One of the distinctive traits that make the field of education a lightning rod for so many is its unique ability to polarize opinion on multiple levels. Education is, it seems, everyone’s business. One need only to turn on the evening news or read the local paper to find that the subject of educating children has the ability to dominate the headlines. Issues of acceptable content, equal access, hierarchy of subjects, accountability, and pedagogy can transform a dull conversation into a full fledged family quarrel, unify complete strangers around a common goal, and galvanize even the most disinterested of parties into a raving lunatic.
One need only browse the ongoing, and often heated, debate surrounding such issue’s as the implementation of the Common Core or whether or not Creationism should be taught in public schools. Indeed, the subject of teaching the next generation is a delicate one and a matter of immense importance to one and all. In amongst the most heated of educational debates we find the issue of homework. How much homework is too much? What should homework look like? Why do some teachers give more than others? Is homework a catalyst for stress in children? Is homework even necessary? Will students succeed without it? While the matter of homework will always produce a litany of opinion, it still demands honest answers based on knowledgeable experience as well as an examination of the meta-analytical research dedicated to the matter. My goal for this article is to provide a little of both.
As a former teacher (I landed my first gig as a private school substitute teacher in 1989 while still attending college), administrator, author, presenter, and consultant, I have been involved in almost every aspect of public education for quite some time. I have been in the classroom as both a teacher and administrator, spent many an evening participating in District wide School Board meetings, worked closely with parents and have worked as an educator in three states and one provincial setting. In addition, I have seen four children, two with special needs, through the national education system. These experiences have given me much insight into the issue of homework, its pros, its cons, and its effect on children, families, and schools. Homework is a matter of great importance to all and deserves closer examination.
To be sure, I am not a fan of the type of homework currently employed by many of our schools on a national, or even international, scale. What I mean is that, from what I have witnessed as both an educator and parent of four, homework comes in two forms. The most common type of homework is repetitive ‘busy’ work. This busy work can be characterized by endless pages of repetition in the form of 50 linear math problems or page upon page of copied definitions, or, in the case of the History class, dates, facts, and names. The other type can be found in the form of large projects; yes, those shoe box habitats or decked out poster borders that drive parents crazy. This type of homework usually comes with an extra dose of parental involvement due to the procrastination of the disorganized teen or pre-teen. In either case, these two categories of homework have little pedagogical value serving only to tax our already stressed out children.
Alfie Kohn (2006), a noted researcher and author known for his forthright approach to addressing educational issues, asserts that there are no proofs that support the common practice of giving daily homework. In his book, The Homework Myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing, Kohn denounces the practice with strong language. “Homework is all pain and no gain,” Kohn declares. In fact, he believes that it actually can be detrimental to student achievement. I believe that he is referring to the above practice of meaningless homework which, indeed, causes more stress and anxiety than it does benefit the acquisition of skills and knowledge.
In my work with hundreds of students, many of who fall in the twice-exceptional category (kids having high intellectual potential and a disability such as Aspergers or ADD who already struggle with the school work load), and my own four children, I have rarely come across meaningful homework. Meaningful homework being those assignments that are natural extensions to given lessons or, complimentary assignments that seek to further unveil issues and/or problems requiring learning skills beyond basic comprehension. Too often, I have encountered homework assignments that exasperate both the student and parent. Why is it that a child must complete fifty double-digit multiplication problems when they can show mastery of that skill in four or five? In essence, that is busy work that serves no purpose other than to further tax the already overloaded child. Why is it that the student is required to sit for hours at the kitchen table writing endless definitions or memorize endless facts and figures? How is cutting and pasting googled information onto some poster board teach my son the intricacies of the Emancipation Proclamation or spur his analysis of it’s controversial nature? And why must my thirteen-year-old seventh grader spend three to four hours each evening completing homework for each of her seven classes? It is this type of homework, unplanned, haphazard, non-stimulating, and heavy in volume that can drive both the student and the parent to the point of irritation. Let’s end this madness and campaign for more deliberate and meaningful homework that can and will extend classroom learning for the benefit of our children because there is a reason and purpose for homework.
While Kohn and others continue to crusade for the end of homework there are ways to give homework that can be beneficial to both students and teachers. Indeed, there have been a few studies including two large meta-analytical studies (Cooper, 1989 & Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006) that have found that homework can have benefits for students. In both studies, the relationship between homework and achievement was statistically positive. Even so, they also decry the lack of teacher training in how to give appropriate homework and warn against too much homework being given. So what it the happy median? What strategies can both teachers and parents use to make sure that homework is constructed and delivered in a manner that benefits students?
There are strategies, if employed on a consistent and comprehensive manner that can enhance classroom learning. My first recommendation, as stated above, is that homework be well planned and meaningful in nature. Here are a few questions a teacher can ask during the planning stage of any unit: Does the homework assignment extend the learning for that particular day? Is it tiered in a way that allows the student to advance her understanding of the skill or concept? Does the assignment meet the particular needs of the child? We know that students learn at different paces and in different ways. Is that reflected in the homework? Have I coordinated homework assignments with my fellow teachers (secondary) to ensure that the student body is not overloaded? Are there certain days within the school week that you know a large number of your students have extra-curricular activities? Are you communicating properly with your parent body agreed upon expectations for homework? Do your students’ parents understand the skills and concepts that are being taught and assigned as homework? As an administrator I have heard from many frustrated parents that feel they cannot actively engage with their kids because they simply do not understand the assignment. An online homework guide for parents can do wonders to alleviate that angst. Are you flexible enough to recognize that a particular student may need extra time when appropriate? Following these simple suggestions will improve both your relationship with your students and enhance their engagement in your classroom. Believe me, your parents will thank you.
Despite the evidence for and against homework it remains a controversial topic within the field of public education. If the prevailing approach to assigning homework in done in thoughtful, well-planned fashion it can be a valuable tool in building student knowledge and understanding of foreign concepts and skills. In addition, it can serve as an effective communication tool between parent and child as they engage the issues together. It can also serve to inform the parent as to what the child is currently learning. However, this is not always the reality. In our era of hyper-accountability teachers are facing increasing pressures to have their students perform. The race to ‘cover the curriculum’ often leads to poor planning and work sheet based instruction and of course, homework for the sake of homework. Isn’t it time to give both our students and teachers a break? I believe it is time to advocate for meaningful learning, meaningful lessons, and of course, meaningful homework.
Cooper, H. (1989). Homework. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Cooper, H. (1989). Synthesis of Research on Homework. Educational Leadership, 47(3), 85 (7).
Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1 (63).
Kohn, Alfie (2006). The Homework Myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.