My thoughts on defining homework for today’s educator

The newly appointed president of the Vienna Board of Education has reportedly declared he would like to see schools without homework, no doubt causing many teachers‘ eyes to roll. Homework remains a point of contention, a matter of fervent debate at all levels and in all school types. Many teachers view it as necessary evil, a fact of life, a given, without which learning cannot take place. Other teachers question its validity and efficiency, especially in the 21st century classroom, where the individual needs of students should be put first and foremost. You likely fall into one of these camps and have made your own experiences and observations. What does it look like from my perspective in the Austrian Middle School classroom? 

I fall firmly into the camp of those who think we need an innovative approach to tasks assigned for students outside of the classroom. There are abundant studies on the question of whether homework has a positive or negative effect on academic achievement (here, here or here) and much has been written on the topic (examples here, here or here). My conclusion has been that more harm than good is done by assigning heavy workloads or piles of worksheets. From my experience, there are:

  • those in the class that will do the assignments and don’t need help (they wouldn’t have needed to do the homework in the first place)
  • those who don’t or can’t do it (how does assigning homework help them?)
  • those whose parents do it for them (isn’t that great?)
  • those „smart“ students who simply copy the homework from others before class.

Austria has a set of particularities when it comes to homework. First off, it is by law part of the assessment system, meaning that legally speaking each teacher is obligated to track homework done and not done and this contributes to the grade given at the end of the semester or year. Here it is important to stress that the homework itself is not graded, but rather tracked as part of the „class participation“ (Mitarbeit) aspect of grading. And so you can easily spend your time as an Austrian teacher chasing down homework assignments from negligent pupils so that their grade doesn’t suffer because of it (or of course simply give the poorer grade).

Also, the Austrian school system has traditionally relied on the help of parents, often mothers, to do homework with their children after school. Most schools end between 12 and 2 pm. Sixty-seven percent of women in Austria work, of those forty-five percent work part-time (link). Stories about kids spending hours doing homework with their mothers who re-teach the content already covered in the lesson that day abound. And when all else fails, I have heard (more often than not) mothers simply do the homework for them. And what about those whose parents can’t help them? They fall by the wayside and earn poorer grades because of it. Doesn’t sound fair, does it?

Undoubtedly this is one of the reasons why there have been many calls to abolish or reform homework. I have drawn up a few ground rules for my own practice:

  1. I assign homework that will take 10 to 20 minutes without help.
  2. I gamify homework, often assigning a learning app like a word grid or hangman to review vocabulary.
  3. I flip my classroom, assigning videos to view in preparation of the next lesson or topic.
  4. I extend my classroom, using communication (for example using the Remind app) outside of the classroom so my students can contact me 24/7 if they have a question.

With this system there is no real copying since they should watch a video or do a learning app and respond on a Google form. Most in the class enjoy these assignments and parents have reported that the kids insist on doing assignments without their help. Of course there are those who don’t do it, yet gentle reminders help and I generally allow them to do it in the next lesson.

Believe it or not, almost 100 percent do their homework. And this is the point. I want them to see learning and home assignments as positive and I don’t want parents to spend hours re-explaining things that I am being paid to explain. The practicing takes place during classroom time. And if they need to review something they have access to videos and other learning materials via our class blog or Google classroom.

In my view we are living in an age where we need to motivate students to learn and teach them how to use their time efficiently and wisely. Designing the right kind of home assignments is key to attaining this goal.