Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Homework Myth

Recently, I read an interesting Times article regarding the effectiveness of homework. It's a good write-up; let's do a little extrapolation and hit some major points:

According to a 2004 national survey of 2,900 American children conducted by the University of Michigan, the amount of time spent on homework is up 51% since 1981.

...And add this:

The onslaught comes despite the fact that an exhaustive review by the nation's top homework scholar, Duke University's Harris Cooper, concluded that homework does not measurably improve academic achievement for kids in grade school. That's right: all the sweat and tears do not make Johnny a better reader or mathematician.

Naturally, we've experienced a 51% increase in workforce effectiveness. ...We haven't? Well, how about 5.1%? I doubt it (if someone wants to hunt down more data, be my guest). Larger loads of homework create a negative outlook regarding learning in general, so they don't increase effectiveness the way they might theoretically (just like cutting recess out of elementary school schedules and adding an extra required year of science and math [both applicable (or soon to be applicable) where I live] don't work out in neat, ignorant equations).

Most of that increase reflects bigger loads for little kids. An academic study found that whereas students ages 6 to 8 did an average of 52 min. of homework a week in 1981, they were toiling 128 min. weekly by 1997. And that's before No Child Left Behind kicked in. An admittedly less scientific poll of parents conducted this year for AOL and the Associated Press found that elementary school students were averaging 78 min. a night.

I could rant about No Child Left Behind, but that's for another time. The more scientific poll shows that the amount of homework for elementary students has more than doubled. Once again, does their competency entering middle school double due to this? Elementary years are meant for "general" learning as opposed to "book" learning; kids learn to interact with each other and work in groups. More importantly, they spend alot of time simply enjoying themselves and discovering their interest; when people say "you're only a kid once", they're not kidding, and there's no reason for 3rd-4th graders to spend a couple hours of their time doing homework when they already attend school for about 36 hours a week.

Too much homework brings diminishing returns. Cooper's analysis of dozens of studies found that kids who do some homework in middle and high school score somewhat better on standardized tests, but doing more than 60 to 90 min. a night in middle school and more than 2 hr. in high school is associated with, gulp, lower scores.

Homework, like most things, is detrimental in excessive doses.

Educators, including Cooper, tend to defend homework by saying it builds study habits, self-discipline and time-management skills. But there's also evidence that homework sours kids' attitudes toward school. "It's one thing to say we are wasting kids' time and straining parent-kid relationships," Kohn told me, "but what's unforgivable is if homework is damaging our kids' interest in learning, undermining their curiosity."

As an aside, let me note this: Aside from sheer mass, homework that the student is wholly uninterested in does little for the student and sours his or her attitude towards learning. This is why the US should do one of two things: one, shorten school to K-10 (similar to some European countries), or two, create a more open-ended atmosphere past the 8-9th grade. Someone who is largely incompetent with numbers but highly proficient in writing should not be taking math courses until they graduate! Of course, such a change would entail other adjustments in standardized testing, but it would certainly be for the better.

Kohn's solution is radical: he wants a no-homework policy to become the default, with exceptions for tasks like interviewing parents on family history, kitchen chemistry and family reading.
Or, in a nation in which 71% of mothers of kids under 18 are in the workforce, how about extending the school day or year beyond its agrarian-era calendar? Let students do more work at school and save evenings for family and serendipity.

Now, I've always liked the idea of year-round school with two-week breaks inbetween every six-weeks of school, but I realize such a system wouldn't work for most people; the large block of free time summer provides is important for vacations and a major break (which some people really need). In regards to a no-homework policy, it could possibly work by adding another hour or so of school time to high school schedules; however, this would cause severe time-management problems concerning extra-curricular activities and other nighttime activities for many students, so the flexibility homework offers is advantageous in this case.

Bennett and Kalish have a more modest proposal. Parents should demand a sensible homework policy, perhaps one based on Cooper's rule of thumb: 10 min. a night per grade level. They offer lessons from their own battle to rein in the workload at their kids' private middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y. Among their victories: a nightly time limit, a policy of no homework over vacations, no more than two major tests a week, fewer weekend assignments and no Monday tests.

Let's just run down the line; a nightly time limit is immeasurable since some people take longer than others.

LAEvaside: A homework-related instruction similar to the "nightly time limit" concept is a direction like this: "Write at least 5-7 sentences describing the goals of Gimlock and his horde of Salubrious Gaspers." "Sentence" is a remarkably silly unit of measurement; "Lines" or "words" would be far more appropriate. In fact, concision is one of the most important aspects of writing; why give people as much room as they'd like? A better question would read like this: "Write a maximum of 10 lines describing the goals of Gimlock and his horde of Salubrious Gaspers." [/laevaside]

LAEvaside: Darn, that last aside was only 4 sentences long; I fail. [/laevaside]

*ahem* Where were we... ah, yes, "no homework over vacations". That's a good one; they're called vacations for a reason. The points regarding major tests and Monday tests aren't that important. Teachers can give major tests when they want, so long as they let students know a couple weeks ahead of time. It's up to the students after that. "Fewer weekends assignments" is a great idea, though; that's the time students use to participate in extra-curricular jazz, hang out with friends, loosen up for the next week, and study for that major test that the teacher is welcome to schedule at any time they please.

Y'know, they're probably no point to going back to the article; I ended up working through almost the entire thing. Anyhow, credits to Claudia Wallis for writing that article- thanks, Claudia! And, since it's September, there ya go~ It's nice being able to just link them as opposed to writing them.

Take Care,


Blogger Anthony said...

I love not having homework anymore. I sometimes encounter people my age or older who have a nostalgia for their student days. I so don't relate.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

I'll probably have nostalgia for school, but it'll be strictly music-athletics based; I hardly care for any of my required courses (the autodidactic portion of my learning has been far more fulfilling).

7:19 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

I'm with Anthony on this. I've always loved learning but hated the academic portions of school. I also think recess and sports in school is very important, they give you the chance to develop fitness habits. That's how I started running, for example.

I understand that homework is meant to teach "time management" but they need to eliminate busy work. College is very different. You don't have anything to do for weeks until all your tests are piled into one. It was college when I pulled my first "all nighter". I don't recommend it.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Wanderlust Scarlett said...

That's a very interesting topic, particularly relevant to me at present, as I've just begun my second tour through college (and I work full time)... consequently, homework is on the forefront of my mind.

I think that some homework is good... to keep the subject in our thoughts a bit longer, like anything else, would assist with retention, I think, but to over load is a bit useless. I've always found that when I hit the 'full point', there is nothing that can open my mind back up to accept any new information.

Limits are good in almost everything.

Good topic!

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

11:53 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Jess: Yes, sports are very important, not only from a fitness perspective, but from a disciplinary perspective; football in particular keeps a lot of trouble-inclined kids occupied. I did football/basketball/track for three years, then just basketball for a year; unfortunately, you have to choose a path in high school, and I went the music route. Oh, and you're right, busy work really bites.

Wanderlust: I hope you're enjoying your second trip through college ^^ I agree about the "full point"; there's only so much learning to be had before some absorption time becomes necessary. Some studies show that we transfer information to our "hard drive" during sleep, and it sounds like a reasonable idea to me.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Where O where has Neil gone to?

2:36 PM  

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