As an educator, I have always been a little skeptical about homework. Not that I think that it should be completely eliminated, but that I don’t think that we spend enough time thinking about why we are assigning it. As a parent, my emotional reaction to homework runs from exasperation to frustration to increased skepticism.

There are, of course, kinds of assignments that may lend themselves better to homework. For younger children, practicing reading at home is really helpful. Games also make for great homework, particularly if you can interact with your child through them. Writing assignments also lend themselves well to homework as do educational games, particularly if they provide feedback to the teacher on the students’ performances. Some teachers are even flipping their classrooms and having students watch videos of how to do something (think Kahn Academy) and doing the deliberate practice in the classroom.

In part, I get frustrated at home with homework not because of any philosophical objection, but because I am feeding on my kids’ frustration with some of the homework that they have to do. In a recent podcast episode, Michael Britt pointed at that many homework sheets, particularly those for math don’t just ask students to complete the same kind of work that they did in class, but ask them to take the knowledge several steps further. This is why your child (and possibly you) might be banging her head against the wall doing the last four math problems.

What is happening is that the first part of the homework reflects the work done in class and has them applying the same strategies over and over again. This is helpful as it builds fluency in the process. With the later more challenging tasks, the teacher is hoping that the students will deepen their understanding by completing the more challenging problems by shifting the approach that they are using. Instead, they keep applying the one approach without any flexibility. The teacher wants the student to look at the problem, analyze why the original strategy didn’t work, and adapt it to help get the right answer.

Just doing this kind of extension work at home means that the teacher might never see whether the child has the metacognition skills to think about how they are thinking about a problem. If, however, we give them more opportunities in school to share their thinking (perhaps by talking through problems in groups), the teacher is positioned to help them shift their thinking. In other words, we as parents get frustrated with homework because we’re being asked to help support our children’s transformation of the knowledge from the rote practice that they were doing in the early problems into more complex approximations in later problems.

Your children are going to be faced with these kinds of homework assignments and you need to be prepared to help them. The key is to make sure that you are not doing the work for them. The teacher needs to see whether your child understands the work, not if you do. Here are some hints for helping your child approach her homework.

  1. Ask them to explain what the task is. Encourage them to re-read the instructions, if you think that they don’t understand them.
  2. You should review the homework with your child. Pay attention to whether they have answered all of the problems.
  3. If your child is wrong, don’t give them the correct answer. Instead, ask your child to explain their answer. Ask them if the answer makes sense and have them explain the problem.

Happy homework helping!