How many of us as adults have regular assigned homework as part of our jobs? If you do, do you like it? Imagine this pattern: Every night, you sit down and do an hour (or more) of assigned work for the next day after already working 8 – 10 hours during the day. If this was the norm, how long would we stay motivated about that job? What creative interests would we not pursue because of doing homework? Granted, many adults pursue no creative interests, except as potato chip/primetime TV connoisseur. Many kids also show a proclivity for these same skills. However, that alone is not a compelling argument for keeping kids busy with homework.
I’m not going to argue for an abolishment of homework, though I cringe when I hear parents’ stories hour(s) of nightly homework assigned to their early-primary-age child completed after tears, conflict and pain. I do think that practice should be abolished. There just is not evidence supporting such the value of homework (especially for younger students) to be worth this cost.
When asked, teachers will give two reasons for homework at young ages—to increase achievement and to develop study habits. The research evidence does not support the former, and my own experience does not support the latter. Do we need to start practicing doing homework at age 8? Second, hours of tearful, painful, confrontational homework experiences certainly cannot be good for the family dynamics, nor for the child’s motivation to keep going to and enjoying school and learning. I suspect a child’s love of learning is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent in school. This is a problem that the education profession must address.
In fact, since the early 80s, time in organized sports and outside activities has steadily declined. Additionally, independent reading time is more limited. During that same time, there has been an increase in the amount of time children spend on homework. This is an example of correlation, and correlation is not causation. In fact, it might be easier to link the proliferation of cable and satellite TV as well as home video game consoles to this decrease in outside time as much as homework. However, as both of these elements of children’s lives increased, outside time, reading for pleasure, and involvement in organized activities has decreased. Our children are missing out on an essential means of learning.
All mammal young learn by playing. Play is essential. Time to tinker and have authentic experiences in which the imagination is engaged is crucial to cognitive development. Creative thinking is developed when solving problems, getting out of jams, making new playthings out of everyday objects, and inventing one’s own games and private little worlds. Joyful, unstructured playtime is the stuff of becoming a creative, thoughtful, happy adult. Of this, I have no doubt.
So again, I recognize that homework is not going away. But we as teachers need to be cautious how we use this teaching tool. Indeed, some wield it is a weapon instead of using it as a tool, and too many children go home each day and sit at their dining table with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head.
The homework experience that many students have is in direct opposition to their playful experiences in which they are involved in authentic activities fueled by intrinsic motivation. Before assigning homework ask yourself what the purpose of the assignment is. Is it necessary for students to have guided practice that couldn’t be done in the classroom? Is this necessary for students to prepare for the next lesson? Is the purpose to teach content that couldn’t fit into the classroom time? If so, is it really necessary content? Also, ask yourself about the nature of the work. Is it authentic? Will students know why they are doing this, or is it going to be busy work to them? Does it require any creativity and problem-solving, or simply skills of googling and copying? Maybe the rote learning work can be done in class, and the creative application and playful exploration of topics can be the homework? Maybe homework that allows for student choice in what direction to go with new content learned in class would have a chance of being an authentic task with intrinsic motivation.
Lastly, ask your students and their parents about the homework experience. How much time are they spending on the homework? Are students’ spending an hour on something you intended to be 20 minutes? Were there tears, gnashing of teeth, yelling and slamming doors involved? Does the child have hours of homework because all his or her teachers are independently assigning an hour of homework? Do they have time to play? The most advanced species on the planet apparently has forgotten that in our desire to get ahead of all the other humans on the planet, we learn best through play. It might be time to re-think this pattern.