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In a few years, both of my children will be in elementary school. The emotional impact of this coming reality fluctuates from day to day (make that minute to minute). On the one hand, I love them so much now, in their tiny, adorable iterations.
And on the other hand, showers. Of the bathing variety. I could use a few.
Then a friend mentioned her six-year old’s homework load, and I thought, Sweet Lord! I did not spend uncountable hours studying in high school, college, and graduate school to become a working adult, only to be sent straight back to Kindergarten in the form of take-home projects.
I know I am not alone in this aversion to the time-suck of after hours schoolwork. But as a former teacher, the disgust with homework isn’t strictly personal.
It’s also research-driven.
Education expert Alfie Kohn summed up the stupidity of elementary homework better than I can, so let’s take his words: “No research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school… If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.”
And I think most teachers fall somewhere between these two false and problematic positions. They honestly don’t know how worthless homework is, or they feel pressure to assign it anyway.
My first year teaching, I was in Camp One, having no clue how to set up decent lesson plans, much less get into the weeds on homework research stats. Other teachers assigned it, and it made you look like a conscientious teacher. Win, right?
Well, no. For starters, the most obvious reason not to assign homework is that many kids won’t do it. (Enter the extra parental duty of schoolwork enforcer). Obviously, this depends on the school and type of student.
(One principal at an elite San Francisco high school told me it was the students who rebelled when they tried to shorten the school day. The teens demanded those extra hours to plump up college applications. Which leads one to ponder: Who are these kids?)
The benefits of not assigning homework are many. For starters, my students still thrived academically. I think they enjoyed my class more too, being free from post-school stress over vocabulary assignments and personal essays.
I don’t know. My middle school and high school English students were mostly averse to extra work, and I taught a few classes where, I promise you, the vast majority of students would not have completed one minute of at-home work, regardless of consequences.
Still, when I made the definite choice of eliminating homework (by and large) from my syllabus, the decision came largely from a common sense observation. Here I was, working eight (official) hours a day. And then, at 5:00, if I played my time cards right, I went home to evenings that were all my own.
I could read, or work out, or grab coffee with friends, or go on a date. Or binge-watch Flight of the Conchords.
One thing I was definitely not doing? Work.
And it occurred to me that this was not the case for my students. Their reality?
Eight hours of school. Then probably some extracurricular activity. Then some combination of homework/dinner/more homework/sleep.
Where’s the life in that? Where’s the friend hangout time, or the skateboarding time, or the obsession with Harry Potter time? Where’s the freedom even for a part-time job?
There’s a reason college freshmen tend to struggle mightily when they arrive on campus. For many, it’s the first taste of freedom they’ve ever had. That learning curve is often steep, as revealed by frightful statistics on alcohol poisoning, freshmen dropout rates, growing anxiety on campus, etc.
So let me share the benefits of not assigning homework, for my students.
First and foremost, they thrived academically. Their test scores matched everyone else’s, and that’s with far less at-home investment. (And their scores were high, for which little credit is due me, almost all due to the kids themselves and the fabulous district I worked in).
I also think my students liked their actual time in class more. Not having to constantly worry about vocabulary assignments and nightly essays gave them one less reason to dread English period. And we had, somewhat regularly, a lot of fun learning together.
My hope is that they also a) had more time with their families, and b) their families made the most of those extra hours.
Because this homework thing? It’s also a problem of another, overlooked area. My mom was raised by WWII-Gen parents, and she said they would have thought it unconscionably rude for teachers to send work home.
I can hear Grams shouting, “It’s the dinner hour, dammit!”
And you know what?