When kids are younger, homework is rarely an issue—a worksheet or two, spelling lists, 20 minutes of reading. In other words, nothing too taxing. But along the way, things change. Hello, multiple assignments nightly—research reports, special projects and more. Some parents don't mind when teachers pile it on, figuring, Plenty of homework must mean my kid is really learning something, right? After all, the news media regularly inform us that American kids lag pitifully behind their global peers, so extra learning opportunities are an appealing prospect. But other moms and dads see the intrusiveness, reasoning that seven hours in the classroom should suffice academically, leaving evenings and weekends free for sports, hobbies, family time—anything besides frustration, exhaustion and near-constant arguments about getting the work done. Yet seemingly few of these furious parents challenge the status quo.
According to education expert Alfie Kohn, they should. "I spend most of my time writing and speaking about issues where it appears that solid logic and evidence point in one direction, but widespread practice heads the other way," says Kohn. "I got a whiff of such a discrepancy and devoted about one page in my book The Schools Our Children Deserve to the question of homework. A few years later, after more evidence had accumulated that showed no benefit to it, I decided the topic deserved a book of its own." The Homework Myth (Da Capo Press), first published in 2006, challenges conventional wisdom in making its case against after-hours assignments. Read Kohn's take below, then join the conversation at familycircle.com/homework.
The Case Against Homework
By Alfie Kohn
After spending all day in school, our children are forced to begin a second shift, with more academic assignments to be completed at home. This arrangement is rather odd when you stop to think about it, as is the fact that few of us ever do stop to think about it.
Instead of assuming that homework should be a given, or that it allegedly benefits children, I've spent the last few years reviewing the available research and talking to parents, teachers and students. My findings can be summarized in seven words: Homework is all pain and no gain.
The pain is obvious to kids but isn't always taken seriously by adults. Backpacks stuffed with assignments leave students exhausted, frustrated, less interested in intellectual pursuits and lacking time to do things they enjoy. "Most of what homework is doing," says literacy expert Harvey Daniels, "is driving kids away from learning."
We parents, meanwhile, turn into nags. After being away from our children all day, the first words out of our mouths, sadly, may be: "So, did you finish your homework?" One mother told me it permanently damaged her relationship with her son because it forced her to be an enforcer rather than a mom.
The surprising news, though, is that there are virtually no pros to balance the cons. Even if you regard grades or test scores as good measures of learning, which I do not, doing homework has no statistical relationship to achievement in elementary school. In high school, some studies do find a correlation between homework and test scores, but it's usually fairly small. And in any case, it's far from clear that the former causes the latter. And if you're wondering, not a single study has ever supported the folk wisdom that homework teaches good work habits or develops positive character traits such as self-discipline, responsibility or independence.
Some teachers know all this but feel compelled to keep assigning homework for tradition's sake, or because of pressure from administrators or, ironically, parents. Adults also may assume that kids will waste their time (read: do things grown-ups don't regard as sufficiently constructive) unless they're made to do schoolwork at home.
Still others believe—incorrectly—that more time spent on a task produces better results, or that because practice is required to be a good athlete or musician, it's also at the heart of intellectual growth. It isn't. You can't "reinforce" understanding the way you can reinforce a behavior. In my experience, people with the least sophisticated understanding of how children learn, or the least amount of concern about children's attitudes toward learning, tend to be the most enthusiastic supporters of homework.
We might forgive the infringement on family time if homework were assigned only when there was good reason to think that this particular task would benefit these particular students, that it will help them think more deeply about questions that matter and create more excitement about learning (and that it can't be done at school). But what educators are more likely to say is, in effect, "Your children will have to do something every night. Later on we'll figure out what to make them do." If there's a persuasive defense of that approach, I've never heard it.
Not only should there be much less homework assigned, there ought to be none at all of the worst types, such as filling out worksheets or cramming forgettable facts into short-term memory. I believe "no homework" should be the default arrangement. In other words, weeknight (let alone weekend or vacation) assignments should have to be justified on a case-by-case basis. Because most homework can't be justified, some teachers, and even some whole schools, have stopped assigning it altogether, with fabulous results.
We parents need to reach out to others in our communities to debunk uninformed assumptions ("homework is academically beneficial"), to challenge silly claims ("homework is needed to provide a link between school and family"), and to help restore sanity and joy to our children's lives. We should respectfully but pointedly inform educators that the status quo isn't supported by good research or basic values, and those values include a commitment to let kids be kids and provide them with time to grow socially, physically, emotionally and artistically—not just academically.
What topics would you most want to SPEAK UP about? Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.
We’ve come a long way from the 1930s, when the American Child Health Association put homework next to child labor as a leading cause of child deaths from tuberculosis and heart disease.
Yet the value — or lack thereof — of homework never seems to go away. The issue has been raised anew by a story on the front page of the New York Times about a number of school systems around the country that are either reevaluating their homework policies or have already found new, less stressful ways of giving kids work to do after school.
Some of the impetus for the change comes from a movie — “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary film showing students who are burned out from the stress of school. Added to that is the research that shows that too much homework is often counterproductive and that in the early grades, the homework that actually helps kids learn is reading. Just reading.
There has never been any agreement in the education world about exactly what homework should be or even what its basic purpose is. Should it be about review or about learning new concepts? Should it be graded or not?
Harris Cooper, professor of education and psychology at Duke University, who is probably the best known researcher on the subject, has concluded that:
• Up until fifth grade, homework should be very limited.
• Middle-school students should not spend more than 90 minutes a day on homework
• Two hours should be the limit in high school.
Beyond those time limits, he has said, research shows that homework has no impact on student performance.
Kids often complain about homework assignments for good reason: Many consist of mindless tasks, or else are time wasters that have nothing to do with the lesson at hand.
In 2009, I asked some students to tell me their favorite and least favorite homework assignments. Here, in an encore performance, are the still informative answers.
Meanwhile, what were your or your children’s most useful and useless assignments this past year? Write them in the comments or e-mail me at email@example.com, and I’ll publish the best of them.
Attended George Washington University, Horace Mann School in New York
The best homework assignment I can remember was a project on music that corresponded with a civil rights class. Using different time periods (slavery corresponded with Robert Johnson, the civil rights movement with the song “A Change Is Gonna Come”), we analyzed current music for gospel and blues influences and wrote about how they developed from specific points in history. It was pretty much the only time I’ve seen an entire high school class excited about a project.
Lousy homework assignments are uninspired ones — the ones that get assigned only to prove that the student completed the reading or opened the textbook.
Attended McLean High School
The most useless homework assignment I’ve ever had was where I had to write about the history of a cultural festival, and when the day came to turn in the assignment, the teacher didn’t even touch upon that subject. The teacher went straight into another subject that was completely irrelevant to what was in the curriculum and had nothing to do with what would be relevant to the final exam, the tests, quizzes, and midterm.
The best homework assignment I’ve ever had was for my math class, where the homework assignment covered literally everything that was on a huge test. I learned more than I had expected to because of all the critical thinking that the homework required.
What I feel makes a homework assignment good is if it is relevant, challenges the student doing it, and is not too time-consuming. A bad homework assignment is one that has absolutely no relevance to what is being taught or anything that is learned or part of the curriculum.
If it is meaningless AND time-consuming, then it is quite possibly the worst of the worst in terms of homework assignments.
Graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School
The most useless homework is always those study questions that we get after we read a text in a class. The questions are always something along the lines of “What is the main idea of the passage?” I’m not going to be able to answer this type of question right away.
And even if I were able to, the answer would not stick with me unless I knew why it was the answer. I get the most out of these passages and essays by discussing them in class.
The best homework assignment I received was ... in English.
After a long year in which we all worked hard and definitely improved our reading and writing skills, my teacher simply told us to write a journal entry in which we tell her something. Anything (well, anything school appropriate).
I wrote about how my family moved from Pakistan to the United States when I was very young. This assignment gave me the opportunity to use my refined writing skills and also allowed me to reflect on my life.
A good homework assignment is one where you and the classmate sitting next to you do not necessarily have the same answer. It allows you to be creative in the way you put to use what you learn in class.
Bad homework assignments are those tedious, monotonous pieces of work that you get each time you finish a section of lessons in class. They are a series of repetitions that are supposed to polish your skills in a particular subject, but do not effectively do this.
I think that the most useless homework assignment was ... when I got homework on a lesson that I learned a week earlier, and when I had learned something completely different that day.
The best homework assignment I ever had was when ... I had to write a persuasive essay on the Japanese Internment [during World War II], and whether it was for America’s own good or not. It was fun. Even though I had to read various parts of the Constitution, and had to read many different articles and readings on people debating the same topic, it was still fun.
Attended Mt. Hebron High School
Ellicott City, Md.
The best homework I had was not something that made me learn something unexpected.
Homework should be something expected that will have problems and challenging ideas that will hone the skills we acquired that day of the lesson or before and shouldn’t go further than that.
I generally like my Calculus homework because my teacher gives problems that we learned from a long time ago along with newly learned ones but never something we will learn or totally unexpected. Especially when it comes to math, many students give up tackling “difficult or unexpected” problems.
Atended George Washington University,
Salem High School, N.H.
A great homework assignment from high school was given in a Comprehensive American Studies and Literature course taught by two completely opposite personalities (one had a fetish for legendarily difficult pop quizzes and the other enjoyed taking us on walks in the woods to ponder transcendentalism).
We were asked to illustrate a quote from Thoreau on a poster for the course and write a paper on the quote, and what it meant to us. The posters were displayed in the classroom and the papers shared with the class. The assignment was great because our work was appreciated and displayed and my classmates chose a variety of quotes, with even those picking the same one interpreting them in wildly different ways.
The worst homework assignment was all of the ones given in Statistics. The teacher assigned almost every problem of every chapter (making for horribly repetitive and time-consuming work). If we got through the lesson plan for the day, it would always be “okay, start your homework for chapters three, four and five!”
Feeling like you were doing work simply for the sake of doing work ... was the worst part of the assignment — and high school.
Attended George Washington University, Columbia High School
I have two memorable homework assignments, both for good reasons.
When I was in 5th grade, we were assigned a project to come up with a plan to spend $1 million. “The Million Dollar Project,” as it was called, was supposed to teach us the value of money. We had to spend every last cent of the million, however we could spend it any way we liked. The assignment was a fun and easy way to learn the value of money and to see what $1 million could really buy.
[At college in 2008], I took a class called U.S. Political Participation during the fall semester. Thus, the presidential election was taking place over the course of the semester. We were given a project to predict the final Electoral College result. We had to analyze polling data and research past voting records of each state. We then had to determine the main issue voters would base their decision off of, and look at that in historical context to see whether those issues lead to the election of a Democrat or Republican. It was also an engaging assignment that forced me to pay more attention to election coverage.
Overall, assignments that allow me to be hands-on usually turn out to be my favorite.
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