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Why Homework?

Most students in the United States spend about six or seven hours a day in school. During this time, we hope they are exposed to high quality instruction, delivered by very competent teachers, that cover a number of content areas. The pace and expectation of it all can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

After their school day ends, if they’re lucky, they may go to a music lesson, an athletic practice or participate in a club or community activity. Once home, after some down time and a meal, most kids find themselves confined to a second shift of school - homework. In many households, this is an occasion of frustration and tension as kids, reluctantly, engage in this exercise of compliance: sometimes for hours before they fall into bed. Only to be repeated the next day, and the next.

Why? Why do we subject our children to this regimen? It must be because it’s good for them. Right?

A number of years ago, I came across Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2007). I found his attitude and findings on the topic of homework to be thought provoking, to say the least, and I shared his thoughts and conclusions with my teaching staff. You would have thought I was committing a form of blaspheme as I picked the scab from a wound rooted in tradition. Most of my staff members, truly an outstanding and deeply committed group of professionals, could not bring themselves to embrace the notion that assigning homework could be a) unnecessary, and b) potentially harmful to their students.

When I asked my teachers the question “why do you assign homework?” I got the very list of predictable rationale that Kohn outlined in his book.

“They need to practice.”

“It teaches them time management and self-discipline.”

“Homework reinforces the content they need to master.”

“It helps them earn better grades and score well on tests.”

“They may not like it, but life is full of things we must do that we don’t like.”

As I probed my teachers to provide evidence that these assumptions were accurate, they offered none. But, that didn’t alter the dogged conviction of many to continue their practice of assigning homework. Those teachers who may have seen the merit of Kohn’s argument were too overwhelmed by the powerful aversion their colleagues were expressing to even whisper that some alteration of practices may be called for.

The reason that my teachers could not offer evidence that homework is important in our academics processes is that none exists. As Kohn points out in his book, no study has ever found a correlation between homework and academic achievement among elementary students. Further, he suggests that studies suggest that there is little reason to believe that homework offers any tangible benefit for high school students. In fact, the evidence suggests that the ritual of homework may even diminish student’s interest in learning.

One could argue that certainly new research has been conducted in the fourteen years since Kohn’s book was published that would validate the practice of assigning homework. While a reasonable expectation, that is not the case. The studies continue to demonstrate a limited benefit (if any exists at all) to be derived from homework contributing to true academic achievement and learning.

There are a few studies that suggest some modest correlation to improved grades and test scores; both we know to be poor indicators of learning. Grades represent an unreliable standard due to the inconsistencies and subjectivity frequently imbedded in them as I have discussed in other articles. And improved standardized test scores really only reflect the time spent on effective test taking strategies. “The standards and accountability craze that has our students in its grip argues for getting tougher with children, making them do more mindless worksheets at earlier ages so that we can score higher in international assessments,” Kohn says. “It's not about learning; it's about winning.”

If Kohn is correct, and I believe he is, it’s time to take a long and hard look at the practice of assigning homework. Please consider:

  1. How much evidence is needed to assure that a student is learning? Does it require solving 30 problems at the end of chapter six to prove that a concept or skill is learned? Wouldn’t ten suffice or maybe five? Too often we waste the time and energy of kids in the false notion of rigor.

  2. I concede that practice may be necessary. But, should we set kids up for potential failure by requiring that they practice independently when they may be doing it incorrectly? An athletic coach doesn’t sit in his/her car while the team practices field drills. The coach is present: observing, assessing, correcting and encouraging in real time. I believe that the practice of academic skills should be conducted in a similar fashion; under the watchful eye of the expert - the coach.

  3. Completing homework is largely an exercise of compliance. Rarely is it an activity of substance. If there’s any doubt in the validity of this perspective, take a look at what kids are expected to toil over with sleepy eyes. Nine times out of ten they are completing worksheets or are engaged in mind numbing and repetitive tasks. Submitting these to the teacher generally is rewarded with a simple check mark in the grade book. No feedback. Just a record of compliance.

  4. We know that student engagement is at the heart of achievement and learning. Further, we understand that engagement occurs when students find relevance, a connection, to what is being taught or what they are expected to do. Compelling kids to complete tasks that they resent as consuming their free time, tasks that they may not perceive as having value, flies in the face of creating an environment conducive of engagement. Instead, we may very well turn them off entirely.

If students are engaged in their school experiences and their learning, they’ll bring school home with them. As the principal of a K-12 school in Tucson, Arizona with a strict no homework policy notes: “A lot of what we see kids doing is continuing to write in journals, practicing music with their friends, and taking experiments home to show their parents.” Anecdotal data from her graduates suggests “that the early control over their education continues to serve them [students] well into college; they feel better equipped to manage their time and approach professors with questions.”

Sometimes an occasional homework assignment is appropriate. And, I’m not so naive to think the some teachers will continue assigning homework regularly, despite the lack of evidence that it contributes to meaningful learning. So, if we presume to assign something to kids, it must meet certain standards of scrutiny.

  1. Is the task one of recognizable quality? Does its successful execution require thought, creativity or innovation?

  2. Will the students be able to articulate the purpose of the task and how it will meaningfully augment what they’re learning in school?

  3. Will each student receive feedback on their effort and an opportunity to make improvements to their work based on this feedback?

  4. Is this task something that students will look forward to undertaking and one that they can make relevant connections with?

  5. Will students enjoy a level of academic autonomy in the execution of the assigned task, rather than a cookie-cutter expectation with a pre-determined outcome?

If all five of these criteria cannot be met, the task should not be assigned. In the absence if these criteria, kids will be stressed, frustrated and will feel that their time is being wasted. And, they’ll be correct in their assessment, for to do anything less is simply counter-productive and disrespectful. Definitely not the education kids deserve.

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