Thundering footsteps head towards the door. Mom shouts from the kitchen, “Have you finished your homework?” Her words echo off the slammed door. One child has escaped, but thousands more hear: “Not until you have finished your homework.” Groans rise across the Central Valley each evening as the routine begins.
Homework has been around as long as school. They go hand-in-hand. This connection is closely tied to the belief that children are empty vessels simply waiting for knowledge to pour into them. More homework equals more learning. Homework reinforces what is taught in school. This traditional view does not match with new understandings of learning; it reflects conventional wisdom that says practice makes perfect.
Parents and educators want children to be successful. Homework, we are told, makes students smarter, develops work ethic and builds character. All these traits are essential for success later in life. The desire to help children succeed has led us to blindly accept these myths about homework. That’s right, there is no evidence to support the “benefits” of homework. We have been sold a bill of goods. In fact, research leads us to very different conclusions about homework. There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary and middle school. While there is a weak correlation between homework and achievement in high school, the evidence shows that homework is NOT responsible for improved achievement as measured by standardized tests. And there is no support for the notion that homework develops good work habits or self-discipline. The evidence says that homework does not make students smarter.
It gets worse! Not only does most homework fail to help our children, it can actively hurt them. We are born curious. Babies spend much of their time exploring the world – looking, holding, tasting, touching everything. This need to explore – to understand the world – continues as infants become toddlers and is carried into school. Children are naturally curious and love to learn but, burdened with mountains of homework, many children are turned off to reading, doing math and exploring the world. Piles of homework can increase anxiety and stress in children. It tells children to mindlessly obey and comply with rules. Instead of rest and relaxation, homework can lead to increased frustration and exhaustion. Homework can destroy the love of learning and emotionally damage our children. If this isn’t enough, homework also hurts family time. Homework forces children to do overtime, resulting in less family time and, in many cases, increased conflict as children procrastinate and parents nag.
Are things so bleak? Yes, there are more than 3,000 California content standards for children to learn. With increased pressure to raise test scores, many educators use homework for practice makes perfect. Elementary school students are weighed down by heavy backpacks. Middle school students are buried by the accumulation of homework from each class. High school students spend hours slogging through assignment after assignment. With our own eyes, we see children become angry, anxious, frustrated and ready to give up.
Do things need to be this way? No, but we need to change our understanding of learning from practice makes perfect to enhanced understanding. It is quality, not quantity, that matters with homework. Good homework eliminates pointless assignments, such as writing a book report or doing 50 math problems. Good homework engages students in activities that connect ideas to their world. Reading books of choice, interviewing family members, cooking meals, exploring outdoors and doing science experiments in the kitchen are examples. While these activities will vary depending upon grade level, they focus on helping students make connections and apply what they have learned.
Most homework doesn’t raise achievement and can destroy the love of learning, damage our children emotionally and hamper family time. Parents need to stop asking, “when is this assignment due?” and begin to ask, “what is the purpose of this assignment?” and, “how does this help my child?” We need to speak up and question our teachers, principals and school board members. We need to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of homework. If this does not work, then parents and students need to stop complying with schools. We need to do what is best for our children . . . we need to stop the homework insanity!
Scott Key is a professor in the School of Education at Fresno Pacific University. Before coming to FPU, he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.