Thursday, September 4, 2014

Musing on Homework

Photo courtesy of  shho

It's been a while since I had a post! School has started again, and so have the comments on homework from parents. Anything from pleading for other parents to tell them how to motivate their kids to complaining about how their kids don't have time to do anything else to just general questions about how much is normal or how to do something the 'new way.'

Homework is rubbish.

You could call that an opinion. But it's an educated one.

Even if you subscribe to the notion that homework is a good thing, the amount of homework matters. There's this 'rule of 10' thing where you're supposed to multiply the child's grade by 10 minutes to get the maximum amount of time spent on homework. After that, you get diminishing returns, increases in stress levels and damage to children's health (it can cause 'migraines, ulcers and other stomach problems, sleep deprivation and exhaustion, and weight loss').

This means that no student should ever have more than 2 hours of homework, and 3-4 hours is the current average in the US. 2 hours is only recommended in grades 10-12. No more than 90 minutes in middle school, and no more than 60 minutes in primary school (with no more than 20 minutes in 2nd grade). Any more is not only unreasonable, but it's potentially detrimental.

Photo courtesy of  hvaldez1 

I mean, they've been saying variants of this since the 50s. Teachers aren't teaching by evidence-based methods, and standardized tests are too often used as a measurement of skill -- not a very good one.

Additionally, the quality of homework matters. When I say 'homework is rubbish,' I'm thinking of the countless busywork sheets piled on kids that require nothing but mindless repetition. Stuff that the kids don't want to be doing and the teachers don't want to be grading, but somehow it still keeps being assigned. Not homework that encourages kids to interact with their environment or think critically.

The problem is that mindless homework becomes associated with 'school' and 'learning.' This leads to a cycle of decreasing satisfaction with both ideas. It's so much of a phenomenon that there's a term for "the mental process a person goes through after being removed from a formal schooling environment, when the "school mindset" is eroded over time." "Deschooling may refer to the time period it takes for children removed from school to adjust to learning in an unstructured environment."

What exactly does that mean? Well, the idea of homework is that kids should develop good habits for self-directed learning. However, homework actually may do the opposite, especially if parents punish them for not completing homework, or the homework itself feels like a punishment. So children will actually avoid anything that feels like homework. Of course, deschooling also refers to the damage caused from the way traditional school is structured. You see a little bit of it over the summer break and in the first few weeks back in school. The damage builds until it all culminates in burnout commonly referred to as 'senioritis' when I was in school.

Photo courtesy of  samlevan

I've seen some comments to the effect that "work is not a bad word." These people seem to have forgotten that kids already spent 6 hours at "work." That may not sound like much to an adult jaded by 8-12 hour workdays, but we're talking about children. Punishing them through overwork in a complete contradiction to what science shows is healthy just because you're cranky that you work your ass off is narcissistic and asinine. Kids learn best through play, not work.

Of course, I'm not any sort of professional, so let me just let them speak now:

  "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. 
  "Even at the high school level, the benefits of homework are debatable. 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." --Alfie Kohn, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing

According to Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University, data shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardized test called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The same correlation is also seen when comparing homework time and test performance at schools within countries. Past studies have also demonstrated this basic trend.

"...teachers typically give take-home assignments that are unhelpful busy work. Assigning homework "appeared to be a remedial strategy (a consequence of not covering topics in class, exercises for students struggling, a way to supplement poor quality educational settings), and not an advancement strategy (work designed to accelerate, improve or get students to excel)," LeTendre wrote in an email." -- Live Science

"Harris Cooper, a close student of the subject, reports that "The conclusions of past reviewers of homework research show extraordinary variability... Even in regard to specific areas of application such as within different subject areas, grades or student ability levels, the reviews often directly contradict one another." Even where a positive correlation is established, it is not clear whether homework makes good, well motivated students or privileged and well motivated students do homework. Cooper's work is unequivocal in its conclusion that no significant gains for homework are established for the elementary school years." -- John Buell

"Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good."
"The findings address how current homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students' advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement and well-being." -- Denise Pope

A Standford Research study found that too much homework is associated with:

Greater stress: 56 percent of the students considered homework a primary source of stress, according to the survey data. Forty-three percent viewed tests as a primary stressor, while 33 percent put the pressure to get good grades in that category. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

Reductions in health: In their open-ended answers, many students said their homework load led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced health issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems.

Less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits: Both the survey data and student responses indicate that spending too much time on homework meant that students were "not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills," according to the researchers. Students were more likely to drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies they enjoy.

Photo courtesy of

So, there you have it. One mom's opinion... backed by a lot of researchers. Homework may have its place in high school, but mindless busy work shouldn't be playing a part, especially with kids.

Of course, we'll have more information next year on just how well the idea of banning homework works out thanks to Quebec.