Just what is “homework”, anyway?

This is the first of a series of articles inspired by a session I led for foster parents with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. In this series I am exploring how to resolve homework issues with teenage foster children.

Why We’re HereID-10090175

Few students love doing homework, and few parents love forcing them to do it. In fact, in 2007, the Canadian Council on Learning stated that 72 percent of parents across Canada “report that homework can often be a source of household stress”. Although this is a statistic from the general population, I think we can assume the number would be as high or higher if just foster parents were interviewed.

What is Homework?

Well, obviously, it’s work that students do at home. But there are a few different types of homework and a variety of reasons teachers assign it.

Cathy Vaterrott, associate professor of education at the university of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework, says:

Good homework helps kids cement what they’ve learned, but it isn’t busywork, isn’t given in extreme amounts, and definitely doesn’t require parents to become substitute teachers at home.

The most traditional view of homework breaks it down very simply:

  • projects – assignments too big to complete in one class, or the allotted class time
  • studying – moving information and skills from short-term to long-term memory
  • preparing for tests – making sure the skills and information already acquired can be accessed quickly

Some teachers learn that homework can be sorted into four types:

  • preparation – material given to students before a lesson, to pique their interest
  • practice – the traditional type, which consolidates a skill just after it has been learned
  • extension – goes beyond what was learned in class, often applying skills to new situations
  • integration – applies many different skills to a problem

A teacher might diligently follow this breakdown and even label the homework assignments by type. For example, a teacher with the best of intentions might try to activate students’ prior knowledge by assigning a series of questions about a topic they haven’t yet started learning about. An anxious student might read the questions and panic, exclaiming, “But we haven’t learned this!”

Especially in the younger grades, the traditional reasons that teachers give homework are almost entirely unrelated to the individual subjects. This homework is assumed to teach children:

  • responsibility
  • confidence
  • persistence
  • goal setting
  • planning
  • ability to delay gratification

In this view, homework is for students to learn self-discipline and time management. However, students who have missed school or have significant learning gaps may not have learned these skills in elementary school. These students are at a severe disadvantage when they reach high school, with teachers assuming they can handle the increased workload and subject-specific assignments they are given. Many foster children fall into this category, with many having poor attendance, multiple changes in schools, and a lack of parental involvement at home during their elementary school years.

One of the topics we’ll tackle later in this series is how to explicitly teach older students these skills, so that we can close the gap and move them towards more success with their homework.


Canadian Council on Learning.  2007 Survey of Canadian Attitudes toward Learning: Results for elementary and secondary school learning.  Ottawa, 2007.  Web.  Accessed from http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/SCAL/2007/SCAL_Report_English_final.pdf on November 8, 2013.

Harvey, Virginia Smith, and Louise A. Chickie-Wolfe. Fostering Independent Learning: Practical Strategies to Promote Student Success. New York: Guilford, 2007. Print.

Vatterott, Cathy. Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2009. Print.

Rope image courtesy scottchan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.