Homework is a Social Justice Issue

70327486_e2c5ae62f7_oWhen a teacher assigns homework, she makes some big assumptions about students’ home lives. Do they have the requisite supplies? A quiet place to study? Supportive parents or guardians who will motivate them to work? Knowledgable guardians who can assist with challenging problems?

But even these questions have significant assumptions underlying them. Do students have a stable family life? Or does the return home in the afternoon bring an increase of stress and anxiety about their family’s well-being? Single parents working multiple jobs, for example, may put the “parenting” of young children onto the shoulders of their older siblings. The increased responsibility likely increases the stress experienced by the older child, while simultaneously reducing time for academic study outside of school.

Situations like these are not isolated incidences. In fact, they are common — and increasingly so. Recently released data show that the majority of American public school students are living in poverty. Researchers have also documented that students from low-income families tend to have a chronically higher level of anxiety than their middle- and upper-class peers. This anxiety reduces working memory load, diminishing their ability to utilize and develop higher-order cognitive capacities. And this reduced cognitive growth at early stages in life compounds as young people progress through school. (Thanks to Laura Eakman, graduate student at CU–Boulder, for bringing some of these resources to my attention.)

While schools can provide low-income students with warmth, food, supplies, and a knowledgeable teacher, asking students to bring essential work home with them may remove those pillars of support from their educational process. Further, making in-class work dependent on progress made at home invites that stress into the classroom and diminishes the positive effect of those support structures that the school has put in place.

This negative effect is compounded by the use of digital technology. As some educators have noted, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) practices privilege students of financial means. And as some districts are finding, that privilege is also reinforced where schools — or external technology grants — provide students with identical equipment. While students may be on a relatively level playing field in class, students do not have equal access to a reliable internet connection at home. Some have no access at all. Nevermind the disparity in technological expertise among parents, guardians, and siblings for when students need help with their homework.

The bottom line is this: a pedagogical strategy that is homework-dependent will treat students unequally. Homework privileges students of privilege — students with multiple parents or guardians who do not work evenings, students without jobs and significant domestic responsibilities, students whose families can afford the technology necessary to do the work asked of them.

While education is often held up as the antidote to poverty, it is quite possible that the opposite is the case. An education that is dependent on homework, especially if it requires expensive technology, may actually reduce social mobility.

The Flipped Classroom: A Cautionary Tale

The bottom line is this: a pedagogical strategy that is homework-dependent will treat students unequally.

During my first year of full-time teaching, I began experimenting with the flipped, or inverted, classroom. While there are many different approaches to flipped pedagogy, I began where many instructors do: video “lectures” for students to watch outside of class, so that class time could be freed up for active student work. Implementation varies, of course, but flipped pedagogy has a solid theoretical basis: put student work that requires a low cognitive load (such as information delivery or memorization) outside of class so that the time spent in the presence of peers and the teacher can be devoted to higher-order thinking and more complex tasks.

I made my students a series of high-definition videos. I teach music, and the HD quality was necessary to make the music notation legible and to provide audio that would allow students to hear all of the nuances in each example. I then shared the videos with the students via a file-sharing service. To watch my videos, each student had to download several hundred megabytes of video each week.

Most of these students lived on our residential university campus. We quickly found the university wifi network not up to the challenge — especially if the students were attempting their homework during prime Netflix and gaming hours. Many of my students, through no fault of their own, were unable to prepare for the challenging tasks planned for class.

While this arrangement made sense psychologically and socially, unfortunately the technology was “flipped.” It made it more difficult for students to access the information, even if it was easier to process once it was accessed.

I quickly shifted pedagogical gears. In those early flipped sessions, I asked what is the most cognitively and pedagogically appropriate use of class time and homework time? and made assignment decisions accordingly. After discovering the technological hurdles, I had to ask what is the most cognitively, pedagogically, and technologically appropriate use of class time and homework time? The resulting approach was still in the realm of flipped pedagogy, but with more reliance on text, and using videos only when text was not up to the task. (This collection of resources formed the beginning of what is now an online “text”book, Open Music Theory.)

Blooms Taxonomy and Social Justice

Advocates of the flipped classroom often frame their pedagogy in light of Benjamin Bloom’s (revised) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This taxonomy puts low-cognitive-load tasks like memorization and comprehension on the bottom of the hierarchy, and high-cognitive-load tasks like analysis and creation on the top of the hierarchy. Lecture-based teaching tends to put the lower, foundational tasks in class and the higher-order activities into homework and take-home projects. Flipped pedagogy reverses this, often drawing on digital technology to facilitate the transfer of information outside of a class lecture.

I advocate adding another dimension to Bloom’s Taxonomy — one that incorporates consideration of social justice alongside pedagogical philosophy and cognitive psychology. This does not come in the form of a chart, but rather a series of questions to ask before assigning a task for out-of-class student work:

Does the task sit low on Bloom’s Taxonomy? In other words, are students likely to be able to do it independently?

If not, does the task build primarily on work already performed or begun in class? In other words, have students already had sufficient opportunity to dig deep into the task and work through their difficulties in the presence of peers and/or the teacher?

Does the task require only the technology to which all students have sufficient access outside of school?

Can the task reasonably be accomplished, alongside homework from other classes, by students whose home life includes part-time work, significant household responsibilities, or a heightened level of anxiety at home?

When the answer to any of these questions is “no,” we run the risk of disadvantaging students from lower-income families. And so we must consider: is this task pedagogically necessary? If so, we should strongly consider making room for it in class so that all may benefit from it.

Education is often lauded as the great equalizer, the giver of opportunity to the disadvantaged. However, a homework-dependent, technology-heavy pedagogy is likely to diminish social mobility. But if we educators take proper care to consider pedagogy alongside concerns of social justice, that need not be so.

Image credit: Joe Holmes

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