The Homework Balance

In the October issue of Atlantic Monthly, Karl Taro Greenfeld in “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” wrote about an experiment he did. For one week he experienced the homework load that his daughter brought from her middle school. Each day, for 7 days, he followed the assignment list that she brought home, including the weekend. His typical night was 3 hours of study time. It appears, and Karl doesn’t say explicitly, that the clocked hours were his, and that his daughter may have been spending more time than him.

The questions the article seems to pose are:shutterstock_79376380

  • How much homework is enough, and when does it become too much?
  • What purpose does homework serve—or possibly, what purpose should it serve?

One unintended opportunity of this one-week experiment was collaborative conversations between father and daughter. Their rich conversation about the assignments probably deepened his daughter’s understanding of the content. The experience, by Karl’s admission, raised his understanding of the classwork, which helped him to advocate for his daughter during the Middle School’s parent-teacher conference—because he understood the workload and scope to clearly articulate concerns in ways that could lead to a productive conversation. Having sat at both ends of the table as a teacher and parent, addressing student needs at a conference works well when both parties see the issues and needs in a similar student context. Parent(s) and teacher may not agree about what’s needed at first, but shared understanding of the situation and the impact on learning can lead to some interesting answers, especially if everyone is will to collaborate.

How much homework is enough, and when does it become too much?

This is a question that many grapple with. Giving lots of homework may seem a good thing when considering that the typical school calendar is about 180 out of 365 days, content expectations per grade level continues to expand and become more complex each decade, and school staff are judged by the results of state standardized tests. A form of the following question is asked If not more homework, then how do we ensure that students get  (not deeply learn) all that they need to know? The answer, as Karl Greenfeld discovered is telling. When he struggled with conjugation of various verb tenses, he asks help from his daughter about the meaning of such a verb as tener:

“[S]he repeats “Memorization, not rationalization. She doesn’t know what the words mean (p. 83).”student 4

When any of us feel overwhelmed with work and deadlines we can go into survival mode. Students are no different. It’s difficult to learn something deeply if the time frame does not allow for it. Sure, we can pull late or all-nighters, but those have an inevitable toll on our physical and mental well being to maintain high performance. The work quality becomes shallow so that there is time to get it all done. Another consequence is that students will do what easier work for themselves first and push back the tasks that challenge them to learn. The result is that the most complex work is dealt with when the student is the most tired and not as mentally sharp.

The National Parent Teachers Organization recommends a sliding scale for the amount of homework assigned based on 10 minutes per grade level per night. Period.

“How much homework is too much? Both National PTA and the National Education Association endorse the 10-minute rule, which states that the maximum amount of homework (all subjects combined) should not exceed 10 minutes per grade level per night. That is, a 1st-grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework, a 6th-grader no more than 60 minutes, and a 12th-grader no more than two hours” (Reference).

This makes communication vital among teachers of a grade level team so that students are not overloaded with homework. On average, students in Middle School will take 6 classes: The core–Math, Science, English, and Social Studies—and electives such as Health, Foreign Language, or Art, etc. In High School, students are looking at a minimum of 6 classes. When a classroom teacher assigns homework that they estimates will take an hour to complete, multiply that by 4 core classes and students could be looking at 4 hours of homework, possibly longer for content areas that they struggle with and homework given by electives such as Spanish in the case of Karl’s daughter’s Spanish work. A solution that I’ve seen several staffs take is to designate certain days of the week as for homework by specific courses. For example, Math may be Tuesday and Thursday. For those who balk at this idea because of a belief that their subject is critical for content coverage, consider the above look at how students, when overwhelmed with work, go into survival mode and complete work at a more superficial level or just push off such lengthy work to last, which leads to lesser focus on quality by the student.

Parents can be an important source of support because they see the workload that their children bring home. Where a teacher’s is understandably focused on student development in their course, parents have a balcony view of what is being assigned across the student’s courses.  Surveying parents or listening to their concerns on homework load is important. Students are another source. It’s sometimes difficult to feel sympathy when students complain in class about being overloaded with work—okay, it’s always feels difficult to feel sympathy—because we expect them to “complain” about homework. But such feedback is worth at least investigating. If other teachers are assigning major homework at the same time, that can be as stressful as taking major exams in all courses during the same week. The difference is that major exams happen 8 to 18 weeks apart. Homework may be assigned daily. Student complaints is a signal to check in with other teachers about assignment loads, and possible coordination on scheduling. Remember the recommendations of 10 minutes per grade level per night.

Taking these steps will help students balance their time so that homework from each subject is given a more quality attention because students would have more energy. There is another factor to fine-tune homework time so that students get the most out of the time taken on the assignments. This is the question of purpose, which will be addressed in the next post.