How important is homework? – Steven Herder

Important homework is important. “Make-work” homework is evil. Workbook homework is too often mind-numbingly boring, and therefore not useful. Too much homework is cruel. Assigning the same homework for everyone makes sense for about 25% of the class, and therefore, is a waste of time for 75% of the class.

I’ve been battling what to do about homework for most of my teaching career. I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and never quite making it happen. I am very often disappointed with homework by the end of each school year – both what they do for my classes as well as what I see them doing for other classes. Undaunted, I am about to try another new idea from the new
school year in April.

Of course, the key to success is determining what is important with homework. Rather than trying to figure that out myself, I am finally ready to hand that task over to the students. This idea dovetails with my belief in promoting learner autonomy (learning how to learn) and it also supports my belief that students must be engaged in their homework in order for it to have any meaning at all. By giving them joint custody of their homework assignments, I’m hoping that will increase their emotional commitment and their efforts.

My plan is to present the idea that everyone has her own strength and weakness in English. For some it is one of the input skills (reading and listening); for others one of the output skills of speaking and writing might be weaker or stronger. First, they must decide their approach. Do they want to improve a weak area, or do they want to strengthen a natural talent they possess? Both are valid choices, and they are welcome to make changes along the way.

I plan to ask for diary entries that I can confirm in less than a minute by walking around at the beginning of class. I would also assign one student each lesson to give a one-minute report about her homework in front of the whole class. As far as the content of the homework, there are no rules: it can be academically oriented, focused on vocabulary, one of the 4 skills, Western music, TV dramas, etc. I’ll accept anything if they can explain why they are investing time in it.

What do you think? I would love to hear some success stories about homework.

Steven Herder

About Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.