Homework is a task (often called an assignment) set by teachers for students to do outside normal lessons – usually at home in the evening. Schools have been setting homework in developed countries for over a century, but until the past few decades usually only older students had to do it. More recently younger students have also been given homework by their primary or elementary schools. In England the government does not make schools give homework but it does set guidelines 1. Five year olds are expected to do an hour a week, increasing to three hours a week at 11 and ten hours or more a week at 16 2. American studies report the amount of homework being set for younger students doubling over the past twenty-five years or so, although some doubt these findings.
Countries, schools and subjects differ a lot on how much homework is set, and at what age, but almost all high school students have to do at least some most nights. Most children have never liked homework but from time to time it is also debated by politicians, parents and teachers. Sometimes there are demands for more homework, as part of a drive for “higher standards”. At other times there are calls for less homework to be set, especially in primary/ elementary schools. This topic looks at whether homework should be banned altogether.
Homework has little educational worth and adds nothing to the time spent in school. Some schools and some countries don't bother with homework at all, and their results do not seem to suffer from it. Studies show that homework adds nothing to standardised test scores for primary/ elementary pupils. As Alfie Kohn notes, no study has ever found a link between homework and better tests results in elementary school, and there is no reason to believe it is necessary in high school.1 International comparisons of older students have found no positive relationship between the amount of homework set and average test scores - students in Japan and Denmark get little homework but score very well on tests.2 If anything, countries with more homework get worse results!
Homework has a lot of educational value, the reason it has not shown this is because teachers do not set the right kind of homework or they set the wrong amount of it. Some teachers believe homework is for reviewing material, others think it is better for learning new concepts. The result is 'confusion for students'.1 If the homework was consistent however, and related specifically to what is learnt in the classroom, it would have a great deal of educational value by helping them remember their lessons and increase students' confidence in how much they are learning.
Furthermore, Professor Cooper of Duke University has shown that by the high schools years, there is a strong and positive relationship between homework and how well students do at school. There are two main reasons why this relationship does not appear in elementary school: 1) Elementary school teachers assign homework not so much to enhance learning, but in order to encourage the development of good study skills and time management;2 2) young children have less developed cognitive skills to focus and concentrate on their work.3 Thus, they are more easily distracted from their homework assignments.
1 Strauss, 2006
2 Muhlenbruck, Cooper, Nye, & Lindsey, 2000
3Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001
Irrespective of homework's educational value, marking it takes up much of teachers' time. Australian teachers have complained that 'homework marking can result in four extra hours of work a day and they are rarely rewarded for their effort'.1 This leaves teachers tired and with little time to prepare effective, inspiring lessons. If the lessons aren't to the standard they should be, the point of homework is lost as the students have little to practise in the first place. The heavy workload also puts young graduates off becoming teachers, and so reduces the talent pool from which schools can recruit.
Teachers accept that marking student work is an important part of their job. Well planned homework should not take so long to mark that the rest of their job suffers, and it can inform their understanding of their students, helping them design new activities to engage and stretch them. As for recruitment, although teachers do often work in the evenings, they are not alone in this and they get long holidays to compensate.
Homework takes a lot of time up. In America, they encourage the '10 minute rule', 10 minutes homework for every grade, meaning that high-school students are all doing more than an hour's worth of homework each night.1 Being young is not just about doing school work every night. It should also about being physically active, exploring the environment through play, doing creative things like music and art, and playing a part in the community. It is also important for young people to build bonds with others, especially family and friends, but homework often squeezes the time available for all these things.
Homework has not prevented students doing other activities; it takes very little time to complete. Recent American surveys found that most students in the USA spent no more than an hour a night on homework. That suggests there does not seem to be a terrible problem with the amount being set. Furthermore, British studies have shown that 'more children are engaging in sport or cultural activities' than ever before.1 As such, there is no clear evidence to suggest that students are stuck at home doing their homework instead of doing other activities. In addition, concerns over how busy children are suggest that parents need to help their children set priorities so that homework does not take a back seat to school work.
Homework puts students off learning. Studies have shown that many children find doing homework very stressful, boring and tiring. Often teachers underestimate how long a task will take, or set an unrealistic deadline. Sometimes because a teacher has not explained something new well in class, the homework task is impossible. So children end up paying with their free time for the failings of their teachers. They also suffer punishments if work is done badly or late. After years of bad homework experiences, it is no wonder that many children come to dislike education and switch off, or drop out too early. Teachers in Britain fear that poor children, because they lack the support to do their homework, will be turned off school 1.
If homework puts students off learning, then it has been badly planned by the teacher. As Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of Education notes, 'many teachers lack the skills to design homework assignments that help kids learn and don't turn them off to learning' .1 The best homework tasks engage and stretch students, encouraging them to think for themselves and follow through ideas which interest them. Over time, well planned homework can help students develop good habits, such as reading for pleasure or creative writing. The research however suggests that homework is not in fact putting students off learning. Rather studies in Britain indicate that 'most children are happy (and) most are achieving a higher level than before'.2 Homework cannot be blamed for a problem that does not exist. Poor children may indeed lack support to do their homework, but this just means that schools need to do more to provide the help they need.
Many governments make their schools give students a national test (a test taken by all students of the same age). After the tests, they compare schools and punish the schools and teachers whose students do badly. Because schools and teachers are therefore scared about their students doing poorly, they give them more homework, not in the hope they learn more but simply to do better on the tests.1 As such, homework is not designed to help the student, just their teachers and schools who want them to 'win' the test and make them look good, not learn for the students' own benefit.
Setting homework with the intention of encouraging students to do well at tests is beneficial to students as much as it is to teachers and schools. National tests are a way of assessing whether students are at the level they should be, if they do well on the tests, that is a good thing. Therefore, a 'win' for the teachers and schools is also a great deal of learning for the student, the two need not be separated.
In many countries public schools require regular school inspections to ensure students are receiving a relatively equal level of education. In Britain for example, Ofsted is a public body that exists specifically to inspect public schools.1 A ban on homework would thus not require a level of trust between the state and individual school principals, for state inspectors could very quickly work out whether homework was being given out by asking the children themselves. Children, who don't like homework at the best of times, would not lie.
Many states do not in fact have a structured school inspection system that could enforce such a ban. The United States, for example, has one of the largest student bodies in the world but the state does not have a formal inspection system that could enforce a ban on homework. Therefore any ban would only prove a recommendation at best, and could not possibly hope to be enforced.
Furthermore, even in those states that do have inspection bodies, the regularity of inspections allows school principals to prepare for their arrival. Students might be forced by their teachers to lie to inspectors, otherwise they would receive even more homework. Furthermore, the school inspections are partly so that they can test the ability of students – therefore teachers are encouraged to give their students homework so that they do better on these inspections.
Homework encourages students to work more independently, as they will have to at college and in their jobs. Everyone needs to develop responsibility and skills in personal organization, working to deadlines, being able to research, etc. If students are always “spoon-fed” topics at school they will never develop study skills and self-discipline for the future. A gradual increase in homework responsibilities over the years allows these skills to develop 1. For instance, to read a novel or complete a research project, there is simply no time at school to do it properly. Students have to act independently and be willing to read or write, knowing that if they struggle, they will have to work through the problem or the difficult words themselves. Diane Ravitch points out that a novel like Jane Eyre cannot be completed if it is not read at home – students have to work through it themselves 2. When given the choice of homework or no homework most students would chose not to do it. But by doing homework they are effectively taught independence in finding their own ways to explain and understand the topic.
1 Bempechat, 2004
Setting homework does little to develop good study skills. It is hard to check whether the homework students produce is really their own. Some students have always copied off others or got their parents to help them. But today there is so much material available on the internet that teachers can never be sure. It would be better to have a mixture of activities in the classroom which help students to develop a whole range of skills, including independent learning. Furthermore, if teachers want to develop independence in their students, students should be given a choice in the matter of homework. Otherwise, they’re not using their judgement and therefore they aren’t being independent at all 1.
Having homework also allows students to really fix in their heads work they have done in school. Doing tasks linked to recent lessons helps students strengthen their understanding and become more confident in using new knowledge and skills. For younger children this could be practising reading or multiplication tables. For older ones it might be writing up an experiment, revising for a test and reading in preparation for the next topic. Professor Cooper of Duke University, has found that there is evidence that in elementary school students do better on tests when they do short homework assignments related to the test 1. Students gain confidence from such practise, and that shows when they sit the tests.
Homework does not ensure that students practise what they are taught at school. Teachers often give pupils the end of the exercise they were doing in class to complete at home, it tends to be the harder questions towards the end of the exercise and if a teacher or a tutor is not present to explain or help then it causes the pupil to doubt their ability. To practise what a student has been taught requires the presence of a teacher or tutor who can guide the student if they get something wrong. Homework, done by the student on their own, offers little support and is only a source of stress. If confused, the student may only come to dislike the topic or subject, which will only further reduce their ability to remember what they were taught.
Education is a partnership between the child, the school and the home 1. Homework is one of the main ways in which the student’s family can be involved with their learning. Many parents value the chance to see what their child is studying and to support them in it. It has been described as the ‘window into the school’ for parents, the area in which schools, parents and students interact daily 2. And schools need parents’ support in encouraging students to read at home, to help with the practising of tables, and to give them opportunities to research new topics.
Homework is a class issue. In school everyone is equal, but at home some people have advantages because of their family background. Middle-class families with books and computers will be able to help their children much more than poorer ones can. This can mean poorer children end up with worse grades and more punishments for undone or badly done homework. David Baker, a researcher, believes too much homework causes parents and children to get angry with each other and argue, destroying the child’s confidence 1. On the other hand pushy parents may even end up doing their kids’ homework for them – cheating and not helping the student learn at all.
Homework is a vital and valuable part of education. There are only a few hours in each school day – not enough time to cover properly all the subjects children need to study. Setting homework extends study beyond school hours, allowing a wider and deeper education. It also makes the best use of teachers, who can spend lesson time teaching rather than just supervising individual work that could be done at home. Education is about pushing boundaries, and the learning should not stop at the entrance to the classroom – students should take skills learnt in the classroom and apply them at home. Homework allows this to happen, encouraging students to go above and beyond what they do in school. Reading is the best example, students learn how to read at school, but in order to get better, they need to practise and that is best done at home, with the support of parents and at the right pace for the student.
Homework is not an essential part of information. If what was to be learnt from homework was that essential, it would not be left to the child to learn on their own and away from school. In fact, many teachers admit to simply setting homework because they are expected to set it, not because they think it will be helpful 1. The best environment for learning is in a classroom, where the student is able to ask for assistance if stuck and the teacher is available to help. .
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