We teachers don’t really like homework. It’s not really that fun to plan. Its not really that interesting to grade. And, despite what many students may believe, it’s not really that pleasurable getting them to turn it in.
So why do we give it, day after day after day, year after year? Why do we weave it into the very fabric of how students are graded and judged? And why do we give so damn much of it? Are we sadists? Do we hate students, parents, and ourselves? Or is it our way of retaliating from the abuse we’ve received at the condemned end of the “Everything-That-Is-Wrong-With-Public-Education” finger-pointing firing squad?
All fair questions. But in Cathy Vatterott’s eminently readable new book, Rethinking Homework (ASCD, 2009), we find that there are no clear or simple answers to these or many other (much more compelling) questions. However, that does not stop her from exploring and explaining the myriad issues surrounding homework “cult(ure)” and offering compelling reasons and accessible strategies for upgrading to Homework 2.0.
The book is split into 5 main chapters that essentially cover history, dynamics, research, practices, and strategies. The effect is that the reader gains knowledge of homework’s history as well as the philosophical underpinnings that maintain the traditional paradigm and frame the current debate. However, Ms. Vatterott was not given the moniker The Homework Lady because she knows the history of homework.
Her suggested methods for thinking about, planning, and giving homework have relevance for a wide audience that includes teachers, administrators, professors, and parties interested in reforming education for the sake of all students. Because while this is a methods book for practitioners, it is, at its heart, a book about equality in education. She aims no lower than reforming (or rethinking) homework for the sake of all students.
The Cult(ure) of Homework
Citing numerous research articles, Ms. Vatterott begins by taking the reader on a historical tour of homework, highlighting the attitudes and catalysts surrounding the practice. While the journey feels like a swing, with public attitude making regular arcs between two main camps (Pro-homework vs. Pro-No-homework), she handles the ride with a steady and engaging hand.
In seeking to lay “bare the culture of homework,” she offers “5 largely unexamined beliefs about children and learning”.
- Belief #1: The role of the school is to extend learning beyond the classroom.
- Belief #2: Intellectual activity is intrinsically more valuable than nonintellectual activity.
- Belief #3: Homework teaches responsibility.
- Belief #4: Lots of homework is a sign of a rigorous curriculum.
- Belief #5: Good teachers give homework; good students do their homework.
It is from these flawed beliefs that she goes on to frame the culture of homework as a dogma. “Homework culture is a complex mix of moralistic views, puritanism, and behaviorism.” (p. 13) Her examination of these three components leads to a brief exploration of the “forces driving the current pro-homework/anti-homework debate.” (p. 16).
- No Child Left Behind
- Media and Technology
- The New Mass Hysteria.
- The Balance Movement
These histories, beliefs, and forces combine to form the foundation from which Ms. Vatterott frames the execution of her central goal: “to create a new paradigm for homework that focuses on academic success for all students.” (p. 96)
Homework in the Context of the New Family
The second chapter effectively unpacks the shifting dynamics of the “standard” family structure and the role new parenting styles play in disrupting the traditional relationships between schools and families. It is a fascinating chapter that highlights a range of factors affecting the interactions between teachers, schools, and parents. “A diversity in family values makes it even more likely that those values will clash with the values of individual teachers.” (p. 27)
This makes perfect sense and only becomes more complex as Ms. Vatterott exposes the layers and layers of diversity operating in today’s demographics of parenthood. Depending on who you are and what your values are, the problem with homework might be any number of things. By aiming to fix any one of the problems, we only create or exacerbate issues elsewhere. We begin to see that homework is in great need of a comprehensive overhaul.
Some of the diversities that influence perspective on homework include:
- Parenting styles
- Beliefs about the place of academic work in life
- Parent involvement in homework
- Economic realities
- Power structures at home
While any one of these topics could create enough fodder for a Malcolm Gladwell book, the brief exposure to them has the cumulative effect of making the homework dilemma seem downright impossible to solve. I imagine that that is precisely the emotion Ms. Vatterott is aiming for in her readers at this point in the text, because the remaining structure of her book seeks to offer knowledge and strategies for implementing a new paradigm.
She begins the rebuilding process with 7 steps for “Renegotiating the Parent-School Relationship” (p. 46):
- Get real.
- Resist the temptation to judge.
- Revise expectation of parental support.
- Suggest (do not mandate) guidelines for the parent’s role in homework.
- Establish formal methods of parent-teacher communication.
- Set parents’ minds at ease about homework.
- Endorse a set of inalienable homework rights.
Though it is not expounding on in this book, these step have value far beyond homework. There is a renegotiation going on right now between the public and our education system. However, the idea of resisting “the temptation to judge” does not seem to be one of the core strategies being utilized in reform efforts by any party.
Homework Research and Common Sense
While much of the chapter explores a range of research topics related to homework (as the title suggests), she spends equal time dissecting the methods, problems, and biases of research in this field. In many ways it feels like Ms. Vatterott is tilling the soil by unearthing assumptions and preparing minds for the planting of new seeds.
It is an effective approach, as it readies the reader for her final two chapters in which she lays out strategies for providing homework that works for all students.
To begin with, she offers 4 general findings related to homework research:
- The amount of time spent doing homework is positively correlated with achievement.
- Homework appears to be more effective for older students than younger students.
- As more variables are controlled for, the correlation between homework and achievement diminishes.
- At each grade level, there appears to be an optimum amount of homework.
After spending the middle portion of the chapter highlighting the limitations of the research, she provides “Ten Things Teachers Know About Learning”:
- Quality Teaching Matters
- Skills Require Practice
- Time on Task Matters
- Task Is as Important as Time
- Learning Is Individual
- Children Differ in Readiness and Developmental Level
- Children Differ in Learning Style
- Children Differ in motivation, Persistence, and Organizational Skills
- Frustration Is Detrimental to Motivation and Desire to Learn
- Homework That Is Not Completed Doesn’t Help Learning
This section is a curious addition to me. I wonder who it is intended for. The teachers who know this? The teachers who don’t? The parents who question what teachers know? Or is it included to remind all readers of the building blocks that form the foundation for constructing knowledge and creating homework routines that cultivate understanding?
Practices and Strategies
The second half of the book focuses entirely on developing homework practices and strategies that work. “The ENTIRE second half?!” you ask? Yes. No one said it would be easy and simple to create a new paradigm for homework. In fact, as with creating any lesson or unit, Ms. Vatterott makes it clear that giving homework should be a very intentional act built on sound pedagogical practices, clear objectives, and nuanced approaches.
It is here that Ms. Vatterott distinguishes herself from the rest of the pack in the Great Homework Debate.
As a pragmatist she understands that homework, love it or hate it, is, and will be, a part of our educational landscape for a long time to come (though I suspect she aligns herself closer to the no-homework camp than with the pro-homework camp). Utilizing skills she’s developed as a teacher, principal, and professor, Ms. Vatterott showcases her skill at facilitating professional development, with grounded practices balancing theory with the reality of application.
Her strategies for helping teachers create and assign homework are firmly rooted in practicality, backed by clearly stated rationale and research, and held together by her keystone commitment to helping all students experience success. This commitment drives her to create myriad materials to enable any teacher of any age create a game plan that works for them.
It is in these chapters that the value of the book as a resource for teachers, administrators, and professors training pre-service teachers is undeniable.
Cathy Vatterott has crafted a timely and useful guide for understanding and transcending the recurring debate related to traditional homework. She makes clear that if we truly aim to utilize homework as an integral curricular component that enhances instruction and learning, we must be ever vigilant to examine what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we can do it better.
Additionally, I think it is a necessary, though dangerous, book for parents. After reading many parents may find that Ms. Vatterott’s recommendations have not been assimilated into their child’s classroom and this could be frustrating. Such frustration may well lead to conflict before understanding. However, if that frustration can lead toward increased collaboration with schools or to more informed conversations with policymakers, it may serve to hasten meaningful reform in education.
For now, it is a worthwhile read for teachers and principals seeking to elevate homework from a blindly accepted practice to a tool that contributes to cultivating lifelong learners. For preservice teachers, it is a text that will help him/her question norms they see in action, and to daydream of practices more aligned with equality and excellence for all.