Homework is so inextricably linked to school that it’s hard to think of one without the other. But increasingly educators and child development specialists are examining the practice of assigning homework to children and considering whether it is truly beneficial or potentially harmful. A growing trend to abandon homework altogether for children is building momentum around the world.
The Guardian reported this week that one of Britain’s most prestigious schools, 162-year-old Cheltenham Ladies College, is considering banning homework to “tackle an epidemic of teenage depression and anxiety.” Public School 116 in New York City recently banned homework for students up to grade five having found no link between assigning elementary school homework and success in school. The Kino School in Arizona has a no homework policy for all grades even through high school, and contends that learning remains joyful for their students. Even some of New York City’s most prestigious private schools like Dalton and Spence have reviewed their policies to lessen the nightly burden on their students.
Myriad books on the subject are cropping up on bestseller lists. The most prominent of which include, The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, of Brooklyn, NY, The End of Homework by American Educators Etta Kralovec and John Buell, and prolific author Alfie Kohn’s, The Homework Myth described in the Atlantic Monthly, as “a stinging jeremiad against the assignment of homework which the author, a prominent educator, convincingly argues is a wasteful, unimaginative, and pedagogically bankrupt practice that initiates kids into a soul-sucking rat race long before their time.”
The primary arguments against homework are that it reinforces a sedentary lifestyle, leads to frustration, exhaustion and stress for children, gives them little time to do other constructive things, can lessen children’s genuine interest in learning, burdens teachers to design and grade homework and parents who have to monitor and often spend time doing homework instead of more engaging activities with their children and that it is pointless, since there is no evidence that it leads to improved performance later in school.
Parents like homework because they believe that it reinforcing learning at home, reveals what children are learning in school, establishes good routines and habits, and it helps shape the afternoon hours after school for the families.
While these points seem reasonable, most of the benefits are accrued by the parent rather than the student, and the actual effect is not what parents think. Good communication between teachers and parents can show parents what children are learning without requiring the child to do busywork at home. In fact, busy work can overwhelm struggling students and bore high achievers, dampening their interest in learning. Parents reason that homework should help, but no study shows that it actually does.
In our busy and frenetic society, the primary benefit of homework may be simply that it keeps children engaged in seemly constructive activities after school and reduces our own anxiety that they might not be learning enough in school. In certain subjects, like Chinese, an argument could be made that practice and wrote memorization is the only way to do it, but the optimal quantity and quality of assignments beyond the classroom even in these subjects is unclear.
Perhaps the homework debate is not so much a yes or no, but what kind? Annie Murphy Paul described in a 2001 NY Times article the concepts of spaced repetition, retrieval practice, and interleaving as three research-based strategies that demonstrate positive results when applied to homework. More research into these specific techniques and others like them could influence schools to more consciously design interesting and engaging extension activities that truly benefit students’ learning.
Reading for pleasure is the one area of “home work” that educators and researchers agree is essential for children on a daily basis. This practice has the biggest impact on future success in school. Children should be encouraged to select their own books and should not fill out reading logs or be rewarded for reading except, perhaps, with more books. Developing an intrinsic love for reading is the most essential determinant of future happiness and success in school.
In lieu of homework, creative projects can be helpful in reinforcing concepts, extending learning and engaging children and parents in the learning process. Working collaboratively, teachers, students and parents can identify after school activities that are active, creative and fun for kids, and a much better use of everyone’s time.
Heading into summer holidays, many parents look forward to more unstructured time with their children, time to stay up late and not have to rush home to do homework. What if parents could look forward to that time throughout the school year as well, knowing that in this case, less really is more.