Homework and the Purpose of School

Paulo Friere

Paulo Friere

I sit on a homework and grading committee for my district. Our job is to help decide what homework in our schools looks like. There is a general sentiment that it is too much, or not beneficial like we previously thought. But we haven't really stopped to define homework or consider where it came from.

It seems like it's rooted in fairly fundamental understandings of education, learning, and the school's role. Traditionally, homework is school work done at home. But under that definition, there are many different types of homework. The forms fall into two categories: practicing of taught skills and acquisition of new information to be used in class (flipped classroom). Reading, essay writing, projects, completing math problems, and writing sentences with spelling words in them, sit under these headings.

The purpose of homework seems to be multifaceted. Below are several motivations I can think of.

  • Acquisition: Teachers give homework because they want their students to have material for classroom activities. This includes front-loading reading/watching something to gain new information.
    • To make more efficient use of time in class.
    • Because the curriculum can't be covered in class alone.
  • Reinforcement: Teachers give homework because they want students to practice skills/demonstrate understanding that they were taught already in class.
  • Rigor: Teachers give homework to prove their instruction is rigorous to administration/parents/students. 
  • Responsibility: Teachers want to provide the opportunity for students to develop and practice responsibility through independent work completion.
  • Babysitting: Homework is given to occupy students after school. It is used/given to fill time outside of class.

To figure out which of these motivations are better than others, it takes examining what the purpose of the education system is, which is a vast question. To answer that, we have Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He pursued education as a practice of freedom that leads to individuals truthfully seeing and understanding reality. This sits in contrast to the economic motivation that our current system was birthed out of--the need for skilled laborers that would drive our economy forward. The testing, higher education, and credentials largely serve to separate society into different categories and prepare students for the workforce. 

But what Freire speaks to is an education that seeks to free the individual. In this freedom, there is the potential to live well and govern oneself. Very much like Locke, independence and self-governance were core values. Self-governed people were the way to a better society--a free-thinking, rational society. 

I want to add "care" in there. I want a free-thinking, rational, caring society (Nel Noddings). I'm not against capitalism or students acquiring skills that profit them and drive the economy forward. But I don't want that to be the primary motivation. I want that to be the residual effect of developing children into free-thinking, self-governed, and caring members of society. 

So, what sort of homework supports that end? I can't really say. Those categories listed above could very well be developing self-governance in students. Math problems could be helping students make connections and apply those new understandings to the world they occupy. An essay could be a practice in students exercising and learning their voice. Reading a textbook may kindle a new perspective. 

It again transforms into an issue of what homework is taking the place of. Time with family, play, and self-directed pursuit of interests could be better than the structured development homework necessitates. So maybe the problem is the structure, the mandated work that homework unavoidably requires. This would explain why a sustained project sounds better to me than a math worksheet. A project brings the student closer to developing self-governance and provides more breathing room for their own problem solving, creativity, and passion. Less definition.