Attitudes toward homework in the United States have gone back and forth throughout history. In the mid-19th century, when organized education in this country was in its infancy, most students only went to school through sixth grade. Their lives were agrarian and their home life was consumed by chores. Homework was nonexistent, except for the privileged minority whose education continued into their teen years.
As life for Americans became more industrial and urban, more children went to high school and beyond. Homework was rigorous. Schools believed the brain was a muscle and became stronger with exercise. Then in 1900, homework was called a “national crime at the feet of American parents." Ladies’ Home Journal pushed to abolish it. Physicians were concerned it was bad for students’ health because it deprived them of essential fresh air and sunshine. Some states banned homework for some or all grades.
When Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, the nation feared it was falling behind its rival. Schools pushed for more stringent homework and tougher standards for students. The Cold War and the Space Race combined to put intense pressure on students.
Schools around the world continue to debate and experiment with the effectiveness of homework. In 2014, a Quebec elementary school completely banned it. The Los Angeles School District decreed that homework could count for no more than 10% of a student’s grade. Finland, one of the world’s most successful education systems, assigns very little.
So, should your school be assigning homework? Let’s look at the debate from multiple angles.
All Homes Are Not Equal
Having equal expectations for students is unfair. Homework can discriminate against the lower class. Those with crowded or unstable homes are at a disadvantage. Perhaps only one parent is home or both are working. Do those students have a desk in a quiet room? Many low-income high school students work to help the family. When is there time for homework?
Consider a middle or upper class student studying the same material. They probably have their own study space. They could have their own tutor or nanny. The weight of poverty is not, or at least should not, be upon them. Children growing up with less can certainly be successful and happy, but their schools should not expect them to work outside of the classroom.
Maybe LA has it right. Don’t make homework worth more than 10% of the total grade. Perhaps the problem is giving homework too much weight. It should be there as a learning tool, but it should not break the grades of a student who can’t do it. Inability to do classwork outside of school should not equal failing.
Time for Family
Busy families struggle to find time for each other. In single parent families or when both parents are working, the days pass in a blur. When everyone is home together, the children are tied up with homework. Family bonds and lessons learned from parents are as important as things learned in school. The rare hour or two parents and kids can share should not be snatched away by homework.
However, homework can be a bonding time. Older siblings can help younger ones. Parents can work with their kids. They will come together to learn together and that’s better than time in front of the screen. Parents can impart their own ideas on the subject and on how to learn better in general.
Busy Kids are Good Kids
Bored kids are the most prone to get into trouble. Idle hands get into mischief. The best way to keep students away from drugs, gangs, negative influences and other problems is to keep them busy with positive activities.
This can mean sports, clubs or art, but it can also mean studying. Would you rather have students reading, researching, debating history and performing equations? Or would you prefer them lounging around thinking of ways to energize their boredom?
USA Needs to Improve
According to Pearson, the United States is the 14th ranked education system in the world. The 2012 PISA puts this nation 24th or lower in reading, math and science. This country is falling behind while South Korea, Finland, Japan, the United Kingdom and other nations muscle ahead. Why? Because they value education and never stop trying to improve.
Flash back to the 1950s when the US feared the USSR was better educated. We need to bring back that insecurity. Superpowers come and go. Where is the USSR now?
Homework is not the only answer to the education problem, but this is no time to ease back on the throttle. South Korea tops the Pearson rankings. Decades ago, it saw what its neighbor and historical rival Japan was doing in the world market. It emphasized education, specifically STEM and English, and soon became a major global player in the automobile and technology business.
Is school fun in South Korea? Distinctly not. They believe education is hard. Your school years may be the toughest of your life, but they will prepare you for a successful future.
So Homework or Not?
The question is not if homework should be assigned, but what should be assigned. Mandatory repetition of classwork at home is not beneficial. Homework should be something that kids cannot complete in class, such as interviewing people, learning from nature or building something.
Make it individual and fun. Send students out there to return with some information. Take something from the Flipped Classroom idea and have them watch a recorded multimedia presentation.
Just don’t assign homework because you must. Make it brief and unique so students want to do it. It’s not about time spent. Let kids be kids. Let them relax and be with their families. Give them something to learn while they are away from class.
- Alfie Kohn: Rethinking Homework
- LA Times: L.A. Unified School District Homework Policy
- Race to Nowhere: Bring Healthy Homework to Your School