By Teachers, For Teachers
I recently had a colleague tell me that he stopped assigning homework. The take-home assignments that had been such a core component of his classroom management and courses were suddenly kicked to the curb, and he was exploring other ways of helping students gain just as much proficiency without all the extra work. At first I had a hard time believing this was true. When I grew up, homework was a huge element of my learning. I spent so much of my time working on schoolwork during junior high and high school that I just assumed that was part of the rite of passage in the student experience. And as teachers, we saw homework as giving students that critical practice they needed for refining their skills and mastering content. So how could such a respected colleague just toss it out completely? It turns out that my colleague is not unique. Among teachers, parents, and schools, there is a growing trend to re-examine homework practices and, in some cases, do away with homework entirely. For example, Florida’s Marion County school district recently opted to ban homework for the 2017-2018 school year and will ask students to read for 20 minutes each night instead. So what is driving this classroom management trend, and is this pushing us in the right direction or not?
The ultimate question teachers need to ask themselves while assigning homework is, “Are my students that much better off for having done these homework assignments?” For many, the answer to this question is “No.” Here are some common reasons.
Homework creates stress. It’s no secret that bringing home schoolwork means bringing home an extra task, a responsibility that must be taken care of amidst other family activities each evening. The more work students have and the less time they have to do it, the more pressure it puts on students and their families. Parents – who are often responsible for helping their youngsters with work – have stress placed on them as well, leading to fatigue and tension within the household.
Homework has questionable academic benefit. Would you impose a school task on a student’s evening if it wasn’t guaranteed it would result in academic gain? Different studies come to different conclusions about the benefits of homework, depending on students’ age, homework duration, and assignment quality. Many teachers have begun carefully considering what gains they want homework to produce in student achievement before mandating it.
Homework is inequitable for some students. Often the students who might benefit the most from homework are the ones least likely to complete it. In many cases, students with the most-supportive home environments have an advantage in homework completion, whereas students who lack the time, resources, or environment conducive to homework completion don’t have a fair chance at doing the work in a meaningful fashion. Homework then only exacerbates the differences between high achievers and low achievers.
Homework reduces the love of learning. Students spend most of their day in school studying the things teachers ask them to. And what do they get to explore at home? More of what teachers ask them to. Instead of learning for learning’s sake, instead of harboring curiosity and promoting the joy of knowledge, homework can contribute to academic fatigue. As homework critic Alfie Kohn states in his book “The Myth of Homework,” “It extinguishes the flame of curiosity.”
Homework contributes to sedentary kids. With childhood obesity on the rise and less time and inclination for genuine physical play, homework contributes to children’s sedentary lifestyle by requiring children to sit still both at school and at home to complete their academic work.
Perhaps one of the more-famous studies done on homework is a meta-analysis by John Hattie published first in 2009 and updated as recently as 2015. Hattie examined factors influencing academic achievement and listed them in order of “Effect size,” or the amount that achievement is impacted. Homework is indeed on the list – toward the bottom, with an effect size of .29. According to Hattie’s meta-analysis, there are more than 100 factors that impact on student learning more than homework (and that’s assuming the homework is meaningful and well-designed).
Another popular study comes from Harris Cooper in a meta-analysis published in 2006. Cooper and company find essentially that there is a positive correlation between homework and achievement. However, that correlation is strongest for grades 7-12, and nearly non-existent for grades K-6. Cooper’s analysis ultimately makes a recommendation for “Future research” to make stronger determinations regarding homework’s impact on outcomes.
So the research boils down to a few basic essentials. Yes, it can have benefits for students in upper grades. However, those benefits will only appear when homework is assigned in moderation and is designed to be of value (rather than merely as busy work). Homework needs to be done right if it’s going to be done at all.
Of course, as implied through Hattie’s analysis, the effective teacher needs to ask, “What can impact learning as much as or more than homework?” If teachers genuinely want to influence student achievement, then they must consider the factors that have the strongest correlation to student success. Given the amount of attention teachers and students give to homework in and out of the classroom, it might be serve as a better use of time to reallocate attention towards other more influential factors.
Ultimately, whether we want to give homework, improve homework, or ditch homework, we need to ask ourselves good questions.
To be fair, not all learning can necessarily take place in class, especially in secondary education when reading, writing, and other tasks simply take more time than the school day might allow. It’s important to ask ourselves good questions so that we get to the heart of what we’re assigning and why. Here are some questions teachers might ask themselves when considering whether or not to assign homework?
We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Just “Ditching homework” doesn’t automatically lead to better results, similarly to how just “Assigning homework” for the sake of it doesn’t improve learning either. We need to do so strategically so that we actually maximize the benefits we’re after.
The decision to ditch homework might ultimately lead to us having better opportunity to focus on the elements that truly make for an impactful education experience, such as the teacher’s strategies, collaboration, and feedback from Hattie’s study. More and more teachers are choosing to ditch homework entirely, freeing them up to allocate attention to these other matters. Where you stand on homework is between you and your students, but whatever you do, do so thoughtfully, intentionally, and with the best outcomes for your students in mind.
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.