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Do We Hafta? (Homework as Instruction)

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

- This is the second article on classical education in a series of three. The first focused on testing. The present article considers homework. In the third, I will discuss classical lesson planning.

Means without Ends

A recent letter to the editor in the LA Times reads, “My job as a teacher is not only to educate my students, but also to turn them into employable and responsible adults.”

Is it?

The teacher goes on to insist that she must give homework to structure her students’ home lives - how else could children develop the skills of planning and organizing?

The lack of a limiting principle is troubling. How many hours of a child’s day does she think she should control - 8 hours, 10 hours, all waking hours? Should she set bedtime and select their vitamins? Should she prohibit their parents from letting them play unassigned video games?

This teacher also blithely takes for granted that homework will instill the desired skills, even though:

- students must already have these skills in order to complete the homework, and

- decades of everyone being given loads of homework has not produced a population that is particularly well-organized or interested in planning.

The letter writer leaves many questions unanswered. Is schoolwork so much more valuable than being responsible for the family’s Tuesday’s dinner? Why is doing 25 identical math problems better for future employability than taking a babysitting gig? Tellingly, she never mentions the existence of parents, much less their status as primary educators. The teacher-author of the Times letter had good reason to skip anything like a real argument: Unexamined attitudes and assumptions undergird American homework practices. The classical movement aims to examine those attitudes and assumptions. Classical teachers are willing to question everything in pursuit of the good.

Let us consider a classically-inspired set of claims as a beginning.

A Cavalcade of Provocative Claims

• The purpose of homework is instructional; neither the glamour of rigor nor the promotion of an independent work ethic can justify the giving of homework.

• If an activity is important for learning, it is worthy of class time.

• Homework’s dominion over evenings and weekends is a symptom of a bloated, improperly curated, and unrealistic curriculum.

• Teachers should not assign homework to compensate for “not enough time” in the classroom.

• Teachers should partner with parents, not outsource instruction to them.

• The student who has engaged attentively in all in-class unit activities - but whose circumstances suddenly & unexpectedly prevent her from studying at home the night before a unit test - should still expect a B+ or better on the test.

• Unless the course is collegiate or graduate, the direction to “study” is not a sufficient homework assignment.

• Homework is not the moment for discovery learning or improvisation. Classical education has ample room for those, and does not need to strand them at a kitchen table.

• Assignments should be designed to cultivate habits of excellence but not perfectionism.

• In their capacity as primary educators, the parents of primary, elementary, and middle school students retain the right to excuse their children from a given homework assignment.

• Teachers should coordinate homework assignments so as not to burden students with the equivalent of a part time job.

• The destiny of students is the Beatific Vision, not the boardroom. Homework shouldn’t compromise their chances at the former for a shot at the latter.

• Schooling is but one facet of education, and so should not crowd out other educational experiences, e.g., weekday Masses, sports and music practices, play rehearsals, protests and prayer vigils, and trips for competitions.

• Is homework healthy? Medical needs are real needs; health must not be the cost of a good education. American teens face a biologically disastrous sleep crisis. And a species designed for daylight spends over 90% of its life indoors, like the Morlocks imagined by HG Wells. Homework abets and exacerbates these twin health calamities. Schools must take care to be better stewards of students’ time and health. If we follow the science, might we instead aim to support students in getting out of the Google classroom and logging 1,000 hours of outdoor play each year?

• The right to leisure and family time shall not be abridged. Whatever time is not strictly necessary for schooling is reserved to the families, or to the students.

Legitimate Homework

What do classical teachers ask students to do outside the classroom?

If we treat homework as a mode of instruction and are committed to limiting lesson creep, then we come to the core criterion for homework assignments in the form of a question:

What is essential to learning but cannot be accomplished effectively in the classroom?

Examples & Elaborations

• Classical educators aim to inculcate fewer lessons and skills but in a deeper, richer, and more lasting manner. Memory work benefits from frequent, short sessions. Frequency can be better achieved throughout the day: Five minutes of Latin vocabulary review done before bedtime is better than five extra minutes of class time practice, or none. (It is also better than 30 minutes of homework.) Previously, I made a case for Lagging Homework. I argue that students should be thoroughly competent before we assign a skill to be practiced apart from the guidance of the instructor. As a tennis coach, I cringed to hear that a novice “practiced” her serve by herself over the weekend; as a basketball coach, I never asked beginners to go home and shoot free throws in the driveway alone. Why would finding the hypotenuse or conjugating esse be any different?

Unskilled practice does nothing but entrench mistakes and poor form. At best, it is a waste of time; at worst, students learn to hate the material and to lose faith in their abilities. Instead, classical teachers assign exercises that reinforce already mastered skills and help students practice to automaticity - overlearning, if you will - in keeping with the classical vision of long-term retention. Lagging homework is also accomplished faster, so less time at home is taken.

• It bears repeating that to assign overly complex, long, or difficult tasks is to impose on parents who often have no idea how to teach a concept or how to comprehend the directions and who almost always have not enough time to do the teacher’s job for him. Directions should be simple, clear, and spelled out on paper.

• Keep in mind that students vary greatly in ability, pace, and ideals. Assignments made for after-hours should be clearly limned so that students know whether and when they have completed them correctly. Limiting an assignment by time rather than by task completion is one way to do this. For example, “Set a timer for five minutes: using this list, say all your vocabulary words and their definitions aloud. Mark on your list any word you could not explain to your satisfaction. If you finish before five minutes have elapsed, repeat the process or look up in your notes the terms that gave you trouble. Be ready to tell me which terms, if any, could use some class review or clarification.”

Other examples of clearly defined HW:

-watching a short instructional video and writing down one question or observation in preparation for class discussion

-reading aloud to oneself

-four math questions on Khan Academy (answers and explanations are included in the website’s program)

Assignments that knit together pieces of various classes, assigned by teachers in concert with one another, help meet the need for integration of disciplines/classes. Perhaps:

- a short essay explaining the effects of germ theory on history (English, Science, History)

- making two different graphs of the same data for different purposes (Civics, Math)

- expanding a saint’s quote into a short essay using facts about the saint (Theology, Rhetoric)

Note: not all of this work would be completed at home or in one sitting.

• Homework is an opportunity to foster family time rather than compete with it. A religion teacher might have students ask their parents about how they chose personal mentors in faith; the parent/guardian signs a slip of paper vouching for the conversation. A science teacher might require a student to verbally explain the difference between convection and radiation to a family member.

Classical Conclusions

Very likely, even the most sympathetic reader will disagree with some of the above claims. Please take the time to articulate for yourself your own set of principles for the sake of pedagogical coherence in your classroom. Doing so is not extra work, for Catholic educators in the classical movement must constantly tune their instruction to match the design and plans of our Creator God.

Lastly, if we take St. Benedict and the monastic roots of Catholic education as our guides, we note that much and many are different things, and one should be prized more than the other; the monk who works additional hours when he should be praying with his brothers is given no laurel branch.

Multum non multa,


photo: Will van Wingerden on Unsplash

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