In Defense of Homework

‘Homework is wrecking our kids: The research is clear, let’s ban elementary homework’ by Heather Shumaker

I just finished reading Heather Shumaker’s article, ‘Homework is wrecking our kids: The research is clear, let’s ban elementary homework.’  Articles like this one about the evils of homework are driving me crazy.

For starters, they never seem to define “homework”. What is it exactly that is SO TERRIBLE about this thing called homework?

Merriam-Webster defines homework as “an assignment given to a student to be completed outside the regular class period”. I assign 10 minutes of reading as part of my homework program. I think most people would consider the home reading programs that schools create and teachers support, to be homework. So we should ban reading at home? Or only ban reading that is not what Heather Shumaker insists must be “joyous”? I love reading. I get great joy from reading. I have taught my own children to read. I can tell you that there is nothing joyous about beginning readers. “The cat sat on the mat” is tedious. Crucial, but tedious. If I only read with my kids when it was “joyous” we would have abandoned literacy a long time ago.

Most of these anti-homework articles, make an exception for reading. Homework=root of all evil. Reading homework=good.

OK, so we’ll make an exception for reading homework. What about music? My own elementary-aged kids take piano lessons. They must practice the piano “outside of the regular class period” as homework. If my kids only attended lessons, and did not practice at home, did not do their piano ‘homework’, their teachers would not let them in the door. They would never develop the skills they need to successfully play the piano. There is no way around this. (Incidentally, a lot of this practicing is whatever the opposite of ‘joyous’ is… painful, laborious, migraine-inducing…) There is not a musician on the planet, despite what Hollywood would have us believe, who becomes a musician without practicing.

I think the rational ones among us can agree, practicing a musical instrument for homework, is somewhat crucial to the whole becoming a musician thing. Should that be banned as well?

If I were to guess at what these homework abolitionists really mean, when they are gnashing their teeth about the terrible tyranny of Homework, it’s the ‘drill and kill’ worksheet. The mindless, repetitive, boring math worksheet, perhaps. Fine, maybe that is not a useful pedagogical tool. But that does not mean that all homework is bad. There is good homework and there is bad homework just like there is good food and bad food. Candy = not healthy. Carrots = healthy. Yet, imagine a health magazine with the cover story: ‘Food is wrecking our kids: The research is clear, let’s ban food’, just because some food is unhealthy. It would be ludicrous and people would not be sharing it on Social Media except as a joke.

So why are these anti-homework tirades going viral on Facebook and Twitter? In my feed, it’s teachers spreading this stuff around. You see, in the last decade, homework has been facing a quiet extermination. Most assessment policies have been updated to reflect our new knowledge and understanding of assessment practices that support learning. In our new model of assessment, we cannot mark homework. In part this is because, we can’t be sure it is our students who are doing the work unassisted. Ultimately though, homework is practice for an assessment, not the assessment itself. Which makes sense.

Many teachers will argue, however, that once we stopped marking homework, students stopped doing homework, which may or many not be the case. If the homework was useless, this would make sense. If the homework was useful practice of a skill that was to be assessed at school, I’m betting students would still do it. My students complete their homework without any marks attached.

I believe the real reason so many teachers are against homework is because running a successful homework program requires a lot of effort. It’s easier to say that homework is the root of all evil, than to find a way to meaningfully engage students with practicing their learning at home. Banning homework because it’s the easy thing to do, is morally dubious. But if I can back it up with all these educational articles from such reputable sources as Salon magazine, as a teacher, I feel better about dropping this professional responsibility. (Teachers do have a lot on their plate, so finding ways to shed parts of the load makes sense. Personally I think there are better things to get rid of.)

A former student of mine came to visit the other day. She is currently in grade 7 and studying at a private international school with a significant yearly tuition. She gets 20 minutes of homework for every one of her 9 classes. That’s 3 hours of homework per night. Her parents are paying for her to get this kind of education. And that’s what really scares me about all this anti-homework hysteria, those who have the means of educating their children themselves, are making very sure their kids are doing homework. This is creating a significant educational gap between those families who can afford to hire tutors, go to private schools or school their children themselves, and those families relying on the public school system to educate their kids for them.

The reality is that college and university success depends on independent study skills. You don’t get time in your English 101 class to write your essay. You have to do this at home. Post-secondary studies are almost entirely homework. So, which segment of our population is going to be ready for this and which one is not? I’m thinking the private school kids are going to be OK.

Furthermore, there is a sad irony to these anti-homework stories being shared by teachers since teachers are notorious for teaching their own children at home. Most teacher-moms assign their kids homework, if they don’t have any… I know I do. In my son’s Kindergarten class, two kids can read, mine and the other teacher-kid in the room. There is no reading homework in Kindergarten but you can bet my family and the other teacher family are doing reading homework. So our kids can read and the rest of the class can’t. And the education gap begins…

The last thing that I find so absurd about this attack on homework, is that it does not look at homework in the context of our students’ lives. According to the Active Healthy Kids Canada 2013 Report Card, on average Canadian kids spend 2-4 hours each day staring at a screen. So we know they’ve got time. Half an hour of homework, won’t cut too drastically into their cartoon-watching time. And this still allows lots of time for dance, or karate, or hockey or just running around being kids.

If we’re in the business of banning things, I vote for Netflix.


1 Response

  1. Angela Prior

    I found this very interesting and enlightening. Being that I have one child in her fourth year of post-secondary what you said about post-secondary studies being homework for the most part really struck home. She is currently home for the holiday weekend and spent a significant amount of time on homework today and plans to do more of the same tomorrow. She does this with a matter-of-fact approach and attitude. There is no bitterness of cries of unfairness, it’s simply what must be done. My hope is for my two children still in elementary school to be able to take the same approach and not only in their post-secondary studies but high school as well. Long story short, I did homework as a child and was not harmed by it; in fact I’m quite certain I was helped instead. Let’s not create or further develop a generation of people unwilling to put forth extra effort toward anything that doesn’t give them instant gratification!

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