Homework Should Be Optional


I don't agree with homework. I've written my reasons why before, but it mostly comes down to a question of who "owns" a child's free time. To me, that time belongs to the child and to the parent.  I think that the coercion of homework is what kills the motivation in even the best-crafted homework.

Not everyone agrees with me. So, for those who think homework is necessary, I'm thinking they should have a right to make homework the norm in their own home. If parents are not given the freedom to dictate the pedagogical choices at school, why not let them dictate the learning that happens within their own homes?

Some say that homework is necessary, because it provides a great chance to practice skills. Makes sense. Perhaps seven hours of school really isn't enough for some kids. If that's the case, let parents practice those skills with their own kids in their own context. If it really is about helping struggling students, why not let the parents and struggling students decide?

Some say homework is a great chance for bonding and learning and enrichment. That wasn't the case in my childhood. My best home learning memories involved catching on to fractions while cooking or talking politics at our dinner table. But if parents want enrichment activities, I'm okay with teachers suggesting some optional activities.

Ultimately, that's the idea. Homework shouldn't just be well-crafted. It should be flexible and context-based. It should be a tool that parents can choose to use if they find it necessary.
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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31 comments:

  1. Learn how to use commas. It changes the whole meaning of your picture.

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  2. What about for kids whose parents don't have time to spend educating them at dinner or on the weekends? What about kids whose parents have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet? Or what about kids whose parents just don't care enough to want to spend time educating them? Should homework be optional for them?

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    1. Kids who do not have a home environment that encourages learning almost always have parents who are disengaged with homework. So, those kids are often the ones who are the most punished by homework. If an environment isn't well-structured for home learning (bad lighting, kids babysitting siblings, noise, etc.) it's almost never conducive to homework, either.

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    2. Definitely agree with Tracey on this one. She also didn't imply that the home wasn't "well-structured" because the parent is unwilling or unable to facilitate learning enrichment at home. I think it's best to avoid drawing conclusions like that. She simply stated that the parent isn't able to create opportunities for learning at home. I feel that your idea of no homework (or at least eliminating the 'busy work' aspect of HW) is great in theory - but without adequate engagement and training it would only benefit the most privileged students whose parents have the knowledge, time and interest to develop such a learning plan.

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    3. I see your point, but I still wonder if that's any different than giving homework. It feels like either way, kids with a bad home environment are at a disadvantage.

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  3. Trouble w/homework is:
    Sometimes teachers fail to realize they're "not the only teacher". They have a weird theory they each need to give an hour!
    Homework, is still homework, even if called a project, or whatever. Often, that's forgotten. Homework used to be "a given". Today, it's a "tool" used by too many to "get done" what wasn't done in school (at whatever level), for whatever reason. Sigh. Well, yes, sometimes, things get behind. But every day? I worry about the curriculum here.

    Here's 1 thing you say: "If it really is about helping struggling students, why not let the parents and struggling students decide?"
    Well, yes. But, homework is the "traditional tool" to give the kid "more practice". Sigh. Sometimes it works.
    Problem w/struggling students is this: Often the parents are simply unable to provide that help needed.
    And sometimes, homework might help. Sometimes it might hurt. But too many teachers do not seem to look into whether it is actually helping in each specific case!

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    1. I struggle with that as well. Is simply giving more going to fix anything?

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  4. The problem, isn't homework per se, but:
    1) The sheer quantity of it on occasion. Do I really need to do 50 math problems? How about 20, well done, instead?
    2) Conflicting deadlines. Yes, kids need to learn about those horrid deadlines. But, can't we"be a little reasonable"? Four projects due the same day? Teachers, obviously, never were kids.
    3) The quality of the homework being assigned. Some assignments are really pointless! (Sorry, it's true!)
    Why tell a kid to memorize the names of the reeve of a township... going back 100yrs? Sure, it IS history. But... WHY?
    4) The value placed on it. I remember thinking as a kid, how much I worked, and it only counted for 8%!! (And even I, who sucked at math, knew that was not a "good deal"!)
    5) Poor Follow-up. I did it. I handed it in. You took 3+ weeks to give me feedback?? Ow! And the feedback was a silly number/letter with a magic marker. Not one word. "Good" is a word! Well, OK, so is "Bad"! But, I think you know what I mean.
    6) Poor "grading". In other words, homework inproperly graded! Ow!

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    1. Those are al excellent points. Thanks for posting them.

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  5. Now, I'm not against marks, grades, assessment, whatever. "Hard Numbers" are very useful. And in adult life, we all get reviewed, graded, assessed, judged, scored, etc. We all have numbers & letters assigned to us! Good that kids learn that. But my argument is: There is often no follow up. If I did 30 math problems, and got 22 of them wrong... I need more than just an "F"! Help!

    My sister looked into my niece's math homework. The teacher (or assistant) had graded it all wrong. Out of 50 problems (Yes, 50, over 3 days!). here's what happened:
    a. Some 12 problems were marked "incorrect". Except, they were correct. Marking something that is right as wrong, hurts a kid. Inside. It kills confidence.
    b. Some 10 problems were marked "correct". Except they were done wrong. This couldn't have done my niece any good. Right?
    c. The grade was calculated wrong. Ouch! The kid got graded at something like 51%, it actually was around 54%. Poor kid!
    Ok. So, just to say: 12+10=22. And: 22/50=44%. The "teacher" was wrong some 40% of the time! Owww!
    But when my sister re-graded it, the REAL score was something like 58%... Sigh.

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  6. Well, at least my sister found out her daughter needed help with math. A good thing! The teacher? SHE WAS USING A CALCULATOR! ... At least until my sister slammed the desk drawer on it... After that, well, it stopped working right. I think that calculator was defective from the start.

    And the teacher? She started paying more attention. (Good!) She later became pretty good, I hear. Only took her almost a decade. How many kids got "zonked" by this teacher? I will refrain from saying anything about the school administrators. (You don't want me to.)

    OK. So, homework was useful here, in revealing 1 thing: My niece needed help in math. But was there no other way to do this? My sister tutored the kid, because my sister is a bloody computer. My poor niece. But she turned out OK, I guess. Has not ax-murdered anyone yet. Not even her sister. Or her uncle.... Yet!

    Now, if those problems could be solved.... Maybe SOME homework could be useful. SOME.
    This whole topic needs more exploration. Maybe some of my comments will spark some. Maybe even some answers. I hope so.

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  7. Note that there's nothing wrong with giving a kid a book to read (as homework), and asking for a SHORT essay, book report, synopsis, whatever... on it. It lets a teacher know if the kid read the book, got the point, etc! Else, the kid will bamboozle the teacher.

    Now class discussion on a book, is OK. But we know, that 1/2 the class will say nothing. (Shy, didn't read, don't know how to discuss, etc reasons.) And 1/3 will say a little bit... And 16 or 17% will say much more. But 4 kids will still say 3/4 of whatever is ever said... (Yes, I was 1 of those.)

    The ratio applies to the old style verbal discussion, AND new style "tweets". (Very effective in teaching kids to write short, choppy sentences of only some 100 chars long.) But still, some kids are poor "typists", or say little.

    The same w/ Facebook entries, except kids'll say more. But editing capabilities suck. Replies can get out of sequence. And, well, it, like Twitter, is a public medium.

    Yes, there are some good "private" school blogging tools. But they have faults, too.

    Little video projects are cool, but, I've seen some horrid ones. The kids just say umm, ah, err, and so on. Even with a script, requirement! Why? They can talk,I heard 'em at the mall!

    I know. I gave no answers: Only questions. Sorry.

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  8. I want my kids to read, but more I wish they would love reading. Our town is blanketed with these homework-read signs, and I have the strong urge to edit... http://mathhombre.tumblr.com/post/36391509910/no-homework

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    1. I saw your post about that on Tumblr. Sad. Really sad.

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  9. It's not the homework that's the problem. It's either:
    A) We don't have the time to do it.
    B) We don't care.
    C) We get a lot of homework.

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    1. Wouldn't all three of those be fixed if we simply abandoned homework altogether?

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    2. Yes, yes they would.

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  10. I like that statement- HW should be well-crafted. I always tried to make it authentic as possible. Do you go by the 10 minutes * grade level for max time on homework? As an elementary teacher, parents usually thought I didn't give enough homework. I think they just wanted me to keep them occupied :) Thanks for the post!

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    1. I agree. Those things would make a difference.

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  11. As a 5th grade teacher, I was required to give that 50 minutes of homework. In a high poverty school, it was deemed necessary as extra practice for kids who represented the achievement gap and needed to catch up with their peers. Too often, homework itself was the single biggest waste of everyone's time. Here is why I would fight that requirement if still teaching there today:
    1. Some parents help, some don't. How fair is that grade?
    2. If you don't grade it, why do it?
    3. If you ask them to do it, you have to deal with those who don't. What a mess, and a waste of time.
    4. Kids who did the homework incorrectly only made things harder to unlearn and relearn the correct way, wasting more class time.
    5. Kids hated doing it-and if there is one thing I could do to help close the achievement gap, it woud be fostering a love of learning for learning's sake.

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  12. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that students will sometimes need to practice skills at home. But I think it should be a plan than teacher and student agree on, focused on a particular area of growth, and purposeful. If the student needs to increase reading fluency, homework is reading a book of the student's choice. If the student needs to work on math facts, homework is to practice with flashcards every night for a week. Assign the practice over several days, then reassess.

    But most of the time, kids need to be exploring the world.

    I'm sympathetic, on some level, with the argument that the achievement gap is largely due to a lack of "good" after-school input. But you'll never convince me that assigning children pages of soul-killing worksheets will make up for that better than a soccer league or drama club or just free time to explore their own interests.

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  13. One thing I'm trying out this year is a weekly HW assignment in which students are asked to go home and have a conversation with a parent about what we've been doing in class. I ask them to write a brief summary of the conversation using guiding questions: What did your parent know about the topic? What did learn from him/ her? What did he/she learn from you?
    This is frequently the only HW they have in my Class (7th grade SS).

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  14. I think you hit the nail on the head when you focus on who "owns" the time. This is a point I've been making for years and is central to my model, The Homework Trap. At this time, there is a lot of criticism about homework and some of it is well founded in educational research and theory. For sure, teachers should spend time studying the theory, research and practice of homework-giving to make sure that their assignments have value and meaning. But, in the end, there needs to be clarity about who is in charge of the home. It is a mistake for society to give teachers the authority to dictate what happens in the home. In fact, if teachers gave homework with the understanding that it required the consent of the parents, they would be more thoughtful in what they gave out.

    http://thehomeworktrap.com.

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  15. This is a difficult topic. I don't know in the States, but here in Spain, I teach secondary school, I only get 3 or 4 hours a week with each group of students and I do give them some homework. It should take them 10 to 15 minutes but I do tell them to review what we have been doing in class and then do their homework. I do this for several reasons:
    - They get some practice on what they have learnt at school.
    - They practice writing and writing in English (I'm an English 2nd language teacher)
    - I give them homework they know how to do, they don't need their parents help.
    - I think we do have a right to guide our students on how to study our subjects, I don't think parents should decide and less still students if they have to do homework or not.
    - We correct homework everyday, it takes 10 minutes from class, we have a look at the problems they have had making them and any possible doubts.
    - The tests are similar to the activities proposed as homework.
    - I don't grade the homework, I only jot down if it is done or not.
    In this way, I think that I am doing right when I give them some homework because I guide their studying, improve their procedures and encourage continuous and independent work.
    When talking about time, do you really think they discover many things chatting on the internet or playing videogames? I also think is our task to help them discover the world and teach them how to use their free time. Do you think I am wrong??

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    1. When you talk about students wasting their time chatting on the internet or playing video games, I hear you saying, "I don't approve of how my students explore the world; I will tell them how to explore the world." But it's not exploring if someone else is making you do it.

      You're assuming that your students do nothing of value when left to their own devices. That makes me sad. I've learned plenty from talking to people on the internet- I'm a much better knitter, for instance, and can make money selling my work. And my life is richer because of the games I play, which let me explore new worlds and stories and solve puzzles and make connections and work in teams in non-artificial ways. But your students could also be visiting family, playing in sports leagues, putting on community theater, or studying subjects the school doesn't have time or money to teach.

      If my employer said, "I don't like you playing games online at home. I'm going to assign you some extra work to do off the clock, and if you don't do it, you're fired," I would be annoyed. If homework operates on the same principle, we have a problem.

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    2. I have been reading my reply and I don't say anything of you say I do. I'm just saying there's time for everything. I have a blog, twitter, linkedin, facebook and I am in contact with my students through all these means, I think the internet is an open window for them, but we can show them different ways to use it. I am also in favour of them doing physical activities, visitting family and so on.

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  16. I teach elementary, so my perspective is built on that. However, I have two teenagers in my house as well. From an elementary perspective, my homework is to go home and play outside. I have subscriptions to iknowthat.com, big universe, Raz Kids, and the school has Tumblebooks. You would be surprised at how much time they "work" without an assignment. These are optional and I paid for them myself, but they always have something. If they do not have a computer, they know that books and activities are an option. Motor memory and brain development rely on physical activity. I tell my parents all the time that I work their kids hard while I have them. They have many other areas that need developed. I believe in supporting the whole child.

    From a mom perspective, I also feel my children need to be well rounded. I can not tell you how many weekends my daughter spends 10-15 hours doing homework. She is a gymnast who practices four hours every night after school and is advanced AP classes. She is up till midnight a lot of nights doing homework; no study halls because she is in all academic classes. She uses her time wisely and is often exhausted. The truth of the matter is that she will have a better chance getting a scholarship from gymnastics... She is healthy, well rounded, and a smart girl. More homework is not going to impact that. I am going to guess that the answer is in balance. The kids that need the most help and have parents to busy to help them at home don't need homework to get them in trouble when they don't have it done. What they need is more time and support in school. I often feel that the home is used alot in schools as an excuse. Why set kids who need the most up for failure?

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    1. I love the way you expressed your perspective from both a parental and a teacher perspective. Thank you. It was well-articulated.

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  17. I too am a teacher and a Mom of three. I have one in college, one in middle school, and one in elementary. I have taught 6th grade for 15 years and have grappled with this "Do I or Don't I" problem of homework as well. After reading the article and many replies, I am ready to make homework optional. How to go about that, though, is the concern. I have been frustrated for years by homework "punishing" the good kids. My own children are diligent little workers who have always pushed to do their best. They, like Shannon's daughters, are in extra curricular activities that also require time of them. So on many occasions, my own children have had to stay up well past their "bedtime" to be able to complete some assigned "extension" of their learning. In that light, I am a firm believer that these extra hours at home doing homework are adding nothing but unhealthy stress to my children. Some of it coming from me as I push them to meet all the demands on them because as much as I want them in bed, I do not want them in trouble at school the following day.

    At the same time, when I come at it from the classroom as a teacher, I have students who sometimes purposely, and sometimes because they simply can not work any faster, who get to the end of their day with multiple assignments that are incomplete. I realize this is a wide-open question, but what kinds of lesson activities are you doing so that you feel students have gotten what they need for that day by the time they leave you? I currently have 28 students, 20 of which are working at or below 3rd or 4th grade. I do small group and individual often, but am running out of "me". With our open school hours, recess, lunch, and prep, my students are in my classroom most days around five hours. It is so true as Shannon stated, "What they need is more time and support in school." The problem is, and it is so out of my control, that we don't have the time, literally. So my homework tends to be the work we start in class that students simply don't have enough time to finish. (Sometimes it's 10 math problems or answer 5 comprehension questions. Not huge amounts, but their ability is so low they struggle.) I am always looking for higher impact, time-saving fun activities and hope you have a couple I can add to my file drawer. Thank you for this thread!

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.