Friday, March 19, 2010

The destructive forces of Homework

There is a boat load of reasons to stop assigning homework. I've written about the myth of non-academic benefits for homework but today I want to focus on what I consider to be the number one reason to stop assigning homework - and that is the effect homework has on attitude.

I've also written about what attitude should mean, while Alfie Kohn addresses the issue of homework and attitude in his book The Homework Myth:

Homework's emotional effects are obvious, but its adverse impact on intellectual curiosity is no less real. Kids' negative reactions may generalize to school itself and even the very idea of learnning. This is a consideration of overriding importance for all of us who want our children not only to know things but to continue wanting to know things. "The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning," said John Dewey. (Then again, perhaps "formed" isn't the most appropriate verb. As the educator Deborah Meier reminds us, a passion for learning "isn't something you have to inspire [kids to have]; it's something you have to keep from extinguishing.")

Anyone who cares about this passion will want to be sure that all decisions about what and how kids are taught, every school-related activity and policy, is informed by the question, "How will this affect children's interest in learning, their desire to keep reading and thinking and exploring?"

If we are to walk the talk of life-long learning, we must care how kids feel about thier learning. If ever there was a consensus among people, it could be found among kids and their hatred for homework.

So if we truly care about students' attitudes towards learning, and we are doing something that is sabatoging that attitude to go on learning, then we have a professional obligation to stop.

If you want to talk about authentic accountability, then we have to start asking the kids if they like school. Then we have to care about their answer. And then we have to stop blaming them and reflecting on our own practices.

A good place to start is to stop assigning homework.


  1. Many teachers will argue that homework is necessary because students need to practice the skills they are "taught" that day or they need to commit to memory the facts they "learned" on any given day.

    The irony is, that students will readily admit that they rarely "think" about the skills or facts they are suppose to practice. They know how to play the homework/worksheet game that is sent home with them after school.

    There is some truth to that. It is always good for students to play with ideas and find ways to internalize their learning through the construction of meaning. The problem with homework is that it does just the opposite. As you point it, it poisons the attitudes. Teachers who do listen to their students will realize they can turn over the responsibility of playing with the ideas to their students and the results will be authentic, complex, and provide evidence of real learning. Ask students how they might play with the ideas to deepen their understanding - that is a good starting point, and then allow them to explore divergent ways to share their learning.

    One of the questions that always comes to mind when I hear about homework is, "Did you give them time to work with the ideas during school?" If the answer is "no," which I have to believe is the honest answer, then there is something wrong with the curriculum. I feel that content driven curricula are the reason so many in education feel homework is necessary. If we designed curriculum around processes it would eliminate the need for homework because the "play" would be occurring in the classroom.

  2. My 5 year-old kindergartener wanted to complete his homework and was willing to stay up late to do it. While I appreciated his persistence, I was concerned that it was motivated by fear of loss (of the happy face stamp) instead of fun or practice. He is already learning the Homework Game.

    I am committed to supporting his curiosity and love of learning. To that end, I have given him his own happy face stamp.

    Sherlyn Luedtke, Parent

  3. Joe, isn't there a way to reinvent homework to make it useful, instead of dysfunctional?

    It's pretty clear by now to whoever has thought about it honestly that drill homework is less than useless. Your points about it's dysfunctional nature are spot on.

    I'm interested in what you might think of a different kind of assignment that encourages a practice of reflection. The model might be the journal or diary.

    The assignment is the same every day. Stop for 10 minutes. Let your mind wander. Then write or draw whatever occurs to you. But you only have 15 or 30 minutes to do it.

    Whatever doesn't fit in the time alloted, save for the next day.

    From my experience I think it would work to help practice focus and reflexive thinking, without the meaningless activity that every kid knows is meaningless except for not getting a bad grade or disappointing someone.

  4. Maybe if more time were spent on fundamentals instead of teaching to a test, or if more classroom time were spent on academics instead of things like DARE (which seems only to teach kids to be more street savvy consumers, if they're so inclined) homework could be eliminated. Or maybe it wouldn't be detrimental if it were more self-directed and designed to stimulate curiosity outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, I know parents who wouldn't encourage or support much learning outside the classroom if they didn't believe the homework was required in order for their children to make the grade.

  5. I have heard all the arguments for and against homework and I fear once again that educators are taking an all or nothing approach. Very rarely is the extreme measure the right measure. I believe that carefully thought out and assigned homework is absolutely necessary for certain disciplines. As a math teacher, I cannot even fathom not assigning homework. Of course, it has to be well-constructed for it to be of value. Nobody "likes" to do certain tasks that are necessary for success in many fields. Therefore, we cannot base our decisions solely on what students like! As a coach, homework takes a different form--the extra shooting, dribbling etc. in the sport of basketball. If it isn't done, you will not have a very good team! We must come up with a solution that is based upon compromise--not an extreme.

  6. Jeff, what proof do you have to show that homework is something we should try and save?

    If you can't imagine not assigning homework, there is a good chance that your over-packed, content-bloated curriculum is to blame.

    Are you familiar with Constance Kamii?

  7. @Jeff Your example as coach is a prime indicator of why homework doesn't work.

    You talk about players developing skills by doing - not doing in the sense that a page filled with 50 math problems is doing, but through playing. The kids on the court don't see their court time as homework because it is relevant. The equivalent of homework for your basketball players would be a pick-up game with their team mates and without you. They would never look at that as homework. Why?

    Because they would be in control of the process, they would be experimenting with the skills, testing themselves, coaching each other. That scenario can not happen if homework is prescriptive - as it is in the current culture.

    Try this: teach a new math concept and send the students home and tell them to work independently or collaboratively to develop a way to evidence their internalization of the concept. The one rule, they can't demonstrate their learning by solving an equation on paper or on the board.

  8. "Jeff, what proof do you have to show that homework is something we should try and save?"

    Go on youtube and check the series of "Did you Know", especially the part about Asia, having more Honor students graduating then the entire HS population of US. Very scary! You believe that they are Honors students because their teachers believe in no homework!

    Wow! just food for thoughts: how many successful people do you know that never did homework? All the Biography that I have read as a common denominator and that is HARD WORK! As teacher, we never do anything after school hours? Man, I want to teach in your school!

    Homework doesn't work because we make it that way or we believe it doesn't. Ask an honest student who understand at HS and the common denominator that I have found, is yep Finishing the Work started in class, oops, homework!! Man, I'm a real bad teacher and shouldn't be in this profession if I think that way!

    Go check the videos and enjoy!

    But, I'm surprise to see that not many people have commented on this topic and I believe that it is a very good one. Or it is to controversial for open book!!!

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  10. I have recently seen another radical idea. They call it "inverting the lecture paradigm". Classically students come to class, receive a lecture, and go home to practice what they have "learned". The new approach prescribes that the student should learn the concepts before coming to class (in fact this is a widely adopted idea in China), then spend time with the instructor practicing and ensuring that their understanding is correct. A related idea is the "separation of training from education". The idea being that the "training" is mundane, "follow a procedure" type of thing that one can be "programmed" to do. The "education" is insights and experiences of when and how to apply the concepts these newly acquired skills. This fits exactly into the lecture inversion idea - the training can be done at home (with the help of cleverly created electronic teaching materials - see my thoughts on that here The education then must be done in the classroom. The effect would be that if you go to a community college or to MIT, you would receive exactly the same training. The $40k/year would then go to receiving insights from more versed (hopefully!) and experienced faculty.

    Back to the original point of the thread - that homework is bad. These ideas argue that homework is in fact necessary, but not to unnecessarily repeat concepts in the form of problem sets. Rather it prepares the student to have a useful conversation with the instructor.

    David Doria

  11. As a parent, I am frustrated by the fact that my children are in school for SEVEN hours a day and then come home with homework. I understand that hard work and practice are important to success, but SEVEN hours a day, shouldn't that cover the hard work and practice? Shouldn't my children now be free to pursue the individual things that interest them, to read what they want, to play their instruments and write for pleasure? Shouldn't they be free to run, jump, play and practice other social interaction with friends and family?

    I'm with you. Homework should be rare, the exception rather than the rule.

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  13. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

  14. I have read through this thread as excuse me if I may have miss someone mention this but it is all very well talking about whether homework is good for children's lifelong skills but no one has mentioned the destructive forces it may have on each individual child's home life. This includes their parents and family members. I hope you are all familiar with Urie Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory and will agree that every child has unique home life styles, unique pressures bestowed upon them and different categories of learning styles. All this has to match the parenting style the parent chooses to perform at one particular time along with their problems society throws at them. Equal opportunity which is a very well known and practiced legislation does not fit very well with homework unless the particular child has matured enough to master how to motivate themselves to do homework instead of doing what life distractions throws at them (independence). I can see why a reasonable amount of meaningful homework may be good for those students who are motivated and have the support they need at home but unless you teach in an up market area or school where parents want their money worth/ child to succeed or they have the time, patients, skills and no other distractions such as other children, their own homework etc. then children may benefit but as Pound, L. (2008) said 'if learners are exposed to emotionally negative learning takes place.' no-one knows what goes on in children's homes so it may benefit teachers to leave homework well alone for equal opportunity sake or give children the opportunity to create their own homework bring it in class as a show and tell and for those parents who wish there child to have homework, send them to WHSmiths.

  15. Homework – Education’s Biggest Scam
    Homework is possibly one of education’s most contentious subjects. Before we ask the purpose of homework we must first look at education.
    Q) Why do children/students attend school? A) To learn
    Learning is most effective when done in a relaxed and happy atmosphere: the school must provide a place where the students want to be. Then, and only then, will the students’ learning be maximised. This is our goal and we must start with a clean slate and put strategies in place which promote this. Anything which hinders this must be scrapped. This seems common sense.
    The above (providing a place where students want to be) is a prerequisite for effective learning.
    Now, let’s consider the purpose of homework. In early years of education there is no reason for homework. If young children in primary school cannot learn all they need to during school hours, there is something wrong with the education system.
    In secondary school the purpose of homework is for students to consolidate what they find difficult. After a lesson each student will have different needs as to what work needs consolidation. Only each individual student knows his/her ‘homework needs’ and so only each individual student knows what homework he/she needs to be doing. The logical conclusion to this is that each student chooses his/her homework: the idea of the teacher setting all students the same homework is senseless. If a student chooses his/her own homework he/she is more likely to do it and more importantly, learn from doing it.
    The homework pundits will argue that some/many will not do homework. We must ask if homework is appropriate for all students. (In secondary modern schools years ago homework was not set and the students learned appropriate skills to prepare them for life). At the moment, students who do not hand in homework have detention and are often made to complete the homework at school in the presence of a teacher. The student may complete the homework but there is no learning taking place under these conditions. What does happen is that the student’s relationship with one or more teachers deteriorates, resulting in less learning taking place in lessons. I believe that forcing a student to do homework results in less learning overall because of their ‘anti school/teacher’ attitude.
    Efficiency is output/input. From this definition, homework, as conventionally set in schools with the resulting sanctions and marking must be one of the most inefficient tasks of the education system.
    There is a wealth of literature exposing the fallacy that ‘homework as conventionally done improves performance’: it does not.
    The reason homework is done is because parents/guardians expect it. Schools are often judged by how much homework is set. (If parents believe homework improves performance then they too should be set homework each night by their employer).
    Parents, governors and governments need to be educated in what really improves students’ learning.
    On a final note, teachers nowadays have no time to focus on what really improves learning as they are too busy doing all the unnecessary tasks (such as all the hours spent on homework issues) imposed by constant changing government strategies.
    Jim Baker 06/10/2011

  16. Is assigned reading outside of class homework?

  17. Homework is not something that should be assigned. It should be inspired. So as long as the child has a say over what they will read, where they will read, and how long they will read then reading at home could be cool.

    Remember that daily self-directed reading is the best.

  18. It depends. I see homework as something to be inspired not assigned.

    What ever we ask children to do, be it at school or not, we must first ask "how will this affect this child's desire to go on learning"

    The child who can read but chooses not to holds no advantage over the child who can't read.