Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The myth of non-academic benefits of homework

What training or education are teachers given on the topic of homework? I find it curiously disconcerning that homework is such a large part of school, and yet most teachers could not cite a philosophy on homework that is grounded in sound research or logic. Unfortunately, homework usually fits under the category of 'it was good enough for me, so it's good enough for my students.' Or in other words, teachers simply chose to continue teaching the way they were taught.

However, homework is a contentious issue in education, and there are a lot of myths about the topic that need some serious debunking.

Let's take the age old belief that homework provides non-academic benefits such as responsibility, time management and study skills.

Firstly, the research is decidely absent on this topic. Even Harris Cooper, a long-time supporter of homework, admits that:
"No studies [have] looked at non-academic outcomes like study habits."
And the Encyclopedia of Educational Research still reads to this day that:
"Of all the research questions asked about homework, the paramount one has always focused on the relationship between homework and academic achievement." Whether homework has any effect on "objectives other than test marks and course grades - such as developing discipline and independence, extending understanding, or strengthening a positive attitude to learning - cannot be stated."
Let's examine the idea that homework encourages students to be more responsible. Some one does not become more proficient at making good decisions by having others continually make decisions for them. Responsibility works in a simliar fashion. People only become more responsible if given the opportunity to exhibit responsibility. In his book The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn explains:
Consider the idea that doing homework promotes "responsibility." Such a claim might seem plausible until we stop to ask what it is, exactly, for which students are actually responsible. Almost never are they permitted to decide whether to have homework, or how much, or what kind. Instead, their choices are limited to such peripheral questions as when to do what they've been required to do. This is, it must be conceded, a rather pale version of responsibility.
How about time management? Homework must provide students with an opportunity to improve their timeliness and punctuality? Again, the problem arises that it is not the child who is expected to improve their time management; rather, all those adults who are managing the child's time for them are the ones likely to show improvement. Kohn continues:
Still, if homework taught children how to budget their time well, that would be something. But this is a hard case to make for two reasons. First, the choice of when to do their homework is typically made for students by their parents, who insist that they finish it before doing something they find enjoyable. One mother remarked to me that what her kids' assignments are really testing is her proficiency at time management. Of course we might reply that she, and other parents, could back off and leave kids on their own to finish their homeowrk (or not). But this is neither caring nor practical. The consequences are unpleasant for parent and child alike if the assignment is discovered undone just before bedtime or early the next morning. In fact, if it remains undone, parents can usually count on hearing from the teacher, which would suggeest that a hands-off poloicy on the part of parents really isn't expected or desired. It's understandable, then, that most parents are accustomed to saying, "You need to get your homework out of the way before you..." What's not so understandable is that they would turn around and defend homework on the grounds that it helps children to develop responsibility  or become more independent.
Surely homework helps students to hone their "study skills"? This is a tricky one because study skills can be defined in quite a variety of ways. Kohn writes:
Assuming that this phrase refers to the ability to formulate questions, locate information, and organize one's thoughts, what reason is there to believe that these capabilities can't be developed during the six or seven hours a day, five days a week, that children spend in school? It seems peculiar to claim that homework is a school's sole tool, or even best tool, for supporting any of these character -related attributes. The premise that homework is necessary to imporve study skills becomes persuasive only if that phrase is defined so narrowly that the whole argument becomes circular: homework is useful to help kids get better at doing homework.
My favorite part of Kohn's message might be how our dependence on homework may be artifically self-perpetuating - meaning we only think we need to do homework because homework demands it.

Homework is no small issue for most students and too many families suffer nightly homework crusades for teachers to simply assign homework on a whim. It's time teachers did their homework on homework and realize that the reasons for giving homework are at best suspect and at worst downright disagreeable.


  1. Truly you can not argue the fact that becoming great at something takes practice. How far would the Chicago Bulls have gotten had Michael Jordan not practiced the skills that we all so admired? I for one would not have a surgeon perform an operation on me if she had not practiced the skills needed to be successful. Homework in it's most simple and basic definition is an opportunity to practice the fundamental skills that provide students the cornerstone to build on.

  2. You are over simplifying by assuming all homework or practice is of equal value. Time on task is necessary but not nearly sufficient when striving for mastery. Researchers have come to understand that engaged time on task is a must. Micheal Jordan and others who come to be masters of their field emerse themselves in a kind of deep practice. Unfortunately, if you evaluated the kinds of interactions students have with their homework, you would be hard pressed to find anything that resembles authentic intrinsic love for learning or improvement. And the more you try to force students to engage, the more they resist.

  3. I completely agree with this sentiment. This past year I have not assigned a single exercise for homework for my students.

    We have been working on meaningful projects and practicing skills during class (where I can monitor the understanding of the students). Students are usually expected to finish their projects on their own time, but as a parent recently confided in me, "They don't feel like they are doing homework..."

  4. I have been contemplating the evils of homework for such a long time. My current assigning of homework consists of 10 - 15 word patterned words to study over the week and twenty-25 words to find related to the word pattern. Even these couple of tasks are left undone with notes from parents saying, "We didn't know what to do" or "We didn't have time." When I think of homework for ten-year-olds, I have to ask myself, "What would they be doing instead of homework?" These little guys have busy lives - at a sitter till parents get home, off to hockey, boxing, dance, swimming . . . and yes, some kids sit in front of video games or stupid tv - not my concern. But I spend the entire day darn near sucking their brains out of their heads - they work hard, all day, as you and I do, and they are tired, too. What do you want to do when you get home - spend time with your family, read a good book, engage in a hobby, go for a run. I think they do, too. And honestly, if you are tired at the end of the day, it will take you twice as long to do a simple task - this isn't any different for young kids. Do we want our students doing their homework on the school bus because they have farm chores when they get home? No - let's be real. I have parents who are not as smart as a fifth grader, and they can't help their kids with homework. I help them at school or get them help with an assistant at school, and encourage them to practice skills at home - reading, math facts, play Scrabble and Monopoly with their family, and come to school refreshed and ready to work again.

  5. This is great! I loved reading this. So many people use the "traditional" methods of teaching and don't want to explore new things. I'm glad I found this article and I may use this for some of my resarch! Thanks!

  6. i didnt realize others felt as i did about homework. i have 5 kids and when my oldest was in 3rdd grade she would come home with so much homework that we would work at it until bath and bedtime only taking a break for supper and still she would end up staying up past bedtime to finish. we moved twice to get the kids into diff. schools, homework is one of the reasons we finally decided to homeschool.

  7. Just some thoughts

    I usually find three main areas of homework concern, quantity, quality and purpose. Homeschooling is great alternative for those who have the skills, opportunity, and desire for it.

    Sometimes, I find that people I talk to are not against homework so much as their definition of homework. For instance, some people who are vehemently opposed to homework also support reading at home programs which essentially are a form of homework. Usually it is the mundane practice something homework that really upset people I talk to.

    In elementary schools, teachers are often able to control the amount of homework to a greater degree because the teacher teaches all the core subjects. In the higher grades, for some reason it seems to be problematic for teachers to collaborate on what homework is given and why.

    The homework that is given should be differentiated to meet each student's needs. If the student has demonstrated mastery, is the homework needed? If the student does not understand the material, does practicing it wrong increase understanding?

    Sometimes context does matter. Homework to practice the use of an algorithm in a grade 11 mathematics class is a different context than homework to practice adding single digit numbers in a grade 3 class.

    Homework wars have waged since the beginning of education. Some parents demand more homework, some demand no homework, and most of us muddle somewhere in the middle just worrying that our children become skilled enough to beat out whoever they have to in order to enter the post secondary of their choice.

  8. Nice to see some comments suggesting honing skills as appropriate homework.

    Insisting kids do 'busy work' on their own time is a great way to groom people to be drones and not ask "Why?", they are being expected to perform mundane tasks to satisfy someone else.

    Those parents who are doing their children's homework all the while thinking they are "helping"... I hope they get their own grading at the end of the year. What lesson that teaches a child I woudn't like to speculate.

  9. You are still talking about homework 1.0. Homework 2.0 is homework that the student actually wants to do because he or she is working on collaborative project that will be published in a blog. Arguing about homework (1.0) begs a better definition of what homework should mean.

  10. My assumption is this is all related to k-12 ed. What do you say for a college calculus class that meets 4 hours per week? Do you believe that is enough time to develop a full conceptual understanding of the subject?


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