Have you ever considered that there’s a problem with homework?
I can’t remember the number of emails I composed that started with, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, your son Thomas is missing the following assignments…”
In response, I’d usually receive a big stack of hastily completed assignments. “Great,” I would think, “now to grade all of this.”
Other times, I received more hostile responses. Some parents wrote back with excuses, questioned the value of the work, or accused me of misplacing their child’s assignments.
I used to go to great lengths to defend my homework assignments. I’d heard all the reasons why homework was necessary.
But eventually, I began to wonder, “Does homework really accomplish these goals?”
Imagine that you had the chance to redesign our educational system from scratch, would homework be a part of it?
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Why We Assign Homework
While there has been an increased focus lately on the problem with homework, it’s mostly taken for granted. Death, taxes, homework.
I looked for statistics on the percentage of schools that assign homework, but Google had nothing to offer. How could Google come up empty-handed? I suspect it’s because 99.9% of schools assign homework on a daily basis. All I could find were articles about the surprising amount of homework that most students complete.
When I think back to my first year teaching, I never considered whether I should assign homework. My only question was what to assign.
And if you ask traditional educators whether homework is necessary, most can rattle off a number of supposed benefits without missing a beat.
Here are four of the most common reasons that schools assign homework.
1. For the Benefit of Students
Many educators genuinely believe that students benefit from homework.
Some say that homework builds character. That the act of taking home worksheets, filling them out, and bringing them back to school is valuable in and of itself.
Another argument is that homework provides necessary “skills practice.” During lecture-based classes, there’s no time for students to engage with the content. Therefore, they need homework to practice what they learned that day.
2. Because We Have To
For many teachers, homework isn’t a choice. I was never forced to assign homework, but I’ve coached teachers who were.
One teacher would spend most of each day’s math block ‘going over the homework.’ Much of this time involved interrogating the students who hadn’t done it and threatening to call home.
I suggested she avoid assigning homework for one week. We focused on lesson planning, given she would now have to fill her classes with something other than homework review.
But on my next visit to that school, the principal was furious. How dare I “stir up trouble with her teachers.” I was told that homework was mandatory. When I asked her why, she told me one reason was that parents insisted on homework.
Even when it isn’t mandatory, there is pressure to assign homework. In some schools, teachers who don’t assign “enough” homework are viewed as lazy or disorganized.
3. It’s Always Been Done This Way
The most common reason for assigning homework is also the simplest: it’s always been done this way.
In education, many of our habits are defined by what we saw in school when we were students. And it is important to learn from those who have gone before us.
We can’t be expected to question every single assumption that is made in schools.
Tests and quizzes. Summer vacation. Parent conferences. Homework.
We don’t have the time to examine every practice in schools. Teachers have a lot on our plates. And in many cases, business as usual is good enough.
4. To Fill the Void
Just as institutional inertia compels us to assign homework, choosing to eliminate homework creates a vacuum. And every science teacher knows that nature abhors a vacuum.
Homework provides grades for the grade book. And a start-of-class routine. It helps us separate our superstars from our struggling learners. And it gives us something to talk about with parents and colleagues.
Most schools now require teachers to post their homework online. Who wants to be the one teacher on the website with a blank homework calendar?
Teachers who want to eliminate homework need something to put in its place. More assessments. A new lesson plan structure. New things to write about in our report card comments.
Unless we’re clear about what to do instead of homework, it seems sensible to stick with the system we already know.
Understanding The Problem with Homework
Despite the common reasons for assigning homework, the practice creates a number of problems. Maybe even more than it solves.
While it provides an assessment, it creates extra paperwork. It promotes responsibility, but it frustrates students. It also creates tension among parents, teachers, and students.
Yet despite all the talk about the benefits of homework, there is little evidence that it actually works. On the other hand, the problem with homework has been documented in detail.
Here are some of the reasons we should rethink homework.
Problem with Homework #1: Its Impact on School Culture
While some students may enjoy the thrill of a good worksheet, most would happily go without.
Struggles over homework can strain relationships between students and teachers. As a classroom teacher, few topics led to more tension with students and their parents. (Grades were another pain point).
Homework also creates problems in the home. I have several friends and family members who tell me that arguments over homework are a daily occurrence.
A number of parents are pushing back. Some are even taking schools on with homework opt-out letters. At the end of the day, who can blame them?
I expect parents to support our decisions and authority in the classroom. But in their own home? Do we even want that responsibility?
Problem with Homework #2: Lack of Support
A second problem with homework is that teachers can’t help students when they struggle.
In a traditional classroom-homework model, the teacher lectures in class. Students go home and complete practice questions, do further reading, or write a response.
But too much time passes between class and home. After direct instruction, students need to interact with content immediately.
And students need the help of an instructor when they are practicing. 100 years ago we may have needed teachers to provide information. Nowadays, students can find high-quality lectures online. Or they can do a Google search to find what they need to know.
But what many students can’t get is the attention of an expert to guide them through productive struggle.
This is why homework is also an equity issue. Affluent, college-educated parents can step in and offer support. Their children have computers, fast internet, tutors, and whatever else they need to succeed.
But less privileged students may not even have a clean, well-lighted place to complete their homework.
Problem with Homework #3: Vanishing Childhood
There is also concern about the wisdom of extending academic responsibilities beyond the school day.
Many studies (and simple common sense) have demonstrated the value of free play and independent learning time.
As schools cut back on recess, and eliminate arts and extra-curriculars, students spend more time in highly-structured, content-driven learning environments.
This contributes to student stress, as well as overall disengagement. And students who learn the narrowly-defined skills and content that appear on standardized tests aren’t always served by this knowledge in the world outside the classroom.
Students need time to have fun, interact with friends, and explore their own interests. They already spend half of their waking hours in school. Isn’t that enough?
Problem with Homework #4: It Just Doesn’t Work
Does homework really offer valuable practice? Does it really build responsibility? The research says ‘no.’
Certainly, there is some benefit to being able to take a piece of paper home and bring it back the next day. But does that justify the hours spent completing worksheets?
One major problem with homework is that so much of it is tedious and repetitive. We used to think that such repetition promoted learning.
But while repetition promotes short-term remembering, students quickly forget what they’ve learned through repetition. Further, “remembering” is itself one small aspect of learning.
A focus on remembering leaves students with information that has little benefit outside the classroom. What they need most are transferable skills and experience solving problems.
Four Ways to Fix the Problem with Homework
Homework is woven into all aspects of education. Just the thought of removing it from our classes can seem overwhelming.
But many teachers are doing away with homework. And they’re finding that they don’t miss it. Students are happier. And what’s more, they’re just as successful academically.
Your school may not be prepared to take such drastic measures. But there are other ways you can address the problem with homework.
1. Make it Optional
Some schools are continuing to assign homework, but making it optional.
At first, I thought this was a terrible idea. After all, who would do homework if it’s optional?
But the approach has merit. For one, it sends a positive message about student ownership. This is a much more effective way to teach responsibility than forcing students to complete worksheets. If they need extra practice, great. If not, also fine.
It also addresses situations where parents demand homework. Many parents still believe (despite the evidence) that homework is necessary for success in school and life. Others see homework as a way to keep their children out of their hair for a few hours.
So rather than trying to change parents’ minds, give them what they ask for. Just don’t force it on everyone else.
And since it’s optional, it doesn’t need to be graded or reviewed in class, saving valuable prep and instructional time.
2. Make it Interesting
Perhaps the biggest problem with homework is how boring most of it is. If we want students to develop independence and motivation, we need to make the work interesting and relevant.
It starts by ending reflexive homework. When we feel the need to assign work every day, we look for things to fill out the calendar.
But this approach is backwards. Homework shouldn’t fill time. It should fill a need. Only assign homework when there is a beneficial learning experience that can’t occur in the classroom. Have students interview a family member. Take pictures from their house or neighborhood.
If homework can make academic content more relevant, that provides a powerful benefit for students and families.
3. Make it Flexible
Incorporating student choice is a wonderful way to address the problem with homework.
First, think about offering students flexible timelines. For a while, my only homework assignment was for students to complete one hour of personalized learning per week. When students had a big soccer game or a family event, I didn’t need to grant homework passes or coordinate with parents – they just completed work on the other nights.
It’s also helpful to give students choice in what they are doing. Broad assignments allow students to find something in your subject that interests them. Assign a paragraph on a current event that they find interesting, or any topic from the history of math.
4. Engage Students in Class
If we justify homework by saying that “students need practice,” it can mean we are filling our lessons with too much teacher talk.
Explore lesson models that engage students in active learning. This approach is more fun, more efficient, and more impactful.
There’s no need for content introduction and ‘practice’ to occur in sequence. Inquiry-based learning allows students to learn new content, practice problem-solving, and develop social-emotional skills.
Ready to Address the Problem with Homework?
Homework is deeply connected to everything we do in the classroom. And for many students, it defines their overall experience of school.
But adjusting to a post-homework world isn’t as simple as “just saying no” to homework. It’s important to consider the needs of all stakeholders, and the role that homework played in your classroom, school or district.
So if you’re serious about rethinking homework, we’re here to help. We offer a range of consulting and instructional coaching programs to help school and district leaders make your vision a classroom reality. Schedule a free consultation to learn more about the existing solutions to your most pressing challenges.
If you’re a teacher looking to eliminate homework from your lesson plans, talk to an instructional coach. Our experienced coaches provide support that’s tailored to your specific needs, and the needs of your students. Working with a coach can save you time, build your confidence, and help you take charge of your professional learning.
About the Author
Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff