Author of “The Homework Myth” and other books about education, parenting, and human behavior; Belmont resident.
All children — and former children with decent memories — are familiar with the downsides of homework: frustration, exhaustion, family conflict, reduced time for other activities, and, often, diminished enthusiasm for learning. These disadvantages have all been amplified in the wake of COVID stresses.
What’s surprising is that there is no gain to justify the pain. To the best of my knowledge, no controlled study has ever demonstrated any academic benefit to assigning homework — of any kind or in any amount — before children are in high school. Even in high school, the association between homework and achievement is weak, and some research shows no benefit at all, even in math.
In desperation, homework proponents may invoke non-academic benefits, asserting that it promotes independence, builds self-discipline, or teaches good work habits. Having spent years combing the literature, I’ve been unable to find a shred of evidence for these claims. I’d describe them as urban myths except that people in the suburbs also fall for them.
Does homework offer parents insights into what, or how, their kids are doing in school? The point is that there are better ways to achieve that goal without burdening the kids. Moreover, shouldn’t families, rather than schools, decide what happens when kids are home? And if we also want children to develop socially, physically, artistically, and emotionally, aren’t six hours of academics a day enough?
It’s not just a question of how much homework, or even what kind. That’s why many teachers, and some whole schools, don’t give any — and their students do just fine. One high school teacher told me he started his career assigning lots of homework because he wasn’t very good at teaching yet. He gradually assigned less and less before eliminating it entirely — and his students were not only still academically successful but more interested in what he was teaching than those who had to slog through textbooks or fill out worksheets at night.
In my experience, the more nuanced someone’s understanding of learning — and the more committed to helping students really understand ideas instead of just memorizing facts for tests — the more he or she is inclined to push back on the whole idea of making kids work a second shift of academics every evening.
Former Boston School Committee member; Massachusetts State Director of Democrats for Education Reform and its affiliate, Education Reform Now
For the last two decades, I’ve survived thousands of my children’s homework assignments.
Some of the more creative ones held not only their attention, but mine. I fondly recall a third-grade project to create a diorama of the Museum of Science’s Theater of Electricity, reimagined with a styrofoam ball, Model Magic, and paper clips turned into “electric” zigzags.
Others, like the numerous word searches favored by one eighth-grade science teacher, did little beyond creating 45 minutes of nightly frustration.
We took the good assignments with the bad, and often lamented during the high school years how much time was spent — to the detriment of sleep and socialization — on homework.
Still, I’m not one to advocate for its demise. I’d rather push for its reinvention.
Meaningful homework provides a framework for out-of-school learning intended to deepen and enforce classroom lessons. It can foster lasting, lifelong skills of time management, critical thinking, and reflection. When quantity is emphasized over quality, however, it can also cause undue stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness in children.
As we continue to navigate through a pandemic, the time has come for us to reimagine so much of what we do and how we do it. Homework is no exception. How do we ensure that all students are given ample opportunities for socialization, movement, and creative play, with a finite amount of time set aside for engaging, out-of-school work that deepens content knowledge and fosters their love of learning? For students with after-school jobs, how might we give due credit for the critical lessons they learn about business and working with the public — or about watching younger siblings or caring for a grandparent?
Across the country and in Massachusetts, schools are changing homework policies and piloting new strategies, with some eliminating worksheets in the early grades or only assigning nightly reading. Others, like Weston, have daily or weekly homework caps, or apply a 10-minute rule, where first-graders have 10 minutes of nightly homework, with annual increases by grade.
Educators and parents alike are acknowledging the need to move away from our “one-size-fits-all” model of education. The same is true for homework. It’s time to embrace more collaborative, creative options that elevate and amplify learning while also meeting students where they are.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact email@example.com.
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