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Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Response To All the Homework Haters

(Photo: Dreamstime)

There seem to be a lot of homework haters out there lately. And, in certain respects, I am among them. As a mom of 3 grade school kids, I know I look like the mom in the picture above more days than not. Is it a hassle to come home, make dinner, give baths, do after school activities, wash clothes, AND do homework? Sure it is. Do the kids WANT to do homework? Of course not. So then the question becomes: Is homework worth it? 

Despite all the negative press given to homework lately, my own short answer to this question is yes. 

The foremost researcher on homework (by many accounts) is Dr. Harris Cooper. His most recent work is a meta-analysis of homework research, "Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003". Several recent blog posts and articles have taken his work to mean that homework is, at least at the elementary school level, pointless. One example is the article "Homework is Wrecking Our Kids." I, however, do not agree. 

Some parents, teachers, and perhaps even school districts seem to be reacting to this plethora of recent articles by getting rid of homework or by contemplating doing so. But, let's first take a look at the findings of Dr. Cooper. To quote the article: "The authors found that all studies, regardless of type, had design flaws. However, both within and across design types, there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement. Studies that reported simple homework-achievement correlations revealed evidence that a stronger correlation existed (a) in Grades 7-12 than in K-6 and (b) when students rather than parents reported time on homework"(Cooper, 2006). Yet, as his ideas for future research suggest, it is important to note that not enough research has been conducted on homework in the early elementary grades. Cooper also admits that not all of the positive effects of homework are measured by current research. It would be difficult to measure "better critical thinking" and "greater self-discipline." These are both included in his long list of the possible benefits of homework. Furthermore, the research seems to suggest that the length of time spent on homework is another salient variable that must be addressed.

I would argue that, although homework is certainly not my favorite spend-time-with-your-kids activity, it is certainly important. I have noticed many benefits for students (both from the perspective of a teacher AND that of a mom). While the list below is a short one, my hope is to provide homework haters (myself included) with another perspective. Let's remind ourselves of some of the positive outcomes of homework and ways in which take-home assignments might be altered, becoming an effective educational tool. 

Benefits of Homework

1.  Basic skill acquisition. While most of the benefits in the research were found to occur in high school, I would really like to see more research challenging this. What about learning addition facts? The multiplication tables? There is no doubt in my mind that learning the basics (in any subject or field) makes it easier to handle more complicated material later on. I'll admit that, true to the research, the effects might not be seen right away in terms of grades or test scores. But what happens to the student who does not learn, for example, basic math facts?

2. "Practice makes perfect." My band director (shout out to Mr. E) always said this right after he gave us a piece to take home and do for HOMEWORK. My children practice the violin almost every day. Why? Because if you do not practice, you will never be good at something. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice (i.e. homework) to become proficient at something (Gladwell, 2008). There are just not enough hours in the day to do that at school. This is the part where students put the basic skills into practice, using them to advance their knowledge in a subject (e.g., as they solve increasingly difficult math problems).

3.  Self-discipline and time management. These are both very important skills that students must learn. Both are vital to obtaining and maintaining A JOB in adulthood. Right now, in our early elementary household, we are in the "nagging" phase. Did you do your homework? Do you have homework? Did you read that book? Did you turn in that paper? Sometimes, it seems like this is all I do. But, one day in the not-so-distant future, my hope is that they will each be able to do this on their own. If students do not learn these skills, then how can they keep a job?

Tips for Meaningful, Effective Homework

1. Keep it short and sweet. My first suggestion to teachers is to keep it short and to the point. Nobody (especially parents such as myself) likes busy work. The National PTA suggests 10 minutes per grade level (see NEA on homework). That's just enough to remind students of what they did during the day, provide a little practice, and not give parents even more gray hair! 

2.  Keep the student in mind. Sorry teachers, but I absolutely believe that homework should be differentiated as much as possible. Keep in mind 3 things: 1) What skill does Johnny need to work on?  2) Can someone in his family help him?  3) Can this work easily be completed at home? 

As an aside, I think this aspect of assigning homework also addresses the socio-economic issue that concerns many homework haters. I think it's inconceivable to think of removing homework because some students don't have an enriched home life. I believe that's doing the student further injustice (a topic for another day). If Johnny doesn't have the resources at home, then you send them home with him. For example, how difficult is it to include crayons? Often, for these students, I would send home something he/she could "brag" about, such as a book he could already read (while still working on fluency) or a fun practice game to play (including some math facts he already knew or with manipulatives).

3. From a parent's perspective, can these "projects" be a little easier, please? I never realized what I was doing to parents until I became a parent and had to be the one actually DOING the projects. I'll never forget helping my daughter with her (supposedly simple) Hundredth Day poster. Poster board? We don't have one just lying around. What is the absolute easiest way we can get this done and have it still look okay? Stickers! Oh, yeah. I'll need to buy those, too. 

In conclusion, while I see the point that many homework haters are making, I don't think it means that we need to "throw the baby out with the bath water" where homework is concerned. Homework does have its advantages. We do, however, need to be mindful of providing meaningful homework in an age-appropriate amount. Most importantly, we need to have a REASON for assigning homework.  For me, the main reasons are the 3 listed above: practice with the goal of proficiency, time management and self-discipline, as well as basic skill acquisition. I don't think we need to become "homework haters" just yet. At least not until we've done more research. 

Happy homeworking!

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