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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.

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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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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!

@KlaseKastellano's picture
@KlaseKastellano
Teacher. Blogger. Traveler. Pinner.

In the U.S, I think homework is necessary, or in Public Schools. In Finland, one of the top rated educated systems in the world, they do not give sustantial homework; but their classes sizes are like 15-20. Class sizes in the U.S. are usually fire code hazards and students need to have reinforcement of concepts learned and skills acquired. I think it is ironic that we are having a debate about homework when kids in Japan go to another school after to expand learning and achieve an education that would give them an competitive edge. The purpose of homework for me is to deepened your understanding on a topic, a depth that may not be accessible in school. For example, I go to church every Sunday, I hear the sermons, but I come home at do "homework" researching, making connections and creating new knowledge or seeing things from a different perspective. Homework is important. Without it, our students, would surrender their attention to mind-numbing video games.

Abigail Gretz's picture

Homework has and will always be a main topic of interest between teachers, students, and parents. My interest as an educator sparked with the comment, "It should also reflect a considered school policy and not simply be up to each individual teacher to carry out according to his or [her] own theory of student learning." There is no doubt that a teacher should be open and clear about their homework policies with students and parents from the beginning, but no one knows the needs and demands of their students more than that student's teacher and these needs and demands can change from class to class. Even one of our most influential educators in American History, John Dewey, believed in the teacher's choice based on student knowledge. In fact, he found that "it was important for teachers to observe children and to determine from those observations what kinds of experiences the children are interested in and ready for" (Mooney 18).
Whether it be in college or in the work force, all adults are asked to take a certain amount of work home, so in preparation for that we can't simply eliminate homework from the school system. Instead teachers can build a homework plan based on the knowledge of their students and with the support of their administration. According to Peter DeWitt in his article "Homework: High Quality Learning or Act of Compliance?" Peter DeWitt shares that homework should focus on relationships and even developing assignments with students so that they can be meaningful and completed in a timely manner, not within an unreasonable amount of time. Within this information, homework should be allowed in public education and the homework amount and content should be up to the teacher and their knowledge of their students in order for it to be meaningful and necessary.

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)

Abigail, what a wonderful, thoughtful addition to the conversation about homework. My only addendum is the need for coordination among teachers regarding the assignment of even enlightened homework. Reasonable in the context of one class can be unreasonable if three other teachers are being equally reasonable in the same time frame. This is less of an issue at the elementary level, where, typically, one teacher is assigning homework, but it is certainly an issue at the secondary level. It is also a surmountable problem, to be sure.

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 want to once again advocate for a language change, and urge that we no longer use the word, "Homework," because it is laden with surplus meaning and it is highly imprecise. When we give assignments that we expect to be done in whole or in part during out of school time, we need to label them regarding what they are-- practice, a report, review, studying, test preparation, new reading, etc. Descriptive accuracy will help us move past the homework-no homework question, which has been and continues to be unproductive.

Debora's picture
Debora
Second Career - Middle School Teacher

I agree that kindergartners should be climbing trees and playing in dirt. I know the parents at my school are so worried that their kids might get hurt they are not allowed to be in any kind of nature unless an adult is present at all times and supervising all activities.

cypress70's picture

I believe that homework should be replaced by experiences, and not graded. For example, with younger students, instead of giving them a math sheet to fill out, I would like to see the next grocery shopping trip to be math focused. Not only are you counting the produce, you are also weighing it, and pricing it. This is more hands on and can be much more fun. Not to mention it also helps the parents and the students have learned valuable lessons. This can be incorporated with all subjects. It would be fun to see pictures of the students at the store, I would ask the parents for pictures to share with the class but not grade.

For older students, I would push for them to visit museums, parks, and even volunteer. These experiences are so much more valuable and unforgettable in comparison to a homework assignment in which the student has to create a PowerPoint presentation, build a model, or write a paper.

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)

In the spirit of the holiday season, I will simply say to Cypress70, "Amen." There are so many contexts of everyday life to make math and art and science and every other subject area relevant to children of all ages. The application of school to home and life is an authentic, engaging, learning experience. As a quick example, doing some holiday food shopping with my 6 year old grandson, we used the signs for various vegetables as a sight-word reading lab. And now, he knows the word, "eggplant," cold, as well as that there are types of eggplant from many different countries worldwide.

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

Authentic experiences are great, but I would prefer to mix it up a bit. Give them some authentic experiences some days but go ahead and give them some worksheets on others. And I would be careful to avoid any kind of assignments that require parental involvement. All too often we use our own experiences as parents to try and set classroom policy, but not every kid has the same family support. Pretend every kid in class has little parental support and adjust your assignments accordingly. E.g., trips to the market are probably okay because every family buys food. At the same time, don't go too far in the other direction and dismiss homework entirely. Kids need a modest/reasonable amount of homework for their own development.

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