Homework! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing? Well, some might say so. According to The Atlantic writer, Joe Pinsker, in his recent article “The Cult of Homework”, this is a heavily debated topic. Pinsker discusses research on both sides of the issue and brings to light some of the actions schools are taking to address the homework dispute.
Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing questions the methods of researchers such as Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, whose studies have shown that up to a point, more homework results in better performance on tests. Kohn argues these results are correlation, not causation, and doesn’t trust the accuracy of self-reported data. Cooper’s study also shows that more parents are worried that their children aren’t getting enough homework rather than too much, although parents on both sides of the issue certainly exist.
Often, the conversation about homework revolves around quantity. How much or how little homework students receive tends to cause alarm when the extremes of either end are approached. According to Joe Pinsker, “Research tends to focus on homework’s quantity rather than its quality, because the former is much easier to measure than the latter”. Even researchers can’t agree on whether or not homework is beneficial, and perhaps this is because a big part of the conversation is missing.
The good news is that the conversation is beginning to shift. Pinsker raises the questions, “What about homework’s effect on quality time spent with family? On long-term information retention? On critical-thinking skills? On social development? On success later in life? On happiness?” and also says, “The research is quiet on these questions.” Some schools are trending towards the idea of paying attention to the quality of homework, incorporating policies that include words like “meaningful” and “exploratory” while also setting more realistic standards for the amount time students dedicate to homework after school. Regardless of whether or not more homework results in better test scores, maybe we should be asking if it’s even worth it to sacrifice children’s limited free time for these reasons.
For one, as a society in general we are spending more time sitting than ever before. We commute to work and school, most often by sitting in a vehicle. Many adults sit at theirs desks for most of the work day. Many students sit in their desks for most of their school day. When the work and school day are over, many people come home to do more sitting, whether it is for homework or an all too common sedentary pass time such as watching television, playing video games, or spending time on the computer. This much sitting is not good for our health! According to an article published in the Harvard Health Blog, the more sedentary a person is, the higher risk they have for developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, and even dementia. Furthermore, it is well-researched and documented that physical activity and time spent in nature provide substantial physical and mental health benefits, two things that are probably not happening if a child is burdened by too much homework or unthoughtful homework.
Secondly, if student success is measured by test scores and therefore homework is assigned to help boost those scores, the complexity of the individual student’s life as well as their intelligence is ignored. Pinsker’s article showcases a high school Spanish teacher in Iowa who phased out homework because, “Some of her students, she says, have little time for homework because they’re working 30 hours a week or responsible for looking after younger siblings.” Paying attention to the individual student as well as the vision and goal of homework could lead to not only more inclusive schools, but also more successful students.
In regards to homework and Waldorf schools, we believe that children learn best and achieve their optimum long-term outcomes when they approach learning out of a sense of joy and discovery. Much of the structure of the curriculum and educational approach at Boulder Valley Waldorf School is designed to foster enthusiasm and avoid activities that would cause students to experience learning as unpleasant. We believe that it is important for our curriculum to offer a rich balance of academics, art, music, drama, handwork and movement. By fusing artistic and academic instruction we promote more complete learning, thorough retention and engender a deep love in the students for their subjects.
When students take up the contents of their lessons with enthusiasm and wish to continue working on them after school, we encourage parents to be supportive. With that said, it is equally likely to be the less academic subjects like handwork or movement as it is to be math or spelling that is the first thing a student expresses a desire to re-experience at home.
We also believe that education is about much more than acquiring facts and skills. It is also about developing strong character and a solid ethical and moral foundation for life. Our education aims to develop intelligent, imaginative, self-confident and caring individuals who are capable of clear, free thinking; whose insightful feeling promotes sound moral judgment; and who can carry their ideals into action grounded in the practical realities of life. We believe that on such a foundation, the human spirit can flourish, and individuals can become honest, self-assured stewards of the earth and caretakers of others and of society. Our hope is that, with the development of such inner capacities, children will be imbued with a lifelong passion for learning and life, and will be at peace with life, themselves and others. With that said, when children are assigned homework, it will not be burdenful rote in preparation for answering correctly on a test, but rather it will be meaningful work.
As I contemplate the complex views on homework, my memory jogs back to a story that my mom likes to tell about my younger brother (name changed for privacy). Imagine a young boy going to his first day at public school kindergarten and this young boy is wailing! He is crying so hard because the last thing he wants to do is go to school. This is a stark contrast to his sister, 4 years his senior, that absolutely loved elementary school, got good grades, and always did her homework without being asked. “But why don’t you want to go to school?”, my mom inquires. Through his tears, Billy exclaims, “Because I have too much work to do!”.
For as long as I can remember, Billy has been working and loving it. In the year leading up to kindergarten, he had been watching my dad build our house and began taking on projects for himself, like building a dog house and digging up grass in the yard to start a garden. This is the same child that, a couple years later, ordered bulk topsoil to be delivered to our house without my parents knowledge, leaving them scratching their heads a little when the delivery arrived until Billy piped up and claimed it was his dirt! Another few years down the road and he is excitedly spending his weekends and summers working up at my grandparents’ farm.
It will probably come as no surprise that, with all this “home” work to do, Billy almost never did his schoolwork. With less-than-ideal grades and countless school days missed to go work on the farm, I think everyone in my family still wonders how he managed to graduate high school. It’s not that Billy isn’t smart, because how could you call someone that can operate, maintain and fix farm equipment, among a plethora of other skills, unintelligent? It’s just that the homework and grading policies of our school didn’t do him many favors. I often wonder what my younger brother’s grades and overall school experience would have looked like if he was evaluated on his ability to tinker with machinery or build something instead of fill out a math worksheet correctly.
Corliss, Julie. “Too Much Sitting Linked to Heart Disease, Diabetes, Premature Death.” Harvard Health Blog,
22 Jan. 2015, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/much-sitting-linked-heart-disease-diabetes-premature-death-201501227618.
Accessed 25 Apr. 2019.
Pinsker, Joe. “The Cult of Homework.” The Atlantic, 28 Mar. 2019,
www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/homework-research-how-much/585889/. Accessed 25 Apr. 2019.