Students dread doing homework. Parents dread making their children do homework. A lot of teachers dread assigning homework.

Homework, it seems, isn't very well-liked by anybody. And yet, few people seem to question its validity. Just Google "how to get kids to do their homework," and you'll find article after article offering tips and techniques for motivating students and ending the dreaded homework battle.

For some reason, we all seem to assume that, no matter how much we hate it, homework is a necessary evil.

But is it?

Why Do We Make Our Children Do Homework?

The American educational system operates under the assumption that homework is a necessary component in our children's education. Homework is considered so beneficial that it is now being assigned in every grade level. In many schools, kindergarten students have nightly assignments, and most students today spend dramatically more time doing homework than previous generations.

As a nation, we're committed to the idea that homework is some sort of golden ticket that will help our children to learn what they need to know in order to ensure their success in the world at large. While some teachers genuinely believe in the value of homework based on their teaching experiences, others assign homework simply because they've been taught or told that they must.

But is homework always beneficial to students? Does it motivate them to learn and enable them to be better members of society in the long run? Are we positive that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?

The Homework Myth

According to renowned educator and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, homework isn't as valuable as we're led to believe. In his book, The Homework Myth, Kohn explores our national obsession with homework, and questions whether or not it is really beneficial for kids. Kohn conducts extensive examination of recent studies and research and concludes that:

"[T]he research offers no reason to believe that students in high-quality classrooms whose teachers give little or no homework would be at a disadvantage as regards any meaningful learning."

In Kohn's opinion, the problem isn't that homework is always bad, but that we shouldn't be assuming that it's always worthwhile. Homework causes stress for students, can be a burden for parents, is often a source of family conflict, leaves less time for other activities, and can have an adverse impact on a student's desire to learn.

With all these drawbacks, it makes sense that we should be sure the homework being assigned is valuable before we decide to pile it on our students.

Does Homework Teach The Wrong Things?

Proponents of homework argue that it provides numerous benefits, not all of them academic. Homework is said to provide a link between parents and the material students are learning in the classroom, and to teach students responsibility, self-discipline, and organization. It has even been argued that homework is a good idea because it gives kids something to do after school and keeps them out of trouble.

Call me crazy, but I thought that's what parents are for.

Kohn thinks its crazy, too. He suggests that parents can be involved in their child's classroom learning without coaching them through nightly homework, and makes a valid point that type of responsibility and self-discipline that homework promotes might not really be what we want our kids learning after all.

"From our first day in school we are carefully instructed in what has been called the "hidden curriculum": how to do what we're told and stay out of trouble... As students, we're trained to sit still, listen to what the teacher says, run our highlighters across whatever words in the book we'll be required to commit to memory. Pretty soon, we become less likely to ask (or even wonder) whether what we're being taught really makes sense. We just want to know whether it's going to be on the test."

Is Kohn right? Is it possible that encouraging students to be responsible, organized, and self-disciplined through homework is actually a recipe for creating apathetic, disinterested learners who are good at doing as they're told but not remotely interested in truly learning or thinking for themselves?

What DO Our Children Need?

Homework is never going to disappear completely, and Alfie Kohn is not suggesting that it should. But he does believe that the default homework policy in schools should be a no homework policy, and that the burden of proof should rest with educators who want to assign homework to show that their assignments are beneficial.

Essentially, Kohn wants students to be doing quality homework, not just 20 minutes a night because that's what the district stipulates for the grade level. In addition, he makes the following suggestions for improving homework:

  • Teachers should skip worksheets and workbook exercises and only assign homework that they themselves have designed.
  • Assignments should be individualized when necessary, taking student ability into account, as well as the level of parental involvement at home.
  • Parents should get a say in whether or not they want homework, and how much.
  • Homework should not be graded.
  • Inequities between struggling students who have no access to help with homework and students from privileged families who perform better only because they have help from parents or tutors need to be addressed.

Education is a complicated and controversial issue. For every expert who says that homework is bad, you're going to find another who thinks it's important. But as a former student who once devoted way too many hours to busy work that didn't teach me anything, and a current parent who has been shocked to see my child get homework in both kindergarten and first grade, I have to say, I think that Alfie Kohn just might be on to something.

How much homework do your children have? Do you think they get too much? Not enough? Would you like it if they didn't get any at all?

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