Do bulging backpacks mean learning? With his new book, The Homework Myth, expert Alfie Kohn says no. Here’s why.
After spending most of the day in school, students are given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few of us ever stop to think about it.
It’s worth asking not only whether there are good reasons to support the nearly universal practice of assigning homework, but why it’s so often taken for granted — even by vast numbers of teachers and parents who are troubled by its impact on children.
The mystery deepens once you discover that widespread assumptions about the benefits of homework — higher achievement and the promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility — are not substantiated by the available evidence.
Taking homework for granted would be understandable if most teachers decided from time to time that a certain lesson really needed to continue after school was over and, therefore, assigned students to read, write, figure out, or do something at home on those afternoons.
That scenario, however, bears no relation to what happens in most schools. Rather, the point of departure seems to be, ‘We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on, we’ll figure out what to make them do’. This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools — public and private, primary (elementary) and secondary. And it really doesn’t make sense, in part because of what the research shows:
• There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age. Even if you regard standardised test results as a useful measure (which I don’t), more homework isn’t correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school. The only effect that does show up is less positive attitudes on the part of kids who get more assignments.
• In high school, some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores, but it tends to be small. More important, there’s no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework.
• No study has ever confirmed the widely accepted assumption that homework yields non-academic benefits — self-discipline, independence, perseverance, or better time-management skills — for students of any age. The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is basically a myth.
Overtime in first grade
In short, there’s no reason to think that most students would be at a disadvantage if homework were reduced or even eliminated. Yet the most striking trend in the past two decades has been the tendency to pile more and more assignments on younger and younger children. (Remember, that’s the age at which the benefits are most questionable, if not absent!)
Even school districts that had an unofficial custom not so long ago of waiting until the third grade before giving homework have abandoned that restraint. A long-term US survey discovered that the proportion of six- to eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 per-cent in 1981 to 64 per-cent in 2002, and the weekly time they spent studying at home more than doubled. In fact, homework is even ‘becoming a routine part of the kindergarten experience’, according to a 2004 report.
The negative effects
It’s hard to deny that an awful lot of homework is exceptionally trying for an awful lot of children. Some are better able than others to handle the pressure of keeping up with a continuous flow of work, getting it all done on time, and turning out products that will meet with approval. Likewise, some assignments are less unpleasant than others. But in general, as one parent put it, homework simultaneously ‘overwhelms struggling kids and removes joy for high achievers’.Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children are told how much, or for how long, they must do it.
Even as they accept homework as inevitable, parents consistently report that it intrudes on family life. Many mothers and fathers spend every evening serving as homework monitors, a position for which they never applied. One professor of education, Gary Natriello at Columbia University, believed in the value of homework until his ‘own children started bringing home assignments in elementary school’. Even ‘the routine tasks sometimes carry directions that are difficult for two parents with advanced graduate degrees to understand,’ he discovered.
What’s bad for parents is generally worse for kids. ‘School for [my son] is work,’ one mother writes, ‘and by the end of a seven-hour workday, he’s exhausted. But like a worker on a double shift, he has to keep going’ once he gets home. Exhaustion is just part of the problem, though. The psychological costs can be substantial for a child who not only is confused by a worksheet on long vowels or subtraction but also finds it hard to accept the whole idea of sitting still after school to do more schoolwork.
Furthermore, every unpleasant adjective that could be attached to homework — time-consuming, disruptive, stressful, demoralising —applies with greater force in the case of kids for whom academic learning doesn’t come easily. Curt Dudley-Marling, a former elementary school teacher who is now a professor at Boston College, interviewed some two dozen families that included at least one struggling learner. In describing his findings, he talked about how ‘the demands of homework disrupted … family relationships’ and led to daily stress and conflict. The ‘nearly intolerable burden’ imposed by homework was partly a result of how defeated such children felt, he added —how they invested hours without much to show for it; how parents felt frustrated when they pushed the child but also when they didn’t push, when they helped with the homework but also when they refrained from helping. ‘You end up ruining the relationship that you have with your kid,’ one father told him.
And don’t forget: the idea that it is all worth it because homework helps children learn better simply isn’t true. There’s little pro to weigh against the significant cons.
Play time matters
On top of causing stress, more homework means kids have less time for other activities. There’s less opportunity for the kind of learning that doesn’t involve traditional skills. There’s less chance to read for pleasure, make friends, play games, get some exercise, get some rest, or just be a child. Decades ago, the American Educational Research Association released this statement: ‘Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.’ It is the rare school that respects the value of those activities — to the point of making sure that its policies are informed by that respect. But some courageous teachers and innovative schools are taking up the challenge.
A new approach
There is no traditional homework at the Bellwether School in Williston, Vermont, except when the children ask for it or ‘are so excited about a project that they continue to work on it at home’ says Marta Beede, the school’s top administrator. ‘We encourage children to read at home — books they have selected.’ She and her colleagues figure that kids ‘work really hard when they’re at school’.
To then say that they’re going to have to work more when they get home doesn’t seem to honour how much energy they were expending during the day. Teachers ought to be able to exercise their judgment in determining how they want to deal with homework, taking account of the needs and preferences of the specific children in their classrooms, rather than having to conform to a fixed policy that has been imposed on them.
High school teacher Leslie Frothingham watched her own two children struggle with enormous quantities of homework in middle school. The value of it never seemed clear to her. ‘What other “job” is there where you work all day, come home, have dinner, then work all night,’ she asks, ‘unless you’re some type A attorney? It’s not a good way to live one’s life. You miss out on self-reflection, community.’ Thus, when she became a teacher, she chose to have a no-homework policy. And if her advanced chemistry students are thriving academically without homework, which they are, surely we can rethink our policies in the younger grades.
Practical Ideas for Parents
1. Educate yourself. Make sure you know what the research really says — that there is no evidence whatsoever of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school, little reason to believe that homework is necessary even in high school, and no support for the assumption that homework promotes good work habits, independence, or self-discipline.
2. Check the policy. Compare how much homework your child is being assigned with school limits and also with teachers’ estimates. If the guidelines call for students to spend only a certain amount of time on homework each night — say, ten minutes multiplied by the grade level — don’t be shy about speaking up if your child is being asked to spend more than that. Similarly, let the teacher know if he or she has significantly underestimated how long a specific assignment should take.
3. Focus on quality, not just quantity. The problems with homework aren’t limited to its excessive length. Don’t assume all is well just because kids are getting what we (or even they) decide is a reasonable amount. Even if this is true, the assignments themselves may not be reasonable; they may not be worth even five minutes of our children’s time. If children are being required to do something that fails to help them think more deeply and become more excited about learning, then there’s a problem.
4. Ask the probing questions. Homework is not like the weather, something to which we just have to reconcile ourselves. Don’t limit your questions to the details (Can kids consult the Internet for this assignment? When is it due? What sort of binder should they have?). Focus your attention on — and respectfully insist on answers to — the far more important questions: What reason is there to think that this assignment is worth doing? What evidence exists to show that traditional homework is necessary for children to become better thinkers? Why didn’t the kids have a chance to participate in deciding which of their assignments need to be taken home? Would my child really be a less proficient or enthusiastic learner if there was no homework at all?
5. Remember that your primary responsibility is to your child. The well-being of your child (and family) matter more than whether a worksheet is filled out or a report is written. Too many parents understand the pointlessness of many homework assignments, witness the toll they take on their children, dread the nagging and arguments each evening — and yet allow themselves to be intimidated into going along with what they know doesn’t make sense. Your job is to support your child’s emotional, intellectual, social and moral development, not to be the school’s enforcer.
6. Organise. Speak out on the homework issue — to teachers, administrators, school board members, and the general public. Talk to other parents at birthday parties, at the hairdresser’s, on the playground, even in line at the supermarket
Share publications that debunk misconceptions about homework and let educators, as well as other families, know how many common beliefs on the subject (eg, homework ‘reinforces classroom instruction’ or ‘teaches responsibility’) are nothing more than folk wisdom. Encourage other parents to speak out as well — and bring them with you when you meet with teachers and administrators. One parent with a concern can be dismissed even if she’s right. Ten parents saying that homework does more harm than good are hard to ignore.
Practical Ideas for Teachers
1. Educate yourself. When talking with parents or administrators, make sure you know what the research really says — that there is no evidence whatsoever of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school, little reason to believe that homework is necessary even in high school, and no support for the assumption that homework promotes good work habits, independence, or self-discipline.
2. Ask your students. Find out what their experience of homework is and solicit their suggestions — perhaps by distributing anonymous questionnaires. Many adults simply assume that homework is useful for promoting learning without even asking about the experience of the learners themselves! Do students find that homework really is useful? Why or why not? Are certain kinds of homework better than others? How does homework affect their interest in learning? What are its other effects on their lives and on their family?
3. Invite students to discuss and help decide. Hold periodic class meetings to think together about whether a given topic is appropriate for homework, how the project should be done, and how much time it should take. The more they participate in decision-making, the more committed they are to learning and the more likely it is that anything they do will be useful.
4. Challenge yourself. Before giving any assignment, ask yourself whether it is truly likely to be beneficial for most students in class — and whether these benefits will likely outweigh the time they’re being asked to take away from other things they might be doing. Also ask whether students are likely to become more or less excited about learning — and about the topic — as a result of the homework.
5. Design what you assign. Consider asking students to do only what you’re willing to create yourself, as opposed to prefabricated worksheets or generic exercises from textbooks. The likely result of such a commitment on your part is that students will end up getting less homework and better homework.
6. Individualise. If all students are made to do the same assignment, it’s unlikely to be beneficial for most of them. Those who already understand the concept will be wasting their time, and those who don’t understand will become increasingly frustrated. There is no perfect assignment that will stimulate every student because one size simply doesn’t fit all. When possible, work with students to create several assignments fitted to match different interests and capabilities. But remember: it’s better to give no homework to anyone than the same homework to everyone.
7. Stop grading. Shift away from a model in which assignments are checked-off or graded, where the point is to enforce compliance, and towards a model in which students explain and explore with one another what they’ve done — what they liked and disliked about the book they read, what they’re struggling with, what new questions they came up with, and so on. Homework in the best classrooms is not checked — it is shared. If students conclude that there’s no point in spending time on homework that isn’t going to be collected or somehow recorded, that’s not an argument for setting up carrots and sticks and a climate of distrust; it’s an indictment of the homework itself.
8. Experiment. See what happens if, during a given week or lesson, you assign no homework at all. Surely anyone who believes that homework is beneficial should be willing to test that assumption by finding out what life is like without it. What are the effects of this moratorium on students’ achievement, on their interest in learning, on their moods and the resulting climate of the classroom?
9. Change the default. Keep in mind that a commitment to assign homework on a regular basis makes sense only if homework — that is, the very fact of having to do it, irrespective of its content — is beneficial. Even a cursory review of the evidence makes it impossible to defend this idea. Try, therefore, to shift the default state in your classroom students should be given homework only when there’s a reasonable likelihood that a particular assignment will be beneficial to most of them. When that’s not true, students should be free to spend their after-school hours as they choose. The bottom line: no homework unless it’s necessary.
Published in Kindred, issue 21, March 07