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Rethinking the Concept of Homework

By Howard Pitler, Ed.D.

This month in Spain, parents are launching a month-long weekend homework strike.

Parents of students in Spanish state schools have given their children notes to bring into class explaining why they have not done the tasks assigned as homework this month. According to a study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 15-year-old Spanish students spend an average of 6.5 hours a week on assigned homework.

One Spanish parent of four said, “I feel the current amount of homework leaves little or no time for children to relax, pursue other interests, play or be with family. My son gets very tired and bored doing this work and isn’t efficient at all. I’m not sure by the end of it he has learned anything; he just goes through the motions to get it done and misses out on playing outside. It affects the whole family because we cannot leave the house until it’s done, and often this means that we miss trips to the park or afternoon walks, etc.” By comparison, 15-year-olds in the USA spend an average of 6.1 hours a week on homework, while students in the highly-rated schools of Finland only have 2.8 hours of assigned weekly homework on average.

student doing homeworkHomework is one of those polarizing topics that tends to divide educators. Those in favor of homework argue that homework teaches students discipline, responsibility, and time management. Those who see homework as excessive feel that homework takes away from family time while providing little academic impact. There has been significant research done on the impact of homework on student learning, and the results have been mixed at best. In Chapter Seven of my book Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition, there is an overview of the research on homework. Some researchers found a positive relationship between homework and student learning, especially with high school-aged students. Other research has found no positive correlation and even a slight negative one between homework and student achievement, especially with elementary-aged students.

What Spanish parents are focused on however is what I think is the more critical issue: homework has been shown to have a negative effect on families. Students forego outdoor activities and time with family because of homework. Entire families reorganize their weekend schedules so that students can spend their afternoons in the library or at their desks. Homework becomes a driving force, and not in a good way.

When presented with this data I often hear teachers cite a need to cover the required content as their reason for assigning homework. The argument is that there just aren’t enough hours in the school day to cover the content so homework is unavoidable. I suggest before pointing outward, schools look inward. Are schools using their time well?

I spend a great deal of my time engaged in classroom observations and I frequently have to schedule around myriad programs and required tests the school is required to administer. In addition, I find entire half days or more spent on pep assemblies, concerts, fund-raising kick-off events, and other school-wide gatherings. When I question the wisdom of moving the entire student body into the gym for an assembly I am usually told some old platitude like, “These are the kind of things that make school fun and motivate the kids.” That sounds a lot like the argument that parents in Spain are making about the effect of homework on their families.

Timex alarm clockI suggest placing a higher value on protecting instructional time and reducing the amount of homework, thus protecting family time. Students should work hard in school and be allowed to be kids outside of school. If homework must be assigned, it should support academic learning and teachers should provide clear feedback on every assignment.

Parents are a driving force regarding homework in some schools. They falsely equate homework with rigor. Schools should educate parents on why homework is or is not assigned and what the specific purpose of homework is. If there is not a specific purpose for homework that supports student learning, there shouldn’t be homework assigned.

In A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition, I quote a high school student who said, “When seven classes worth of homework is piled on us nightly, we’re up until midnight studying for things that, at that hour, don’t even make sense. In the morning, we stumble into class, sometimes unshowered, and then the teacher complains. Let’s think about this: We do homework but get nothing out of it. Then we get into trouble, plus we stink. To me, there’s no benefit here.” Students need to have a rich life outside of school. They should not be required to spend seven hours a day in school and another two -three hours at home engaged in schoolwork. They need to have time to explore and experience their world, putting their academic knowledge to use in a real-world setting.

Howard Pitler, Ed.D. is an author of Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition., Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition. He has worked with teachers and administrators internationally for over a decade to improve outcomes for kids. He was named a National Distinguished Principal be NAESP and is an Apple Distinguished Educator. He can be reached at hpitler@gmail.com, on Twitter , or on his website, www.hpitler.com.

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