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More thoughts on the homework debate

favicon In my last post, I considered banning homework on weekends.

And then today, I read a recent article in Ed, the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The debate on homework — always a controversial topic — is getting more and more heated.

On one side are the anti-homeworkers like Alfie Kohn, who say that homework amounts to busywork. Kohn says that homework is the way schools prepare children for factory work. He decries the homework-every-night model:

“The point of departure seems to be, ‘We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week)

Other anti-homeworkers complain that their children deserve more free time after school. One mother in California went so far as to say:

“In closing, I just want to say that I had more free time at Harvard Law School than my son has in middle school, and that is not in the best interests of our children.”

On the other hand, pro-homeworkers think that American youth do not spend enough time on their academic pursuits. One parent on the Race to Nowhere blog wrote:

Any pursuit of excellence, be it in sports, the arts, or academics, requires hard work. That our culture finds it okay for kids to spend hours a day in a sport but not equal time on academics is part of the problem.”

Some schools are considering changes to homework. One elementary school principal in Maryland eliminated homework and substituted 30 minutes a night of reading (which I think is great — and which I consider homework).

Over the summer, Los Angeles Unified School District approved a policy decreasing homework but quickly reversed its decision.

In fact, amid all the opposing viewpoints, some people, like Harvard professor Howard Gardner, realize the real truth about homework. Gardner says:

“America and Americans lurch between too little homework in many of our schools to an excess of homework in our most competitive environments.”

In my urban public school, the real problem is too little homework, not too much. Weekends, in particular, are a No Homework Zone. Maybe assigning homework isn’t the perfect solution, but we do need to figure out ways to extend the academic day and to promote student thinking and skill building.

What do you think? favicon


  1. Chris Mercer

    I teach in an urban school that houses an IB school within a school. I teach three IB classes and 3 “regular” classes. In may IB classes I assign homework that can take between 30mins and 1.5 hrs every other day. The work gets done.

    When I assign homework in the “regular” classes maybe 3 out of 70 kids will do it. That is not an exaggeration. So, most teachers of “regular” students don’t bother to assign homework and the cycle of low expectations and low performance perpetuates.

    I don’t think the issue is whether or not homework should be assigned. Isero’s comment about extending the academic day in meaningful ways sums it up for me. He said ” we do need to figure out ways to extend the academic day and to promote student thinking and skill building.” That could be in the form of homework, internships, sport for leadership or service. I do think that many communities need schools to “fill more time” of a child’s day in meaningful ways.

    To take the position of “no homework” at all costs is too simplistic. As a Spanish teacher, I know that more exposure to the target language equals more acquisition and visa versa. If I teach my students every other day for 90mins that means some weeks I only see them twice in seven days. If my goal is to have them acquire Spanish and I don’t give them opportunities to do so outside of class, then I will be far less effective.

    Some reactions on the quotes:
    Alfie Kahn, why do you pretend to know the content and nature of all homework assignments?

    Parent who went to Harvard Law:
    Sounds like your child is too busy and you have a right to be upset. (How many times per day do you mention you went to Harvard Law?) 😉

    Parent who spoke about sports:
    Our culture does not think it’s okay for a child to spend hours a day on a sport but not on academics. The school day is made up of hours spent on academics. Sports are after school and usually take up way fewer hours.

    I see your point before my eyes in a single school. The “regular” kids are assigned and do little or no homework and the “IB kids” often complain of stress due to overwork.

    In sum, there is no one answer to the homework debate. Schools and communities need to reflect on there own situations and take action in the name of what is best for individual students, local communities and ultimately, the world.

    • Lori W

      Hear hear, Mr Mercer! I agree with your assessment that the debate is flawed – that the arguments against homework tend to be generated by higher achieving learning communities (as schools within a school, such as yours). I do believe the concerns of these students/parents are real and should be addressed – ie, increased rates of cheating, suicide, disengagement, lack of sleep, etc.

      Mr Isero – with regards to banning homework on weekends, I believe that the health of your students are of utmost importance. It’s hard to play the part of teacher and school counselor, but if you believe that they can benefit from the rest, more power to you. I also liked how you had them examine the homework rate of return data. Keep empowering them!

  2. Mark Isero

    Chris and Lori, I agree with both of you that the Great Homework Debate is too simplistic. It’s probably true that some students should get less homework while others should get more.

    That said, it’s pretty clear to me that there isn’t enough time in class to do everything that needs to get done.

    Many teachers — particularly Math teachers — are thinking of “flipping” their classroom, where students listen to lectures at home on YouTube and then work together with their peers and teacher in class.

    What would be a flipped English classroom? Would we read in class and then do discussions via online video chat at home?

    • Vanessa Siino Haack

      Yes to you all! The premises are all over the place. The main assumption of the anti-homework camp seems to be that homework is being given just for the sake of extra work, drilling for drilling’s sake. It seems to me that homework that carries on the work of the classroom is sometimes essential, but it must be purposeful.

      I have read some articles recently that have me thinking about the necessary mix of independent work and collaborative work — that is, time spent digging into something on your own interleaved (ideally) with time spent sharing ideas and bringing individual work together into a joint project (and back and forth). Depending on how much class time there is (amongst other considerations), homework is necessary for students to have that time alone digging in independently.

      To call for it every night on principle seems as silly as doing away with it completely. It seems best tied to an ongoing project, the time constraints of which have been communicated to students. (Maybe this is just overly idealistic student teacher talk, though 🙂

      Regarding the flipping, my concern with especially the math and science model of lectures at home is that it is a return to lecturing as a method of transferring information. I don’t know if that is alarmist or not, as I don’t really have a problem with students getting the same information from reading — and it allows for exploring problems during class, but for some reason it sits funny with me.

      It seems like some of what you are already doing is, if not flipping, at least extending the classroom. Your online/text presence with your students keeps open the conversation in a way that those online lectures simply do not.

  3. Dave Keller

    I love the flipping model and use it in my Government class. Students read and prepare questions at home. Then come to class to test their knowledge and sharpen their learning. (A lot of independent learning.) It works well for students that are a) capable readers, b) great conversationalists or c) can learn quickly from their classmates. However, my students with special education accommodations or students with instability in their homes have a very difficult time with the approach. That being said, the flipped class becomes a place to have fun with ideas and learning in a way that is different than when I’m trying to make it all happen in activities and lectures.

    In closing, I’ll leave you with this incendiary comments and shameless name-calling: At its core, Kohn’s argument is the complaint of a group that is experiencing the increased competition of a global academic environment. I see a global meritocracy on the horizon. Rather than embracing this reality, Kohn is expressing a nostalgic desire for the good-old-days of idyllic childhoods at the fishing hole when Detroit unions made manual, uneducated labor middle class. Sure, he has some research supporting his argument but the numbers and methodology aren’t all that convincing.

    “More Research” is what I say. In the mean time, try the classroom flip – its a trip.

  4. Mark Isero

    Thank you for the productive discussion. What a great group of teachers! Dave, thanks for encouraging me to flip my classroom. But I’m still confused as to what that would mean in an English class. Would that mean reading in class and writing at home? What happens where? My approach so far this year has been to figure out how to infiltrate my students’ time at home (in a respectful way, of course). As we studied years ago, I’m still interested in what gets students to do homework.

    Vanessa, I agree with you about the importance of a mix between independent and collaborative work. Homework is challenging for my students because they’re much more on their own (despite my attempts at virtual collaboration).

    It’s true that homework ideally should be tied to a real project that students are interested in. But I’ve found that such an approach may make homework completion haphazard. Now here comes my little secret: I sort of think there isn’t anything wrong with a routine of homework six nights a week. Did I just say something bad? 🙂

Please share your brilliant insights!