Do bulging backpacks mean learning? With his new book, The Homework Myth, expert Alfie Kohn says no. Here's why.
After spending most of the day in school, students are given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few of us ever stop to think about it. It’s worth asking not only whether there are good reasons to support the nearly universal practice of assigning homework, but why it’s so often taken for granted—even by vast numbers of teachers and parents who are troubled by its impact on children.
The mystery deepens once you discover that widespread assumptions about the benefits of homework—higher achievement and the promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility—are not substantiated by the available evidence.
The Status Quo
Taking homework for granted would be understandable if most teachers decided from time to time that a certain lesson really needed to continue after school was over and, therefore, assigned students to read, write, figure out, or do something at home on those afternoons.
That scenario, however, bears no relation to what happens in most American schools. Rather, the point of departure seems to be, “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on, we’ll figure out what to make them do.” This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools—public and private, elementary and secondary. And it really doesn’t make sense, in part because of what the research shows:
• There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age. Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure (which I don’t), more homework isn’t correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school. The only effect that does show up is less positive attitudes on the part of kids who get more assignments.
• In high school, some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores, but it tends to be small. More important, there’s no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework.
• No study has ever confirmed the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits—self-discipline, independence, perseverance, or better time-management skills—for students of any age. The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is basically a myth.
Overtime in First Grade
In short, there’s no reason to think that most students would be at a disadvantage if homework were reduced or even eliminated. Yet the most striking trend in the past two decades has been the tendency to pile more and more assignments on younger and younger children. (Remember, that’s the age at which the benefits are most questionable, if not absent!)
Even school districts that had an unofficial custom not so long ago of waiting until the third grade before giving homework have abandoned that restraint. A long-term national survey discovered that the proportion of six- to eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 64 percent in 2002, and the weekly time they spent studying at home more than doubled.
In fact, homework is even “becoming a routine part of the kindergarten experience,” according to a 2004 report.
The Negative Effects
It’s hard to deny that an awful lot of homework is exceptionally trying for an awful lot of children. Some are better able than others to handle the pressure of keeping up with a continuous flow of work, getting it all done on time, and turning out products that will meet with approval. Likewise, some assignments are less unpleasant than others. But in general, as one parent put it, homework simultaneously “overwhelms struggling kids and removes joy for high achievers.” Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children are told how much, or for how long, they must do it.
Even as they accept homework as inevitable, parents consistently report that it intrudes on family life. Many mothers and fathers spend every evening serving as homework monitors, a position for which they never applied. One professor of education, Gary Natriello at Columbia University, believed in the value of homework until his “own children started bringing home assignments in elementary school.” Even “the routine tasks sometimes carry directions that are difficult for two parents with advanced graduate degrees to understand,” he discovered.
What’s bad for parents is generally worse for kids. “School for [my son] is work,” one mother writes, “and by the end of a seven-hour workday, he’s exhausted. But like a worker on a double shift, he has to keep going” once he gets home. Exhaustion is just part of the problem, though. The psychological costs can be substantial for a child who not only is confused by a worksheet on long vowels or subtraction but also finds it hard to accept the whole idea of sitting still after school to do more schoolwork.
Furthermore, every unpleasant adjective that could be attached to homework—time-consuming, disruptive, stressful, demoralizing—applies with greater force in the case of kids for whom academic learning doesn’t come easily. Curt Dudley-Marling, a former elementary school teacher who is now a professor at Boston College, interviewed some two dozen families that included at least one struggling learner. In describing his findings, he talked about how “the demands of homework disrupted...family relationships” and led to daily stress and conflict.
The “nearly intolerable burden” imposed by homework was partly a result of how defeated such children felt, he added—how they invested hours without much to show for it; how parents felt frustrated when they pushed the child but also when they didn’t push, when they helped with the homework but also when they refrained from helping. “You end up ruining the relationship that you have with your kid,” one father told him.
And don’t forget: The idea that it is all worth it because homework helps children learn better simply isn’t true. There’s little pro to weigh against the significant cons.
Play Time Matters
On top of causing stress, more homework means kids have less time for other activities. There’s less opportunity for the kind of learning that doesn’t involve traditional skills. There’s less chance to read for pleasure, make friends, play games, get some exercise, get some rest, or just be a child.
Decades ago, the American Educational Research Association released this statement: “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.” It is the rare school that respects the value of those activities—to the point of making sure that its policies are informed by that respect. But some courageous teachers and innovative schools are taking up the challenge.
A New Approach
There is no traditional homework at the Bellwether School in Williston, Vermont, except when the children ask for it or “are so excited about a project that they continue to work on it at home,” says Marta Beede, the school’s top administrator. “We encourage children to read at home—books they have selected.” She and her colleagues figure that kids “work really hard when they’re at school. To then say that they’re going to have to work more when they get home doesn’t seem to honor how much energy they were expending during the day.”
Teachers ought to be able to exercise their judgment in determining how they want to deal with homework, taking account of the needs and preferences of the specific children in their classrooms, rather than having to conform to a fixed policy that has been imposed on them.
High school teacher Leslie Frothingham watched her own two children struggle with enormous quantities of homework in middle school. The value of it never seemed clear to her. “What other ‘job’ is there where you work all day, come home, have dinner, then work all night,” she asks, “unless you’re some type A attorney? It’s not a good way to live one’s life. You miss out on self-reflection, community.” Thus, when she became a teacher, she chose to have a no-homework policy.
And if her advanced chemistry students are thriving academically without homework, which they are, surely we can rethink our policies in the younger grades.
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How much time does your teen spend doing busy school work each night? According to a recent study, if it's more than one hour… then it's too much. A study from Spain published in the Journal of Educational Psychology by the American Psychological Association found that spending more than one hour on math and science homework can be counterproductive. Students seem to gain the most benefit when a small amount of homework is consistently assigned, rather than large portions assigned at once.
The study examined the performance of 7,725 public and private school students (mean age 13.78 years). Students answered questions about the frequency of homework assigned and how long it took them to complete assignments. Researchers looked at standardized tests to examine academic performance in math and science. They found that students in Spain spent approximately one to two hours per day doing homework. Compare that to studies that indicate American students spent more than three hours a day doing homework!
Researchers found that teachers who assigned 90-100 minutes of homework per day had students who performed poorer on standardized tests than those with less homework. However when teachers consistently assigned small amounts of homework students scored nearly 50 points higher on standardized test than those who had daunting amounts of homework. Another interesting finding from this study was students who were assigned about 70 minutes of homework, of which they needed help from someone else to complete, scored in the 50th percentile on standardized tests. Whereas those who were assigned the same amount of homework, but could do it independently, scored in the 70th percentile. So clearly, not only is the amount of homework assigned of importance, but so is the ability to master it independently.
There are several possible explanations for these findings. First, teachers may be using homework as a means to cover what was not completed in class. So rather than practicing concepts taught in class, students are left to self-teach material not covered in class. Homework should supplement learning, and not be used as a tool to keep up with a curriculum pacing guide. Another explanation for testing gains is those who work to master material independently experience more academic success.
The study out of Spain supports findings from another study published a year ago published in the Journal of Experimental Education which found that too much homework can have a negative impact on teens’ lives outside of the academic setting. In this study, researchers surveyed 4,317 American high school students’ perceptions about homework, in relation to their well-being and behavioral engagement in school work. On average, these students reported spending approximately 3.1 hours of homework each night—a far reach from the hour per night recommendation by the first study.
This second study found that too much homework can be counterproductive and diminish the effectiveness of learning. The negative effects of lots of homework can far outweigh the positive ones. Researchers found that a lot of homework can result in:
Students reported high levels of stress associated with school work. Below is the breakdown of student responses.
56% of students in this study reported that homework was a primary source of stress
43% of students in this study reported that tests were another source of stress
33% of students in this study reported that pressure to get good grades was a source of stress
• Physical Problems:
Students reported that homework led to:
gastro intestinal problems
• Social life problems.
How can students expect to spend time with others when they are too busy completing homework? Students reported that having too much school work keeps them from spending time with friends and family.
Plus too much school work keep them from participating in extra-curricular activities and engaging in activities they enjoy doing. Interestingly, many students reported that homework was a “pointless” or “mindless” way to keep their grades up. In other words… it was "busy" work.
When is homework beneficial? If homework is used as a tool to facilitate learning and reinforce concepts taught in the classroom then it enriches students academic experience. While homework does serve a purpose, so does having a life outside of school. Sometimes social development can be just as important as academic development. So the answer may be helping youth find a balance between school and social life.
Rubén Fernández-Alonso, Javier Suárez-Álvarez, José Muñiz. Adolescents’ Homework Performance in Mathematics and Science: Personal Factors and Teaching Practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 2015; DOI:10.1037/edu0000032
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