Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Homework undermines education

This was written by Mark Barnes who is a 20-year classroom teacher and adjunct professor at two Ohio colleges. Mark blogs here and tweets here. This post first appeared at SmartBlog on Education.

By Mark Barnes

Students often ask me why I don’t assign homework. “I don’t believe in it,” I quickly respond. “It doesn’t tell me what you’re learning.” They forge ahead with furrowed eyebrows. “Then why do all of our other teachers assign homework?” Although I typically leave that one alone, my experience tells me that the answer isn’t at all elusive. The average educator was taught in her pre-service days that homework is a part of every teacher’s instructional handbag. You lecture, model, assign a worksheet and follow that up with homework that, in many cases, looks a lot like the worksheet. Then you test and move on. Students who don’t complete homework receive zeroes, but they learn a valuable lesson about responsibility, many teachers argue, even though there’s no legitimate research connecting responsibility to homework.

This practice of assigning homework, simply because it’ something that’s always been done, is not only absurd and outdated, it is undermining effective 21st-century teaching and learning. Most teachers link homework to grades so the students who don’t do homework don’t learn the material — mainly because not enough teaching is being done in class – and many would-be learners grow to hate school because they wind up with poor grades and, ultimately, feel like failures. When I began teaching, my students, too, fell victim to the archaic tradition of homework. For more than a decade, I peppered students with mundane nightly activities, as I had been taught to do by education professors and mentors, all of whom ran the old-school teaching playbook, like a young football coach running the plays of Knute Rockne or Pop Warner — ancient coaching legends whose methods would likely fail in the modern era. Year after year, I watched students get low grades in my class and fail standardized tests, blaming them instead of questioning my own methods.

A few summers ago, I looked in the mirror and said, “Enough is enough; something has to change, and it has to start with my approach to teaching and learning.” I began studying the work of luminaries in education and human behavior research such as Alfie Kohn, Stephen Krashen, Nancie Atwell, Dylan Wiliam, Daniel Pink, Carol Dweck and many others. These experts showed me that the one-room-school- house method of education is an inefficient means for developing lifelong learners. Most important, they taught me that teachers will get the most from students by encouraging intrinsic motivation, autonomy and collaboration. I learned that the rote memory activities that most homework is founded on are useless when it comes to imparting knowledge and critical thinking.

So the homework stopped. Now, projects and individual activities and diagnostics are all worked on in class. Best of all, many of my students still work at home, but they choose what to do and when to do it. This is what independent learning is. This is what every teacher should want.

Are you ready to throw out homework? If not, what’s your concern about change? Please leave your comment whether for or against homework.


  1. I teach fifth grade. I agree that homework is vastly overrated and offers diminishing returns after a certain amount of time has been spent. I think it's a good time for my kids to work on math problems, but mostly I'd prefer that they read a book, make something, play a board game, talk to their parents, play with the dog or find something interesting on the computer. The big problem with us is that parents think we are not a real school unless we pile on the homework. They ask me all the time why I don't give more homework. I tell them that there is not much research in support of lots of homework, but they remain skeptical.

  2. This is my 9th year of teaching high school science. I've stopped assigning and grading homework, and in class we have discussions and students present and explain their work. Everything we do is now lab and discussion based, not lecture, teacher modeling, and student practice based. Their test scores have never been higher. Many students who would have failed when I taught in a more traditional manner have A's and B's because every student is excited to work with their peers and they are actually learning and understanding, not memorizing.

  3. You're doing a good job!

    -8th grader


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