is easier, they are more likely to do it.
Dan himself this year has started assigning homework, but just a little. It seems like he spends a lot of time in class working problems for the drilling aspect I think is so important.