Is Homework Bad?

Just a short blurb this week, as school is starting up again and this blogger is buried up to his nose in time-sensitive priorities that impact a great number of elementary school teachers in my district.  This week’s topic:  Homework.

Homework has suddenly become controversial.  If social media is a reliable gauge, there is a lot of talk about whether or not homework is all that worthwhile for students.

The arguments to eliminate homework go something like this.  Sitting through eight hours of school is hard.  Then we add more school on top of that when students get home.  Students should spend their non-school hours playing with friends, interacting with family, getting exercise, and enjoying their childhood.  Homework, some say, is robbing children of their childhood.  

On top of that, some teachers report, many students do not put much effort into homework assignments anyway, and the ones that do tend to be the students that don’t really need the extra practice at home.  In other words, students who slack in school also slack at home.  So why bother?

Then there are the arguments in favor of regular homework assignments for children at most grade levels.  Homework assignments, some parents and teachers say, teach responsibility and help provide an interim exercise to help students retain the knowledge gained that day in school.  There has been research that shows retention in math, for example, is more limited when students go nearly twenty-four hours without exercising their newly gained knowledge.  Many math teachers agree; students need to practice at night the math they learn during the day.  Other teachers who rely heavily on project work say that the lessons they teach come alive when students do research at home.  They can interview family and friends, take time to explore topics on their own, and have the freedom and flexibility to take their own learning to new heights.  

There are also parents who remember the burden of homework when they were in school and wonder why the heck their own children shouldn’t shoulder the same burden.  It sounds traditionalist and petty, but there is something to those routines in life that helped shape who we became as adults.  Making sure regular homework assignments are complete before, say, turning on the TV, could be an important foundational habit for forming a respectable work ethic.  For some parents, homework is an important tool for teaching responsibility, as well as providing a little break from the typical parenting routine (that is, when homework help is not required).  

So why does the whole debate make me uncomfortable?  

Like so many other trends in education, the pedagogical pendulum on this seems to be gaining some momentum.  If we’re not careful, we’ll jump blindly from a homework-obsessed culture right into a homework-repulsed and homework-shaming culture.  The arguments in favor and in opposition to students coming home with regular homework assignments are all valid.  There is no denying that homework can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing.  Since it is almost September and I am getting re-immersed in the language of mathematics, let’s consider a mathematical argument.  Imagine that it is (we’re being strictly hypothetical here, and a little surrealistic) determined that homework is more bad than good.  More specifically, 68% bad for children, and only 32% good.  The movement to eliminate homework entirely eliminates one problem for some teachers’ students (68% of them in our imaginary scenario), and creates a problem for other teachers’ students (32%).  In other words, 68% of the volume of the tub is the bathwater, and 32% of the volume is the baby.

It seems like a simple argument, but in the education universe, we have a bad habit of tossing out babies with bathwater, or as a former colleague likes to put it, re-inventing the wheel.  

How about instead of abandoning the practice of assigning homework altogether, we simply take a hard look at the value of the homework assignments being assigned. Some teachers might like to try eliminating homework entirely, but others might simply want to reduce the frequency of homework, or limit the time students spend on homework.  I used to tell parents of my middle school students, “If your child is still working after 45 minutes, take the homework assignment away from them and write me a note.”  I wanted their support in making sure their children put some effort into the assignment, but I also wanted them to make sure their children were not in agony.  

As public education stakeholders, we need to focus on ensuring that students are engaged in a meaningful learning experience.  For some, homework assignments might make that happen.  For others, homework might be a barrier to meaningful learning.  It all depends on what the curriculum is, who the students are, and what the learning potential at home is.  Teachers have to weigh those factors.  Parents of students might disagree with the decision, but ultimately teachers should be respected as the experts here.  

Let’s not let social media, or other forces putting that pendulum in motion, dictate an unreasonable trend in education.  Like phonics, old-school skill-and-drill mathematics, lecture-style instruction, high-stakes testing and the Common Core, we should acknowledge the benefits hidden in every fading, outdated or unpopular practice.  Bring in the new research, celebrate new philosophies and ideas, but let’s think of it as a revision of our practice rather than another re-invention.  

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.