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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Homework vs. No Homework Is the Wrong Question

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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Two young boys wearing backpacks rushing down the front steps of school

The real question we should be asking is, "What do we believe should happen after the end of the school day to help ensure that students retain what they have learned and are primed to learn more?" Any answer with the word, "work" in its name, as in "homework," is not typically going to be met with eagerness or enthusiasm by students.

Ideally, we want children to understand that they are always learners. In school, we refer to them as "students" but outside of school, as children, they are still learners. So it makes no sense to even advertise a "no homework" policy in a school. It sends the wrong message. The policy should be, "No time-wasting, rote, repetitive tasks will be assigned that lack clear instructional or learning purposes."

A realistic homework strategy should be a key topic of back-to-school night and the first parent-teacher conferences of the school year. But it should also reflect a considered school policy and not simply be up to each individual teacher to carry out according to his or own theory of student learning. Another advantage of this approach is to ensure that individual children are not inadvertently overloaded with demands from teachers who may not know what other teachers are asking of the same student. This is a particular concern in secondary schools.

Home Activities That Matter the Most

Children should be encouraged to read, write, perform arithmetic, better understand the world around them in terms of civics, science, and the arts, and, of course, develop their people skills -- their emotional intelligence. This encouragement should be part of everyday family interactions outside of school, and the school should provide developmental guidance to all parents, in the appropriate languages, to help them do this. For some children, specialized guidance will be needed, and this, too, should be provided proactively to parents.

Some parents will select focused programs or after-school experiences to help foster their children's learning in one or more of the aforementioned areas. To promote equity within and across schools, communities should think about how to make these kinds of experiences available to all children in high-quality ways -- without undue or unrealistic expense to families.

Of course, some teachers will have specific, creative ideas about how learning can be enhanced at home, in the context of particular units of study in school. Maybe what we need is a new word for all this. Instead of "homework," how about "continued learning" or "ongoing growth activities?"

Parents Playing Their Part

Finally, students' learning would be greatly enhanced by schools taking a clear stance about supporting good parenting. My colleague Yoni Schwab and I have written about the importance of parents focusing on parenting as a priority, and secondarily working on assisting schools with educational issues (Elias, M. J., and Schwab, Y., 2004).

Aspects of good parenting that could be encouraged by schools include workshops, family nights, and discussion series on ways to promote:

  • Children's social-emotional and character development
  • Parents spending more time directly interacting with their kids in enjoyable ways
  • Parents visibly showing how much they value the importance of education and effort
  • Parents monitoring their children's use of and exposure to electronic media
  • Children's "continued learning" in as many possible opportunities during everyday household routines

Above all, schools should remind parents to never lose sight of modeling for their children the value of close relationships, support, caring, and fun. That is the most important home work of all.

Reference

Elias, M. J., and Schwab, Y. (2004). What About Parental Involvement in Parenting? The Case for Home-Focused School-Parent Partnerships. Education Week, 24 (8), 39,41.

Was this useful? (10)

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

There is very little value in assigning homework. There is no way every student will learn anything unless their understanding of the HW topic jells because of the practice - highly unlikely!!!

What is needed is NOT HW but WORK FOR HOME - not the same thing! Students need to learn to assess their needs for effectively learning a topic: From teacher-facilitated work, teacher feedback, personal and study-group learning efforts (WfH?), personal gathering and considering of extra material (WfH?), assess what's understood and what help is needed. Then the teacher can recommend extra efforts the student can do to improve - again, WfH!!!

No grading for this WfH; only the student e-portfolio documenting all efforts made to effectively learn the topic AND how the student assessed to determine the learning has occurred. That e-portfolio (for all topics of course) is then utilized by the student to justify her/his proposed course grade - with grade determined by the teacher of course!!!

John Walkup (@jwalkup)'s picture
John Walkup (@jwalkup)
Education Researcher, Consultant, and Grant Writer

There is plenty of value in assigning homework. When assigned strategically, it can reinforce learning and build important study habits.

The term homework means "work for home," so there is little point in changing the lingo. What you are advocating is shifting the content away concepts and skills and toward self-assessment and metacognition. And there is value in that. I can see all four (concepts, skills, self-assessment, metacognition) making for good homework assignments.

Finally, there is no point in having a student propose a grade if the teacher can simply overrule him. If the teacher has final say, then he or she should just assign the grade, justify it to the student, and be done with it. Otherwise we end up with a kangaroo court where "student voice" is just a mirage.

Bridget Doyle's picture

Great information on a polarizing topic! Our school district has been back and forth on whether or not to assign homework and more importantly, how to hold children accountable. The conclusion most of us have come to is assign the work as practice or reinforcement not as a graded assignment. When you review and talk about it the next day with your students you are able to ask whether or not they completed it on their own or had help. Asking students to explain how they got their answers, holds them accountable and helps them to see the value in this practice. Responsibility, time management and organization is also taught or reinforced when assigning homework.
I agree with Mr. Walkup that no matter what you call it, it is work done at home. The article mentions a critical piece; helping the parents make their child's work important and model for the children as much as possible. The reality is that now a days it is becoming harder than ever with parents working two jobs, split shift and single-parenthood for parents to be involved as we would like them to be. Parent nights can be very difficult when parents are working evenings. Does anyone have any ideas to help parents tackle this challenge especially in a school that have mostly working parents?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Bridget, This is a tough one. I only assign homework that students will be motivated to do. That way they don't have to rely on adult support all that much. The homework I send home is word work where the students can simply do it out loud so the parents can hear what their child is learning and yet it doesn't take any of their time to support. I also send home reading book bags and encourage students to ready every night. I don't have consequences except they may struggle more on the test. In my class, weeks when a student does their homework I'm able to show them they do better than weeks they don't. We used to have working lunches which supposedly were supports, but it was viewed as a consequence. It sure didn't help the return rate and it was the same forgetful students each day in the lunch. Instead I speak with my students about why the little bit of work that I send home is important. I remind them it is not much and that their word work assessment is going to be more difficult now. Since I made these changes, my homework return rate has increased to the highest level ever. This has worked well while teaching grades 1-3. My students are motivated to do the homework because they see the connection to their success, I keep it simple, and I make sure the homework requires little support.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Being clear about what the purpose of homework is, making the appropriate assignment, ensuring that kids are on board and understand the rationale, and taking into account realistically the kind of home support that is available are key elements in an effective homework assignment. This is not easy and I don't think it's an area where teachers, or instructional leaders and supervisors, have a great deal of experience or support. So we can't be surprised that these practices are not more widespread. But that is all the more reason to strive for making homework realistic, appropriate, and effective.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

I got a question about the empirical literature on homework, at elementary, middle, and HS levels. This, too, is not quite the right question because the definition, conditions, and context of homework across various studies is so inconsistent that deriving clear inferences is difficult. I think schools need to apply learning theory and maybe a little Understanding By Design backwards design principles before assigning homework. But the greatest challenge is coordinating across classes over time and over the course of the school year. The potential for homework to be done in a facilitative way is less potent than for the opposite. Therefore, giving homework should NOT be the default. It should happen when, and in a way, that can be clearly defended instructionally.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

No empirical literature - only common sense to me: The teacher spends XXX minutes working with the class of YYY students on a new topic. At the end of this effort, the teacher assigns homework for that evening, due at the start of class the next day. That evening, each student looks over the assignment. Some of the students know exactly what to do - some finding it exactly what they need to continue the learning, some bored and frustrated because it's busy work to them. Some of the students kind of remember how it fits with the work in class - some figuring it out completely (maybe with the help of others), others varying from getting part of the idea to getting only more confused and frustrated. Finally, some of the students haven't a clue how the assignment fits with the class work - some trying hard with no real results, others never even starting out of frustration (maybe hating the teacher, the course, even school).

Next class, homework is collected for grading. The questions are this: What do the grades mean to you, the teacher, in terms of mastery of the topic? And: How many of the students found the assignment helpful? And: What plans do you, the teacher, make to help the class get on toward mastery of the topic?

Common sense: Student / teacher differentiated work for home that is evaluated for feedback, not graded - to help each student work toward mastery.

Judith Arnold's picture

What was done to reach out to the parents that did not attend? I ask this, because it's often assumed that parents who do not attend these sorts of events are not interested in what's going on at school and that is not always true. As a former registered nurse I worked second shift and would not have been able to attend most events scheduled in the evening, even with enough notice, because there simply was not anyone to replace me. Parents who are struggling with other issues that you as a teacher may not be aware of may also not be able to attend at a particular time. Can the school offer a variety of times and dates for parent workshops? Has anyone asked the parents what would work better for them? Did anyone attempt to reach out to the parents who did not attend? Sometimes putting the information in pdf format and making it available works best for parents who have odd or rotating schedules, while other parents may feel that meeting with a teacher or another professional at the school or in a community setting more effective.

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Ms. Rinehart's picture
Ms. Rinehart
Science and Math Teacher

I agree with you about assumptions. I have held many a meeting at a local coffee house to make sure that parents are able to understand expectations and the help I offer to students before and after school.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Ms. Rinehart and Judith, these are both great points. Teachers who are willing to see beyond their assumptions are worth their weight in gold if you ask me. Kudos to you!

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