Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Homework Problem

                                Homework! Oh homework!
                                I hate you! You stink!
                                I wish I could wash you away in the sink.
from Homework, Oh Homework, by Jack Prelutsky)

Sunday’s New York Times carried an article by Vicki Abeles, producer director of the documentary Race to Nowhere, entitled Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick? The article discusses the negative impact on students, both privileged and poor, of the drive for academic success. This opinion piece followed on the heels of an article earlier in the week that reported on the efforts of the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District in New Jersey to deal with the issue of student stress. The Superintendent of the West Windsor Schools, David Aderhold, reported to parents that the schools were in crisis due to the overwhelming feelings of stress students were experiencing. Among many other causes, both articles cited homework as one of the major stressors and both articles suggested that controlling the amount of homework could help in reducing that stress.

Homework is as much a part of the American school culture as the three-ring binder, the text book and the football team. Since seemingly the beginning of time, teachers have assigned homework and students have complained about it. Watch any Our Gang comedy from the 1930’s and you will see that children have always gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid homework. But whether the concern is over-stressed kids or homework resistant kids, homework keeps being assigned, keeps being completed or avoided or copied by kids and keeps being expected by parents. Should it be?

Teachers I have spoken to have argued that homework is necessary for reinforcement of information taught in school, or to prepare for a lesson that is to be given the next day, or to extend learning that has taken place in class or because there is not enough time to cover all the material during class. Some teachers have told me that it is important to assign homework to elementary students so they are prepared for the homework they will get in middle and high school. Other teachers have told me they assign homework because parents expect it.

I must say that I don’t find any of those reasons to be compelling ones for assigning homework, but what does the research say? Do students really benefit from homework? And if they do, what kind do they need?

Harris Cooper, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework, has done the most extensive and compelling research in homework. His findings can be summarized as follows:

·         When homework and in-class study were compared, in-class study proved superior.
·         Homework had no academic impact on the achievement of children in the elementary grades.
·         Homework had some positive impact on academic achievement (as measured by tests) of children in middle school as long as the homework was no more than 90 minutes a night.
·         Homework had the most impact on academic achievement (as measured by tests) in the high school.
·         Homework probably works best when the material is not too complex or unfamiliar.
·         It is better to distribute homework material across several assignments rather than have homework concentrate only on the material covered on that day.

Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn is perhaps America’s chief critic of homework. He finds Harris’ findings on the academic benefits of homework less than compelling. In his 2006 book, The Homework Myth, Kohn looks at Cooper’s research and concludes, 

Taken as a whole, current research might be characterized as inconclusive… a careful examination of the data raises serious doubts about whether meaningful learning is enhanced by homework for most students.

Kohn spends an entire chapter on the idea of homework as reinforcement, the number one reason teachers say they assign homework. Reinforcement assignments are not effective for students who do not already understand the concept, so they may end up reinforcing incorrect understandings. Reinforcement assignments are also ineffective for students who have already mastered the material. In other words, for a large number of students in any class, a reinforcement assignment is either wasting time or reinforcing bad habits. Kohn says it would be better to have the reinforcement work take place in the classroom where the teacher can clear up misconceptions and provide new challenges for students who have mastered the material.

With the work of Cooper and Kohn in mind, I think most of what is assigned in today’s schools as homework should happen in the classroom. I think of the art class as an appropriate model. When students attend an art class, they receive some instruction in technique and then they try those techniques out, right there in class in front of the teacher. In that art class the teacher sees the evidence of the student’s understanding and application of the skill and provides immediate formative feedback. I believe this should be the model for all classrooms. The classroom should be a workshop where students learn, apply and receive timely feedback on their work. This model works for all disciplines and virtually eliminates the need for reinforcement homework.

And eliminating the need for homework is a valuable thing because homework has so many negative impacts on children. As the articles cited at the beginning of this post highlight, one negative aspect is stress, stress on children and stress on families. Another negative aspect of homework is the impact on student perceptions of school and learning. Kids see homework as an intrusion on their “free-time” and I do not think that judgment is unreasonable. Homework may also lead to cheating. When I did a study of cheating at the high school where I worked 10 years ago, I found that one major cause of cheating was students feeling over-burdened by homework that they did not find particularly useful or engaging.

Should we do away with homework entirely? Probably not. But as teachers we need to think closely about our reasons for assigning homework and what the likely benefits will be of any given assignment. We need to decide if the time spent on assigning, completing, grading and reviewing homework, is worth the educational gains made. We need to decide if those gains might better be achieved by having the kids do the work under our watchful eye. If we assign homework because there is too much curriculum to cover, we need to reflect on whether we are trying to cover too much. If we are assigning homework so that students are prepared for the next class, we need to examine if that is an effective practice or if it is better to provide the background information in class. 

If we do assign homework, we should be sure assignments are focused on integrating concepts across more than one class, that the homework is readily doable for the students to whom it is assigned and that students get helpful feedback on their work. It should also be brief and assigned perhaps once or twice a week and never on weekends and holidays. For me, the best homework assignments would be those where students get the opportunity to explore a topic of their own interest or read a book or magazine of their own choice.

Maybe the homework that would be best for children is not homework assigned from school, but real “home” work. Time at home to spend interacting with family and friends and time to explore personal passions.