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By Tiffani Razavi, TIE Staff Writer 14-Jan-15
Earlier this year, researchers from Stanford University reported findings on the effects of homework that challenge the widely held assumption that homework is inherently good. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Education, found that too much homework can have a negative impact on children, in particular in relation to their lives away from school. Survey data from over 4,000 participants from 10 high schools in upper-middle-class California communities were used to examine perceptions about homework, student wellbeing, and behavioral engagement. The average amount of homework time per night was 3.1 hours. The study found that too much homework is associated with greater stress, health problems (including sleep deprivation and other issues), and students “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills.” Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study writes, “The findings address how current homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students’ advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement and wellbeing.” She notes that the research calls into question the value of assigning large amounts of homework in high-performing schools. Homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice. “Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development,” says Pope. This is certainly not a view confined to the adolescents who participated in Pope’s study. In September, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews mulled over the topic in relation to parental control over time spent on homework. As in Pope’s study, the debate focused on the amount of time spent on homework and the high costs it can impose on the quality of family life and engagement in other meaningful learning experiences. But the issue for teachers goes further than the question of time. At the beginning of this academic year, the Canadian National Post reported a growing movement among parents, educators, and administrators to completely ban afterschool assignments, viewing homework as “a stress-inducing, mostly useless practice that saps students’ desire to learn rather than nurture it.” The case of high school math teacher David Martin, who eliminated homework completely from his class, highlights the potential learning benefits of not assigning work outside school hours. “I was probably making about 5 percent of my kids excited about mathematics,” he said. Homework in his class seemed to “buoy the strong and discourage the weak.” He observed that the students who could do the 30 problems at home probably didn’t need to do them, while the less mathematically oriented struggled with even one. So he re-conceived his teaching strategy. Students now work on one or two harder, critical-thinking problems per class and are encouraged to take their time and be creative. No work goes home. Over a three-year period, the class average remained the same, but drop-out/failure rates fell from 40 to 4 percent. David Martin’s experience is in keeping with virtually all the empirical evidence currently available. While a few studies report small but statistically significant correlations between achievement test scores and amount of time spent doing homework, most do not. In any case, as well-known author Alfie Kohn points out, “at best we’re only talking about a correlation—things that go together—without having proved that doing more homework causes test scores to go up.” Kohn calls attention to the need to carefully examine research evidence and to see it for what it is, even when the authors of reports draw conclusions in favor of homework. In his 2012 commentary titled “Homework: An Unnecessary Evil?” published on The Washington Post’s blog, he highlights research findings that are presented to support claims about the benefits of homework, when in reality the data do not support such conclusions. So ingrained is the idea of homework as an indispensable part of schooling that the first response of many is to repeat “platitudes about the importance of practice” or complain “that anyone who doesn’t think kids need homework is coddling them and failing to prepare them for the ‘real world’ (read: the pointless tasks they’ll be forced to do after they leave school).” The open-minded, he asserts, will see “a finding that fails to find any meaningful benefit even when the study is set up to give homework every benefit of the doubt.” Of course, evidence from quantitative studies is only part of the story, and the fact that in the aggregate results seem to be patchy at best suggests that more qualitative questions would be helpful to practitioners trying to make sense of research findings. Why is there almost no relationship to speak of between homework and achievement? Perhaps because both terms cover too wide a range. Educational practices naturally evolve and change in accordance with the needs, the time, and place; and historical reviews of homework as an educational tool demonstrate that this is certainly the case for afterschool assignments. It seems that whatever benefits might have existed in previous frameworks have now dwindled as the original contexts are long outdated. So are you done with homework? The reflective teacher will no doubt wish to do just that: reflect on the evidence, on the context, and, fundamentally, on the concept. In her essay “Do Your Homework,” director of The Principals’ Training Center Bambi Betts writes, “homework, at its core, is a concept—the notion of continuing the learning begun at school beyond the formal school day. It is not a separate, stand-alone practice, rather one of the strategies in the repertoire of instructional methods, ideally completely aligned with the learning principles and practices of the school.” She calls on teachers to “redefine homework, away from a rote obligation that you need to ‘correct,’ and towards an opportunity, for those learners who might benefit from tailored practice, to explore, or simply to think.”
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