All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


05 June 2011


Via EducationNews, I learn that there's a district that is considering a "ban" on homework over the weekend and over holidays. Apparently "the homework debate" has picked up in recent years -- what with mounting concerns about children's stress levels and such.

I'm not writing to take sides in this debate, other than perhaps to say that I don't see how a child can learn to write a 10-page paper without actually writing it, and that it seems impossible to both teach how to write such a paper and write it in the same 50-minute increments that make up the typical classroom. Presumably this would carry over to certain other specific kinds of tasks, too.

I'm writing today to talk about the nature and purpose of homework. What's it for? Galloway Township, the district that is the subject of the article, has this to say:

The Board of Education believes that homework relevant to material presented in class provides an opportunity to broaden, deepen or reinforce the pupil’s knowledge. Teachers must use discretion in deciding the number and length of assignments. The board encourages the use of interrelated major homework assignments, such as term papers, themes and creative art projects.

I have to say, that's not terribly helpful. "Broaden, deepen or reinforce"? Well which is it? (Let's put aside the serial comma rule for now.)

Deepen and broaden seem almost to be synonyms to my ear. One deepens one's knowledge of a subject by broadening one's view of what's relevant to it. An example might be a history research paper on a topic only mentioned in class. Perhaps the teacher spent 6 minutes talking about Guadalcanal, for instance, in the course of discussing the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific. Now the student can go write a paper focusing on the strategic value of the airfield or something. The student's knowledge of the battle is being broadened, in that new facts are being added, and deepened in that these new facts are being integrated into his or her view of what was at stake and how things fell out.

Likewise, you might assign students some poems to read and think about for homework. Their overall knowledge is broadening by being exposed to new poetry, and their knowledge of poetry itself is deepening in that these new poems are becoming part of what they think about when they think about poetry.

Reinforcement, on the other hand, just sounds like practice. And practice is really necessary for any sort of skill. If you pay some rice to study kung-fu with the ancient master, for instance, you don't just practice it when you're in his immediate presence. You also practice it when you're by yourself. Presumably you practice because you want to get good at it. Likewise, if you want to get good at math, it's probably a good idea to practice until the operations become second nature. That's how you develop fluency, and expertise. (It's entirely plausible to say that this is a form of "deepening" one's knowledge; that's not how I'd use the term, but I'm hardly the arbiter of semantic content.)

One might be forgiven for thinking that fluency and expertise in a subject is the very purpose of education. On the other hand, smart people have told me that the purpose of college is to make one an acceptable conversationalist at cocktail parties, so go figure.

These are two VERY different roles that homework, according to the board, can accomplish. And it seems to me that they are justified in very different ways. The first type of homework -- broadening/deepening -- is justified in the same way that any other curricular content is justified: it is part of what is being taught. The fact that it is assigned as homework is merely due to the fact that there aren't enough hours in the school day. Otherwise it would be perfectly appropriate to have the students work on their papers in the classroom or in the library.

The justification for the second type -- practice -- seems far less stable to me. Practice in class and practice at home seem like very different things, and the latter is, on my view, wholly dependent on the student's caring about developing fluency and expertise. If he doesn't want to practice, well, he won't do as well on the test. But that seems like it should be his business. Using homework to show that a student has "sufficiently mastered a skill" seems rather backwards to me. That's a thing for exams under controlled conditions. To go back to the kung fu analogy, if you don't practice, you don't get the red sash of the Flopping Dragon school, because the Master won't pass you.

So I can see a reason to have the first type of homework as something assigned. I can only see the second as justified in terms of providing optional opportunities for practice.

I make the conclusions about justification tentatively, and I certainly don't think I've proven anything. But I am certain that the underlying premise -- that the justification for homework depends on its nature and purpose -- is correct. I invite comments, as always.


Rachel Levy said...

This is a very interesting post on homework (and I'm so glad, btw that you've gotten your blog up & going again).

One thing to consider is the age or level of the student. My 2nd grade sons, for example, do some broadening in their hw but they mostly do practice since before they can do something like write a ten-page research paper, they need to have a certain amount of background knowledge & facts at their disposal as well as be equipped with some more analysis & synthesis know-how. I see no problem with their practicing at home, though I'd be open to hearing arguments as to why it might be a useless activity if you or others have them.

Once they get into middle and especially high school, they are more ready to apply their knowledge & spend more time on hw that broadens & deepens.

I'm not saying that ES students shouldn't deepen or broaden knowledge or that MS & HS students don't need practice, just that the amount of time spent on each will probably be different and at least partly justified by developmental reasons.

Cedar said...

Good post.
The difference between broad and deep depends on how you conceive of the hierarchical structure of the concepts you are studying. Take history of the civil war. You might have it organized by battle. Let's say you study the overall path of the war in class. For homework, you could drill down into studying strategy for one particular battle (deepening) or study the overall political climate in 1862 (broadening).
And like Rachel said, practice (or reinforcement) is critical for the early ages, just getting them to know the number line by heart is something that takes a fair amount of practice. But I think this kind of practice gets a bad rap in upper grades as well. There is a fair amount of research supporting the educational benefit of retrieval practice (trying to remember something). Of course, this can come as a test, but it could also come with lower stakes, and lower stress, as part of homework.

Michael E. Lopez said...


I hope I didn't seem as if I was saying that practice was a useless activity! My point isn't that students -- even younger students -- shouldn't practice things at home, even through homework. It was merely that the assigning of homework-as-practice isn't something that really is justified, given that the student who wants to develop mastery will practice the things he or she has learned anyway, and the student who doesn't is likely to merely "practice" pro forma, and thus get far less out of the activity.

I'm of the mind that "practice" homework should almost always be optional. Now, with younger kids, maybe you want to get them into the habit of practicing. So maybe you set up coercive systems to promote the habit of practice, and social reinforcement for having practiced.

But then your real goal isn't the practice itself -- it's the development of certain character habits; you've got something else you're up to that has its own (perfectly good, mind you) justification. I'm perfectly fine with that.

My bottom line? Ceteris paribus, no one should be forced to practice something they don't want to get good at. Of course, as I'm fond of saying, ceteris are very, very rarely paribus. Which brings us to Cedar's comment:

Cedar -- I'm not saying practice isn't the path to Carnegie Hall. It surely is! I'm actually a huge fan of rote practice, of having things like times tables and such be so deeply ingrained that they pass into the realm of the intuitive.

The question that I think needs to be asked is whether a given skill set should be practiced. Obviously, when a child is younger, "should" questions like this are more appropriately deferred to parents, and as I mentioned immediately above, a certain amount of values-inculcation is, I think, not just possible, but morally required.

So I want to make clear that I don't have a problem with making a third grader, say, do 100 multiplication problems to make sure the algorithms get imprinted. The third grader isn't really in a position to be able to judge whether learning this skill is a benefit or not.

But past a certain point -- somewhere between 9 and 15, and it's not a sheer divide in any case -- if a child doesn't want to practice something, I just don't see a benefit in forcing the issue. Somewhere in that nebulous age range, a child has to take ownership of his or her academic future (and of his or her future in general). Assigning graded homework as practice (rather than as deepening/broadening) after that point is, I think, silly and counterproductive.

Cedar said...

Yeah, I agree that at some point, students should take control over their own practice.
It is funny that you mention between 9 and 15, because as a college teacher, I see it as taking place sometime in college. I guess it depends on what you mean by taking ownership of your academic future. Even successful middle class kids, well throughout high school, do things for a grade, because you need grades to go to college. These kids are mostly going to practice whatever you tell them to. And I am not entirely sure that is a bad thing. My college students' eyes often glaze over when I try to tell them the various reasons for my pedagogical choices, or the justification for the structure of the psychology major. A 14 year old kid is not going to know why he should read X before Y, or learn X before Y.

Once these kids get to college, at some point they have to realize that they need to find something they like, and some modicum of internal motivation (I like this because it is interesting). From my experience, relatively few college students begin college with this.

All of which is a meandering way of saying that I think this is complicated, and that we should resist homework bans, or mandatory homework. We should give teachers more leeway to figure out what homework works for their students.

Michael E. Lopez said...

That seems sound.

Just for reference -- I was maybe 11 when my Dad told me he didn't want to see my report cards anymore, that I had to start learning and getting grades because it's what I wanted to do.

It was a very liberating experience.