When I started as a brand new teacher in the Chicago Public Schools some 13 years ago I came across a poster on the wall of the attendance office, that explained the “Grade x 10” formula for assigning homework. So, a first grader should have 10 minutes of homework each night (1st grade x 10), while a high school senior ought to spend 120 minutes on his studies every evening following the same formula.
But why do teachers give homework? They believe it can help students be more successful as it allows them to practice what was learned and to remember what was taught. In addition, homework is somewhat of a holy grail in teaching. Teacher preparatory programs push it, textbooks are designed for it, and it is a deep-rooted tradition that allegedly promotes student learning outside of the school walls.
Kids ought to have homework, right?
There is a growing body of research challenging the effectiveness of homework. Alfie Kohn, the author of the 2006 book, Homework Myth, concludes that there is no evidence that homework benefits young children and questions the advantages it brings to older students. Kohn also points out that a 2011 study “fails to find any meaningful benefit even when the study is set up to give homework every benefit of the doubt.” In The Case Against Homework, Bennett and Kalish (2006) explain the negative effects the homework overload has on children’s achievement and development. And there is a plethora of other academic studies that have comparable findings.
Practice makes perfect, right?
If you’re a basketball player trying to improve your free throw percentage, you might shoot 500 free throws after each practice, and you will get better at this skill. But what does the research say about the traditional drill and kill approaches in math and science classes?
According to the review of more than 120 studies of homework and its effects by Cooper et al. (2006), there is little correlation between the time spent on homework and success in elementary school and only a moderate correlation in middle school. Even in high school, Cooper (2007) claims: “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive.”
Baker and LeTendre (2005) find that countries such as Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, in which teachers assign little homework, students score highest on achievement tests. On the other hand, students tend to have the lowest scores in countries such as Greece, Thailand, and Iran, where homework is pervasive. American schools tend to be high on the “homework scale” and our students consistently score near the international average. Practice doesn’t make perfect when it comes to homework.
The reasons behind this surprising effect of homework may lie in its futility. Whenever I introduce a new chemistry concept, a few students will leave class with a good grasp of it; a few might get it with some home practice; and many need a lot more practice and help. Those who have the concept down need little practice and homework is hateful busy work. Those who are on the cusp could go either way: they might get it with some practice on their own, or might become confused. Either way, they will most likely lack the confidence that they understand completely. Finally, the students who need more help might not be able to get it at home, so they either give up, ask friends to give them the answers, or “invent” their own way of doing it leading to misconceptions and further confusion.
Homework benefits students, right?
Many educators wish homework to be the gift that just keeps on giving. Students do homework, they learn and achieve more, and everyone is happy. Unfortunately, academic studies, surveys, and interviews tell a different story, and while there will not be horror movies made about homework’s evils any time soon, educators and parents must not ignore the facts.
Students, especially high school students, are often overwhelmed with homework. Below, are some of the disturbing findings, claims, and statistics associated with excessive homework.
1. Students stay up late completing homework and as a result lack sleep.
2. Students cannot participate in family life or have a substantial social life.
3. Students feel isolated, stressed, and anxious.
4. Less students participate in sports as compared to the past, which is tied in with increased reports of child obesity and health problems associated with it.
5. Educational inequity is worsened, as the disadvantaged youth does not have the same access to resources, such as time, tutoring, or adequate technology.
6. There is a reported decline in curiosity and learning becomes unstimulating and boring.
Homework doesn’t work. Now what?
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it is, how do I?
A lot of research says that any amount of homework is largely ineffective. Some academics see it as something that can still be used if adjusted. But how do we fix homework? And, can we fix homework? I do not know, but I know that as educators we need to do what serves our students best. It is not always clearly laid out what is best. Should we still give some homework or abandon it completely? If we give homework, how can we ensure that we do not give too much, as we rarely know how much is assigned in other classes? How do we still teach what we are mandated to teach when we know that assignment completion at home rarely leads to meaningful learning?
Here’s what I decided, so try it at your own risk if you wish.
My oath to my students:
1. I will be deliberate about fitting in practice, especially problem solving, in my classroom, where I can monitor and help students.
2. I noticed that the now-popular “flipped classroom” is not “what it’s cracked up to be.” So, while I will encourage students to view my presentations, read, and take notes at home, I will make sure that I provide direct instruction (which research says works!) of this content in school.
3. I will spend time teaching strategies and skills that help students become more sophisticated learners, who reflect on how they learn, ask questions, problem solve, and evolve.
4. I will eliminate 90% of the homework, and all of the “drill and kill” homework.
5. I will be careful in monitoring my students’ progress, sacrifice timelines for extra classroom practice if need be, and reinforce and reteach concepts in class.
6. I will remind my students that there are more important things than school or homework, which includes family, friendships, health, passions, and core values.
7. I will always put my students needs first.
What will you do?
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Harris Cooper, Jorgianne Civey Robinson, and Erika A. Patall. Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research Spring 2006, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 1–62
Harris, Cooper. The Battle Over Homework (2007)
Bennett, Sara and Kalish, Nancy. The Case Against Homework (2006)
David P. Baker and Gerald K. LeTendre. National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling, Stanford University Press, 2005.
Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006)