School Homework Controversy

Your first grader is in the middle of a tea party with six of her stuffed animals. It seems to be going well, despite a recent argument between the stuffed giraffe and his zebra stepbrother. You are enjoying eavesdropping on the dialogue as you clean up the dinner dishes, but it’s time for homework. You dutifully get your child set up at her study spot and redirect her attention to a worksheet of math facts. “I hate homework!” she wails, after an hour of struggle and avoidance. Exhausted and frustrated, you are inclined to agree with her.

Your child is not the only one howling about this nightly ritual. The debate over homework has been going on for decades, with the pendulum swinging back and forth between more and less homework for American students. Adding new fuel to the debate is that today’s kids are getting more homework in earlier grades.
“The amount of homework that younger kids – ages 6 to 9 – have to do has gone up astronomically since the late ’80s,” says Alfie Kohn, author of the 2006 book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

Homework detractors point to research that shows homework has no demonstrated benefits for students in the early elementary grades. They say younger students are not developmentally ready to learn the time management and work habits that nightly homework is assumed to teach, and that having grades depend on homework penalizes low-income students who may not have the resources at home to support nightly study sessions. On the pro-homework side are educators and parents who say that homework is necessary for reinforcing the lessons learned during the school day and that doing homework prepares kids for the work they’ll have in middle school, high school, and college.

Too young for nightly homework

Kohn falls solidly in the no-homework camp. He argues that homework in the elementary school years is more likely to drive students away from learning than to improve academic outcomes. What’s more, he says, time spent on homework is time not spent doing important activities like play, rest, and family time. He’s not alone in his view.

“The research clearly shows that there is no correlation between academic achievement and homework, especially in the lower grades,” says Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and the author of the 2015 book, Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy Successful Kids.

“Homework only really helps in high school,” agrees Heather Shumaker, author of It’s OK to Go Up the Slide. “In elementary school, there is no evidence that it has academic benefit. And yet, we are piling it on more and more, younger and younger.”

Some elementary schools have made headlines in recent years by announcing no-homework policies. Gaithersburg Elementary School in Maryland issued a ban on homework in 2012, asking students to read at home each evening instead. Last year, the principal of New York elementary school P.S. 116 sent home a letter to parents explaining why students would not be assigned any homework.

But it’s not clear how widespread the trend is. “We tried to study what school districts have homework policies. But there are thousands of school districts in the U.S. It is very difficult to know what schools are doing,” says Gerald Le Tendre, Head of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Promoting and Sustaining a Quality Teacher Workforce.

The pro-homework camp

Parents are among the most vocal detractors of banning or reducing homework in the elementary school grades. “Some teachers would like to not give homework,” says Shumaker. “But they are pressured to do it by either by administrators or parents. Parents want what is best for their kids. And many of them think having homework is it.”

Le Tendre agrees. “The amount of homework gets equated with some sort of academic rigor,” he explains. “Though I have seen nothing to support that idea.”
But that doesn’t mean that all work done at home is bad. “If you have a highly motivated kid who loves mathematics and loves spending hours every night on Kahn Academy, they can get substantial benefit from doing homework,” says Le Tendre.

Studies show that homework has positive effects for certain students under certain conditions. For example, students with learning disabilities can benefit from homework if they have the support they need to complete it. Middle and high school students benefit from doing homework, though high school students get more benefit more than middle schoolers, and more homework definitely isn’t better — too much homework (more than about an hour and a half a night for middle schoolers and more than two and a half hours for high schoolers) has been shown to negatively affect academic performance.

And if the assigned homework is to spend time reading for pleasure, no one is likely to argue with that. “One thing we know does have a correlation with academic achievement is free reading time,” says Pope. “We know that that is something we want schools to encourage.”

In praise of purposeful homework

Points and counterpoints aside, elementary school homework is probably not going to disappear any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that your child should struggle with those worksheets beyond a reasonable amount of time. The National PTA’s research-based recommendation is ten to twenty minutes of homework a night in first grade and an additional ten minutes per grade level thereafter. If your child’s homework takes longer than that, tell their teacher. (The teacher can’t know that homework is a tear-filled, hours-long event that is making your child dread school if you don’t tell her.) Work with the teacher to make sure that the homework your child receives is appropriate for them. Homework should be challenging enough to be thought-provoking, rather than just busy work, and your child should be able to complete it independently and successfully most of the time.

Make sure you understand the teacher’s goal for assigning homework. Is the purpose of a particular assignment to review a concept covered in class? Get extra practice at a skill your child is working on mastering? Explore a topic further, according to your child’s interest? When homework is purposeful and assigned in an amount and at a difficulty level that is appropriate for your child, it will likely be easier to incorporate into your home life — and less likely to negatively affect your child’s attitude toward school.

And happily, if your child’s homework is to read for pleasure, you won’t have to ask her to put away her toys and sit down to a worksheet. Ask her to read a story to her friends while they have tea instead. Everyone will be happier.

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Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.

I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?

'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework

Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.

A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.

Working memory?

When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.

Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.

But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.

Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.

Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.

The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”

The right type of work

The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.

His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.

The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains

So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:

  • Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.

  • Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.

  • Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.

  • Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.

While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.

Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community

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