When I first started teaching, I used to revel in making homework packets. It felt like I was being a Real Teacher. Fill in the missing vowels! Match the rhyming pictures! Sight word word search! Both fun and practical!
Then I would spend an insane amount of time looking at said homework packets, not planning, not studying authentic work, not reflecting on student learning and actions throughout the day, but studying those (fun! practical!) word searches to make sure all the sight words were found.
I noticed three things:
- Some of the work was clearly done by parents, as in, BY parents, as in, that is the handwriting of a thirty year old.
- Some of the work was not done
- Some of the work was done incorrectly
So, I started wondering a few things, mainly what was the point? You’d be right in judging the quality of the homework I assigned- it stunk.
So I tried assigning better, more authentic homework: read for 30 minutes, do this math sheet that reinforces what we learned, practice your sight words.
And then I had nieces.
And I saw members of my family stressing over getting homework done, I saw a 5 year old squirming through her math sheet looking longingly out the door, and I heard the arguments and bribes to “just get this done” and I thought, again “what is the point?”
First: What is homework?
I think we should start with what I am viewing homework as: anything required of children outside of the school day: worksheets, required reading, dioramas of the first Thanksgiving, flashcards, whatever.
Start by asking yourself, what do I think is the point of this?
I think there are a few common arguments for homework, and my hope here isn’t to decide for you, so I am providing all the links I can so that you can decide for yourself. I am taking two big points to heart: anecdotes are not the same as data, and find the truth in the opposing side. My hope is that it feels honest and balanced and fair:
Argument: Homework is essential to success in school:
I think we can all call up anecdotes for and against this argument. So rather than engage in a pointless debate, lets call up the wisest of the wise when it comes to educational research- John Hattie. According to his research:
“Homework in primary school has an effect of zero”
Follow this link to hear the rest: http://visible-learning.org/2014/09/john-hattie-interview-bbc-radio-4/
Let’s consider that for a moment: homework in grades K-5 has no discernible impact on how children do in school. Now, if you go on to the link, John Hattie does not then conclude that all homework should be put in a rocket and sent to space. He thinks it can be made better. I don’t disagree, I just think time is a precious commodity in teaching and would rather we all spent our time on something more meaningful that does have a greater impact on our students: building relationships, developing our own professional learning, reflecting on and studying student work to be more responsive.
And research does say that ill-conceived homework actually DOES impact learning… negatively, that is. In fact, take Robert Marzano and Deborah Pickering words on it:
” Thus, simply assigning homework may not produce the desired effect—in fact, ill-structured homework might even have a negative effect on student achievement. “
If you follow this link, you will find it presents a fairly balanced case for and against homework (with research!) but you’ll find some of the same information: it doesn’t have all that much of an impact in primary grades and it is worse to have bad homework than no homework at all.
My conclusion is much like that of doctors: do no harm. Unless I (and you) are going to commit the time to creating meaningful and powerful homework and ONLY meaningful and powerful homework, and then take the time to provide thoughtful, provocative feedback, your children are better off with no homework. And by the way, that thoughtful and meaningful homework still doesn’t have all that much impact- so you know- there’s that.
Argument: Okay, even if homework doesn’t really have much impact on academic success in primary grades, it still helps children become responsible/develop good study habits/ prepare for the future
I mean, does it?
Does homework really prepare children for their future more than a chance to play? And before we get into an argument of “its not either/or” The truth is it is for some kids. They sit in school for 6 hours, and then they go to an after care until someone gets off work, and when they finally get home they have homework to do and then bed. What if they didn’t have that an hour of homework? Could they enjoy quality time with their families? Could they read what they want when they want? Could they play? Could they get bored and then invent something to overcome the boredom? Every single one of those things has value. We have our kiddos for 6 hours, if we can’t teach what we need to teach them in that time, we need to reflect on our own practice.
Matt Glover, in The Teacher You Want to Be, has an amazing essay called “Reconsidering Readiness”. He write in it: “Teaching aimed several steps ahead of students with idea of giving them a jumpstart into what comes next will not provide them with what they need- and may in fact hinder their growth and development.”
Does a five year old really need to develop study skills? And in claiming they do, does that not hinder their development of empathy and agency that is gained in play and pleasure? Does a 6 year old? Does an 8 year old?
I’ve realized that for a long time I viewed being 5 as preparation for being 6, and being 6 is preparation for being 7, and so on and so forth, and now I realize that being five is only that, we don’t help children “get ahead” by taking away their childhood.
Argument: But I have to give homework, “they” say so
“They” is everyone’s favorite boogeyman. “They” is the new ghost story. “They” is a weak excuse for not standing for what you believe to be right. I am not saying that administrators, superintendents, etc do not have policies around homework. But those people have names, and because they have names, you can find them and start a dialogue around meaningless and harmful homework practice.
If you can name someone who is making homework policy that is meaningless and therefore harmful (see above article) you have an ethical responsibility to hunt that person down and start a discussion.
If you can only say “they”, then either find out who “they” might be, or realize it is actually your own choice and own it. I don’t have a research article for this fact, only that change never comes from complaining about people that don’t exist.
Argument: Parents expect homework
Parents used to expect corporal punishment. Times change. We help change them.
So in conclusion:
- Homework has very little impact in the primary grades
- “Busy work” homework can have a negative impact on schooling
- Time spent doing homework is time away from being a kid and doing totally healthy and helpful “kid-like” things
- Time spent creating and reflecting on homework as a primary teacher is time away from creating high quality classroom instruction
Truth talk: Time is limited, ours and kids. Why waste it on something that doesn’t make that much of a difference any way?
And now the moment of truth. Do I give homework? Nope. Every year I set parents up with information about what will help their child become the best five year old they can be (or 6, 7, 8, year old): Schedule play dates, try to eat dinner together when you can, tell or read stories together. If parents ask for ways to support their child, and I agree that the child could benefit from additional support, I offer games and authentic activities they can engage in with their child with the caveat that it should be fun and done together.
My friend and all around smart person Shawna Coppola is also writing about this on her blog http://mysocalledliteracylife.com/2015/12/31/four-stories-that-homework-tells-children-about-school-learning-life/. We hope that you will join us in the conversation.
Happy New Year!