jasonbwatson

August 31, 2016

In Defense of Homework

You have probably seen the story buzzing around the internet about a Texas second grade teacher who sent a note home with her students to start the school year in which she informed parents that she would not be assigning any homework this year. The teacher, Brandy Young, wrote that she reached this decision after much research. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” Young wrote. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

Those four suggestions Young gives in lieu of homework are wonderful. I wholeheartedly agree that parents should strive to do all four with the children and I strive to do so with my own two. I have addressed the importance of families eating together numerous times in this space. I have also addressed the importance of reading. Children who are read to and who read are always going to do better in school than those students who do not fit in that category. And getting children in bed early is—despite their own protests and the confusion with which you may be greeted by family, friends and the children themselves—essential for their own health and success.

Still, I do not at all agree with the notion that eliminating homework is in the best interest of any child. Should homework be assigned every day? No. Should homework be assigned just for the sake of assigning homework? No. But there are legitimate reasons for using homework and homework appropriate assigned and used does indeed contribute to student success.

First of all, when homework is eliminated and formal learning is therefore confined to the schoolhouse, there is a disconnect that develops. Students begin to think that they learn at school and they just have fun at home. Parents begin to see educating their children as something that the teachers do between the bells and they are not responsible for or involved in in any way. Parents who still want to be involved with their children—want to look over their work, review their spelling words with them, and so on—will be placed in the position of asking students to do something that their teacher told them they do not need to do. This will, inevitably, lead to a student saying, “But Mrs. Young said I don’t have to do any school work at home,” which will be answered by the parent saying, “I am your parent and I said this is what we are going to do. Now get out your spelling words.” Now we suddenly have parent and teacher in opposition rather than working together for the success of the child. Additionally, parents are better able to keep up with what their students are doing in school when their child is working on homework. Even if it is nothing more than a brief conversation, seeing a child with his or her book open and paper out will open the door for an update—and “what are you working on?” is just about guaranteed to get a more concrete response than “what did you do in school today?”

Second, Young’s note said that the only work that students will take home will be work they did not finish during the school day. It stands to reason, from the tenor of the note, that Young does not intend this to be a regular occurrence or even something that will happen for every student. It does not take a great imagination, though, to picture what happens when little Alfred gets home with work to do. “Why didn’t you get this finished in school?” is the logical question to be asked by mom or dad. Any number of options exist for how Al will respond, but none of them end well or contribute to an effective teacher-parent partnership. If Al says he did not have time, the parents will want to know why Mrs. Young assigned more work than the class could finish at school in the first place. If Al says it was too hard and he could not finish it, the folks will want to know why Mrs. Young is giving work to Alfred that he cannot understand or handle. Why isn’t she giving him the help and instruction he needs, for crying out loud? If, after Parents of Alfred get in touch with Mrs. Young they find out that Al was the only one who did not finish his work and it was because he was not using his class time wisely they will no doubt follow up with questions demanding to know why Mrs. Young allowed him to fritter away his precious minutes at school and did not hold him accountable for doing his work when he was supposed to do so. Are you getting the idea that this is not going to end well no matter how Alfred responds or which route the conversations take?

Third, homework—again, when used properly—is designed to reinforce what was taught at school through practice and repetition and/or to allow students to work with that information to develop their understanding and application of the material. When I have my students answer questions over assigned reading, for example, it allows me to see whether or not they understood the reading and grasped the key points. On August 29 Alexandra Pannoni posted on the web site of U.S. News & World Report an article entitled “3 Questions for High School Teachers to Ask Before Ditching Homework.”  In it, she included this important reason to think carefully—especially in high school—about eliminating homework:

High schoolers need some homework because they need to learn how to study independently, says Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.”

When they go to college, they’ll spend less time in class and more time studying on their own.

This is absolutely imperative to understand. Students who become accustomed to the idea that they will be given adequate in-class time to complete whatever is necessary to accomplish the education they are pursuing will be in serious trouble when they get to the college campus.

In October 2010 the Alberta Teachers’ Association released findings entitled “Does homework improve student achievement?” Here’s what they stated:

In 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning analyzed 18 studies to update Harris Cooper’s 2006 research on this contentious topic. These studies suggest that some homework does help students to achieve but (1) only in the case of some children, (2) only for a reasonable period of time and (3) only if the homework is meaningful and engaging and if it requires active thinking and learning.

Those caveats are all logical. To the first point, nothing works for every student. By and large, though, homework will benefit students when points two and three are enforced.

On his website AlfieKohn.org, Kohn includes a chapter of the book entitled The Homework Myth. After sharing a number of studies and comments, he concludes the chapter this way:

I’ve been arguing that any gains we might conceivably identify are both minimal and far from universal, limited to certain ages and to certain (dubious) outcome measures.  What’s more, even studies that seem to show an overall benefit don’t prove that more homework – or any homework, for that matter — has such an effect for most students.  Put differently, the research offers no reason to believe that students in high-quality classrooms whose teachers give little or no homework would be at a disadvantage as regards any meaningful kind of learning.

Yet, he asserts that conclusion after stating, in the previous paragraph, “It’s true that we don’t have clear evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that homework doesn’t help students to learn.” At the beginning of the chapter Kohn quotes findings published in the Journal of Educational Psychology:

The conclusions of more than a dozen reviews of the homework literature conducted between 1960 and 1989 varied greatly.  Their assessments ranged from homework having positive effects, no effects, or complex effects to the suggestion that the research was too sparse or poorly conducted to allow trustworthy conclusions.

In other words, none of the studies suggested that homework had a negative impact on students. And even those studies that found that homework had no effect surely did not suggest that homework had no effect on any student. Just as the article quoted above indicated that homework helped some students achieve, I dare say there is no study which has ever suggested that homework has no positive impact on any student. That means homework, even in studies which do not conclude that it is beneficial, does provide benefit for some students. Show me anything—any method, pedagogy, technology, style, etc.—that benefits every student and you will quickly become a multimillionaire, I assure you. There simply is no such thing. Instead, educators use those strategies that are most effective for the most students.

In February 2007 the Center for Public Education posted a lengthy article on the homework question, too. One of their observations was this: “Although the overall effects of homework on student achievement are inconclusive, studies involving students at different grade levels suggest that homework may be more effective for older students than for younger ones.” That is why effective educators tailor homework based on the age of the students. I do not know anyone who would suggest that ninety minutes a day of homework would be appropriate for a first grader, but that is a generally-accepted rule of thumb for ninth graders. Here is that article’s conclusion:

The central lesson of this body of research is that homework is not a strategy that works for all children. Because of its possible negative effects of decreasing students’ motivation and interest, thereby indirectly impairing performance, homework should be assigned judiciously and moderately. Heavy homework loads should not be used as a main strategy for improving home-school relations or student achievement.

There are three sentences in this conclusion. To the first, let’s simply acknowledge that it is a redundant point we have already addressed here. To the second, we have also already addressed the importance of assigning meaningful homework that is age-appropriate. Effective homework should serve to enhance student understanding even if it does not increase their motivation or interest, but it is possible to develop and assign homework that will in fact increase student interest. It involves being creative, thinking outside the box, and probably not giving the same assignment to every student, but it can be done. To the third sentence, the most tempting thing to say is “duh.” I find it rather mindboggling that a professional organization would find it necessary to state that “heavy homework loads” are not likely to improve “home-school relations.” Again, though, the key word in that sentence is “heavy.” And on that note, see points one and two.

In the March 2007 issue of Educational Leadership Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering took on this question about the value to homework. Their article summarized the arguments made in a book entitled The End of Homework like this:

[H]omework contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being. The authors focused particularly on the harm to economically disadvantaged students, who are unintentionally penalized because their environments often make it almost impossible to complete assignments at home. The authors called for people to unite against homework and to lobby for an extended school day instead.

My own sphere of relationships is, admittedly, limited. But I have to tell you that I do not know anyone in education who desires to damage familial well-being. In fact, if there is any conclusive evidence out there about anything involving student achievement it is that familial well-being contributes to student learning and success. But, I will say again, effectively designed and used homework will not interfere with familial well-being. Is it true that students from economically disadvantaged homes are likely to have a more difficult time completing assignments at home? Yes. Whether it be because the student is also serving as caretaker, because there is no safe and/or quiet enough place at home to do homework or the resources necessary to get the help needed to complete the assignment necessary are not available, it is entirely possible that some students will have legitimate reasons for not being able to get their homework done. Eliminating homework, however, is not even a remotely logical response to that problem. That would be like suggesting that because economically disadvantaged students do not have access to quality health care we should eliminate the health care system. Or because economically disadvantaged students are not likely to frequent bookstores we should close them all. Extending the school day is not a logical response either. There may well be good reasons to offer extended school days or after-school programs for students who need it, but to say that because some students live in areas not conducive to completing homework means all students should stay at school longer is an argument that both does serve to harm familial well-being (by keeping all students away from home longer) and expands government control and influence over the family.

Marzano and Pickering make the same acknowledgement I have here, writing, “Certainly, inappropriate homework may produce little or no benefit—it may even decrease student achievement.” Their ultimate conclusion though? “Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead, they should improve its instructional quality.” I agree.

Most of the studies I have references here report that there is simply not sufficient research and evidence to prove that homework is beneficial to students. That may well be. As we have also seen, though, neither is there sufficient research or evidence to prove that homework is not effective for students. And I suspect there never will be sufficient research and evidence to prove either. That is precisely because children—and teachers—are human beings are we are all designed differently. There will never be anything that works every time for everyone. I will suggest however that it would not take long after the elimination of homework to provide research and evidence proving that barring homework does not benefit many—if any—students.

One last thought. Call it a P.S. if you want. Do those who think students should be able to do all their learning, practicing and application within the hours of the school day think that teachers should be able to do the same? I mean, if students need not do anything outside of the classroom, why should teachers? I can imagine many people jumping to tell me that’s ridiculous, and it is. But why would we think it is reasonable to expect teachers to spend hours outside of the instructional hours preparing lessons and grading assignments if we think it is unreasonable to ask students to do a little work outside of the classroom? Doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

October 14, 2014

Just a few more minutes!

The September 26 issue of USA Today included an opinion piece by Vicki Abeles entitled “Students Without a Childhood.” Abeles leads her piece by sharing that her middle-school-aged son Zak has trouble sleeping, often waking up in the middle of the night wondering whether or not he has finished everything on his to-do list. Interestingly, she then goes on to explain that Zak is, by design, “not the classically overscheduled child.” Zak’s only activities, Abeles says, are school, jazz band and homework. That would indicate that there may well be more to Zak’s troubles than the level of his activity, but I’ll return to that shortly.

Abeles uses Zak’s situation to segue into her assertion that the collective “we”–by which I assume she means parents, teachers, coaches and American culture in general–are causing harm to our children “by overpacking their schedules in the name of productivity, achievement and competition.” Let’s ignore for the moment that her son is not one of those children, because that is not the point I want to get at. Let’s instead examine some of the claims that Abeles makes about this “overpacking.”

First, she states that studies indicate that children in America “spend half as much time playing outdoors as they did in the 1980s.” I do not doubt that that is true, though Abeles does not cite any specific studies and I have not researched that myself. I do doubt, though, her implication that the decline in outdoor recreation is due to overpacking children’s schedules. In the 1980s very few children had access to a home computer and VCRs were just becoming common. Atari was the only gaming system for much of the decade, with Nintendo bursting onto the scene mid-decade along with the far-less-popular Sega. Extremely few people had cellular phones in the 1980s and those that did had to be strong enough to haul around the brick-like devices (that could do nothing but make and receive calls, of course). None of those cell phone users were children. So yes, children in the 1980s probably did spend twice as much time outside as they do now, but that’s because many of them are now spending their time inside, fastened to their cornucopia of digital entertainment devices.

Abeles then suggests that the “frantic pace of modern life has even trickled down to kindergarten, where students are already bringing home piles of homework.” According to on article in US News in February 2014, kindergarten through fifth grade teachers assign about 2.9 hours of homework per week. Given the range in grades included in that figure, though, it is impossible to say that kindergarten students are getting too much work. After all, the oft-cited rule of thumb that a reasonable among of homework for students is ten minutes per night per grade level would mean fifty minutes per week for 5-day kindergarteners and five hours per week for fifth graders. A January 2010 article from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, fifteen to twenty minutes per day for four days is appropriate for kindergarten students. That would mean up to an hour and twenty minutes per week. So I am not sure “piles of homework” are the norm for most American kindergarten students. There is also evidence that the amount of homework is not, on average, out of line for older students, either. According to “Changing Times of American Youth, 1981-2003,” by F. Thomas Juster, Hiromi Ono and Frank P. Stafford at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the average American child between ages 6 and 8 spent 2 hours and 33 minutes per week “studying” in 2002-03, while students ages 9-11 spent 3 hours 36 minutes. Assuming “studying” and “homework” are synonymous, the US News report would indicate that the amount of time spent on homework by elementary students is holding, if not declining, over the past ten years.

Immediately after her suggestion that the “frantic pace of modern life” has led to kindergarten students being inundated with “piles of homework” Abeles suggests that it is no wonder that “young people nationwide suffer from alarming rates of anxiety, sleep loss and depression.” No wonder, indeed…but not because their homework loads.

A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that teenagers spend an average of 7.5 hours per day consuming media which, according to the Washington Post, includes “watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web, social networking, and playing video games.” I would suggest that that figure has only gone up since 2010. Way back in 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics published a three-page handout for parents entitled “Understanding the Impact of Media on Children and Teens.” Some of the side-effects of excessive media use that were warned about included poor school performance, frequent nightmares and increased eating of unhealthy foods. PEDIATRICS, a publican of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published online on March 28, 2011 a study under the title “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families.” The study reported that “a large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones.” And while the study touted some benefits of this expanded digital familiarity, it also warned of dangers, including cyber bullying, sexting and “Facebook depression.” This is “defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression” and adolescents suffering from it “are at risk for social isolation.”

In November 2013 the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health warned, “Studies find that high levels of media use are associated with academic problems, problems with sleep, unhealthy eating, and more.” It also reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics “recommends that adolescents have less than two hours of screen time per day.” in November 2013, Rachel Ehmke, a senior writer for the Child Mind Institute, wrote “Teens and Social Media” in which she reported, “…experts worry that the social media and floods of text messages that have become so integral to teenage life are promoting anxiety and lowering self-esteem in the young people who use them the most.” Ehmke also wrote, “When they’re not doing their homework (and when they are) they’re online and on their phones, texting, sharing, trolling, scrolling, you name it.” Maybe, just maybe, the fact that so many teens are “multitasking” while doing their homework has something to do with the amount of time it takes them to get their work done?

Abeles ends her column with a plea: “These many concerns drive me to ask my fellow parents, teachers and administrators to help me give Zak back the time he needs to learn, grow and interact. The crazy demands schools place on our children’s time need to be scaled back–for their long-term health and emotional balance as much as for the optimum development of our children’s minds and the meaning they find in life.” The problem, again, is that Abeles never really connects Zak’s struggles with anything that schools are doing. I do not know how much time Zak spends on digital media and I do not know if he has learning challenges that make school work difficult for him. What I do know is that Abeles’ headline asserts clearly that schools are at fault for the overscheduling and “crazy demands” that are stressing out “our kids.” Her column fails to prove her assertion, though–citing some studies as well as anecdotal evidence, but failing to demonstrate that schools are demanding anything that is harming students. Maybe there are some other culprits Abeles should consider, as well. In fact, maybe she should have done her homework, because I suspect she would find that, more often than not, students are giving their childhood away for “just a few more minutes” of digital connectivity.

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