Be honest: on a typical workday, how much work do you take home to complete in the evening? One to three hours? Every night? This is what we expect our children to do. They spend between six and seven hours every day in school, and many of them then head to after-school programs or athletics, arriving home in time to eat dinner and hopefully spend time with their families. And then they have to go to their rooms and do homework.
This fall, an elementary school in Quebec, Canada, made headlines for banning homework for all students in grades 1 – 6 (although teachers will still be able to assign reading and studying). In 2012, French president Francoise Hollande proposed eliminating homework for all primary and middle schoolers in France, and a German high school began a two-year ban on homework for its students. In an online poll titled Should Schools Ban Homework, 85% of all respondents say yes. Those who want homework banned cite long hours in school, lack of downtime and time to play outside, and high stress levels as reasons to eliminate it. Proponents of homework believe that homework provides practice, an opportunity to show responsibility, and gives teachers another measure of performance.
Is there any research on the effectiveness of homework? Believe it or not, there is plenty. Alfie Kohn, a leading expert on education and parenting, even wrote a book in 2006 outlining his findings and they may surprise you. First, there is no evidence that assigning homework to elementary school students has any positive effect on their achievement. This is true despite many years of research studies hoping to prove at least a correlation between the two. Now, what about high school students; surely, given their higher-level math and literature courses, teenagers benefit from homework? The most recent study, published in 2012, showed that there was in fact a positive correlation between math and science homework and standardized test scores (students who did homework scored 2 – 3 points higher than their peers who did not do homework), but no correlation whatsoever between amount of time spent on homework and grades earned. If you’re still not convinced, you should know that there is little to no homework assigned in Finland, where high school graduation rates far exceed the United States’, test scores are some of the best in the world, and two-thirds of the high school graduates go on to college.
Meanwhile, there is also plenty of research on the positive effect of play on student achievement and the need for children to spend unstructured time outdoors for their healthy development. Last year, in the Atlantic Monthly article “Teach Kids to Daydream,” Jessica Lahey explained the benefits of mental downtime. If we know that creativity and inspiration often strike when the brain is “idle”, and we also know that our brains need downtime in order to work efficiently, why don’t we ensure that our children have unstructured blocks of time throughout the day (and especially at the end of the day) so that they can synthesize what they’ve learned? (By the way, Finnish elementary school students have approximately 75 minutes of recess per day.)
The answer to this question is the same reason why so many education reforms fail: it’s hard to change. It’s so much easier to do things the way we’ve always done them. Adults often argue that they did homework and they turned out fine. The idea that children and teenagers might not have something to do (or somewhere to go) every minute of the day actually scares some people. They think their children might get into trouble: after all, there’s that old adage about the devil finding work for idle hands. However, in the past few years, there has been more of a call to debunk the myth that busyness is best for business (or for school). Many researchers (and CEOs of companies like Google) have found that taking breaks and relaxing actually promotes productivity and innovation. A 2012 article in the New Statesman asserts that excessive hard work is counterproductive.
Change can be difficult, but in a world where we increasingly rely upon data, it is time to look at the data we have and make some tough choices. If we want schools and teachers to be held accountable, then our system should be held accountable, too. The knowledge we have gained from research should be incorporated into our school systems to improve education for all students, regardless of their backgrounds or their home states. Think about all the things our children might do if they weren’t wasting time on homework every day: like 17-year-old Ann Makosinski who had time to tinker, they might invent something capable of improving the lives of everyone on the planet. They might just be the next groundbreaking composer on the music scene. Or they might just have time to write poetry, play a sport they love, follow their own interests, or read books for fun. All worthwhile pursuits.
This post was originally published at GoLocalProv.