Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why a Blog about Homework?

Homework is a hot button topic. Anyone who has ever been a student, is currently a student or who is the parent of a student has an opinion about homework. Today when I Google “homework ” I find 40,100,000 results. Many of these homework sites offer tips to help children with their homework and accept the status quo – that homework has been a part of the American public school tradition since the early 1900s and will remain a big part of our education system for many years to come.

I hope not.

But I didn’t always feel this way. I’m trained as a middle and high school teacher of English, history, and reading. During my teacher training, I accepted and believed in the validity of homework. After all, I went through school, did some homework, became a teacher and turned out fine, so homework must have helped me achieve those goals, right?

But I didn’t have a lot of homework as a child, and I didn’t mind doing the homework I did have. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I really began to question the value of homework. But, sadly, that didn’t happen until they were in the 6th and 8th grades. Why did it take me so long to really examine their homework and question its importance?

It took me so long because I believed everything I was told about homework. “It reinforces learning. It teaches discipline and responsibility. It prepares students for class…”

But what happens when it doesn’t do those things? What happens when I did everything I was told to do by the school – set up a regular homework routine, gave my children a healthy snack before they start their homework, provide a quiet, well-lit place for them to do their homework – yet they still struggled with it?

What happens when we explored more avenues of homework help for one of our boys in particular (multiple tutors, special education resources, psychological testing, medication) and he still struggled with homework?

At some point, I finally stopped blaming my child for his homework limitations and started blaming everything else around him. I blamed the school, I blamed the teachers, I blamed the administration, I blamed the system, I blamed myself, I blamed my parenting, I blamed it on his ADHD. But when the blaming didn’t change the fact that he still struggled with homework, and still had hours and hours of it, I finally changed my attitude about it.

All this homework turmoil was a blessing in disguise.

One day I finally started really looking at the homework he was being asked to do. I read “The Homework Myth” by Alfie Kohn and I had a revelation about homework. I agreed with almost everything Kohn wrote in that book, and felt a huge sense of relief that I wasn’t the only educated person out there who disagreed with the idea of homework and hated what it did to our family evenings, weekends and holidays. “Most kids hate homework. They dread it, groan about it, put off doing it as long as possible. It may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.” (17)

I found Sara Bennett’s website and that became an excellent daily resource for me and helped me see that there were many more educated people all over the US who disagreed with the idea of homework. I also read her book, “The Case Against Homework,” and got many good ideas from it. I read countless Internet articles and more books on homework. I talked to and emailed people about homework. I learned about Challenge Success, Denise Pope’s program at Stanford. I started learning about many other pro-child programs that shared my views of homework. See the sidebar “Recommended Blogs & Websites”

I enlisted the help of a friend, Julie, who shared my feelings about education and homework. We got a small group of parents together to talk about homework. We found that as soon as we starting discussing homework as a group, the talk quickly morphed into discussions of parenting, education, standardized testing, ADHD, teacher-training, college admissions, curriculum development, student stress, AP classes, childhood obesity, mental health issues, competitive sports, tutors, over-scheduled lives, finding balance, etc. We concluded that there were many problems surrounding homework and no simple solutions, yet we wanted to do something about it.

We took an informal email survey about homework from other parents in our district and got 100 responses that we collected in a spreadsheet. We brought that along with many articles and books on homework to a meeting we had with our school district’s curriculum instruction director. A week after that, the district (which serves over 27,000 students) formed a homework task force to rewrite the outdated policy. I was fortunate enough to be on the taskforce as a parent representative. The taskforce had 19 total participants – a combination of parents, teachers and administrators.

We rewrote the policy in under a year. It was a difficult process where 19 opinionated individuals had to agree on something cohesive to be presented to the Board of Education. I personally enlisted Sara Bennett's help during this process. While I think the new policy is better policy than the original one, I think it still has a long way to go to being a really great, “outside of the box,” forward-thinking homework policy. To read the policy, go here.

For example, I would have liked to include an “opt-out” provision where parents could sign a statement saying they are opting out of having their child do homework with no negative consequences to the child. I would have liked to see a statement included about the fact that any homework assigned would not be graded. I would have liked to see shorter time limit guidelines on homework. I would have liked to see that homework would be the exception and not the rule. I would have liked it to be more similar to Toronto’s homework policy. You can read that here.

Even if I didn’t get exactly what I wanted in the homework policy, being on that taskforce was a good experience for me and has led to other projects I’m working on now. See the film “Race to Nowhere.” The experience also helped me formulate more conclusions about homework. One of those is that homework is not the cause of, but rather a symptom of many problems in education.

Teachers often give homework because they say they don’t have enough time to complete everything during class time. If we changed the mindset from believing that we need to teach a set amount of information in a limited time, to focusing on individual needs and learning goals of each student, we would approach education differently.

Without pressures from above to fulfill state mandates and without pressures from administration to teach to a test, teachers would ideally be free to collectively and creatively decide how students learn best. This is no simple task, however, and it involves a shift in thinking about the principles of education that will then naturally lead to a change in practices of education. See my sidebar for my favorite books on education. And, another great resource I just linked to is this "Too Much Homework" page.

The good news is that there are great teachers and schools doing this, successfully every day. See my sidebar “Noteworthy Schools/Programs.” Even a big, public school can learn from these smaller schools and teachers that have discovered how kids learn best. Learning is an organic process, not a linear one. We can’t fill up a kid’s head with knowledge, have him do his homework, take some tests, graduate and call it success.

We have to figure out what turns kids on to learning and how they learn before we can help them learn. In our new technological age of constant information, we have to shift from memorizing and regurgitating facts in school to making sense of all these readily-available facts by analyzing, synthesizing, creating, innovating and problem-solving. We have to move from teacher as expert, to teacher as facilitator. We need more student choice and voice. We also have to redefine success in this culture.

The truth is, I don’t actually mind if my kids have homework, AS LONG AS IT TURNS THEM ON TO LEARNING, and as long as it isn't just a spewing out of facts, and as long as it doesn’t consume their whole evening, weekend or holiday. But what I've observed over the last ten years is that their homework usually does TURN THEM OFF to the subject and it's usually a teacher-created exercise focusing on how well they follow directions rather than on how they synthesize and use information. I've only seen a few really inspired assignments through the years.

Sadly, what usually happens is this type of scenario: After doing a time-consuming English project last June, my older son said, “I’m so glad that’s done because now I don’t have to read another book until next year when school starts.” That was a perfect example of a homework assignment that killed the joy of learning (and reading!).

I hear comments like this from my kids much more often than I hear comments about how excited they are about what they are learning in school. The things that excite them in school are their friends, the extra-curriculars, and the precious few days without homework.

As I sit here typing, my son (who is doing his homework) just said "I hate school. But school wouldn't be that bad if we didn't have homework. Why do we have homework on the weekends?"

I rest my case.


  1. Thank you for all of your hard work & to Vicki Abeles as well. I agree that homework often is just something to do. Homework is the tip of the iceberg. How about the fact that most schools are based on "text-book learning" rather than kinesthetic, visual & other types of learning, such as learning through music & movement.

    "Dancing Across the Curriculum" by Pncil Point Press was recommended to me by a fellow Zumba instructor / school teacher. I've been thinking of going to work helping children learn through movement.
    Janice Litvin

  2. This blog serves as a good overview of the situation. I like the links that you imbedded in the commentary. Thank you!

  3. Kerry, this was great. I ended up making you my guest blogger with this article because it was all yours! Nice writing and nice work!