Homework Serves No Purpose Chris

Well, it’s been over a week since I linked to Alex’s post and unwittingly started a movement. For those of you following along, I was interviewed for a National Post article on the weekend and since then the phone has been ringing off the hook. I’ve done some talk radio and I have CTV Edmonton chasing me around BC, trying to get me on camera. This week I’m in Prince George, working at my real job, running a World Cafe and an Open Space meeting for the Urban Aboriginal Strategy in British Columbia.

But many people are calling and emailing about this homework ban thing, and we seem to have struck a nerve. What has been really interesting to me is that without exception, every journalist and producer that has called (and we’re talking twelve or more at this point) has started out by talking about how much they hate what homework does to their kids and families. Usually when they call they get interviewed by ME, for the first ten minutes or so, so keen am I to hear their story. It has really strengthened my confidence in our decision to unschool, although I appreciate that that isn’t for everyone.

Some of the nicest emails I have received have been from the authors of the two books that were recently published and which started this all off. Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth wrote to lend his support to whatever was going on, and I told him I’d send people to his site, which is a rich source of material about learning and working. So go read Alfie’s stuff, especially if you are thinking seriously about what is going on in school with respect to teaching, learning, testing and evaluating and you are wondering how to make a case for change.

And then on a more practical level Sara Bennet, co-author with Nancy Kalish of “The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It” wrote today and told me about the blog she is starting up at stophomework.com. For those of you that have written to me asking “what can we do?” Sara is the person to get in touch with. Their book even gives examples of emails to use with teachers and principals to get a homework ban going in your school.

And if you are tired fighting with the education system, you have many many options. If you are interested in unschooling as an option, which is what our family does, you can visit my own set of unschooling resources for some reading to get started.

This whole “Great Canadian Homework Ban” is actually just a provocative way to get people to really think about learning. We take so much for granted about the way the school system operates, and there is so much fear connected to success and failure in school that I believe strongly that we are creating a culture that blindly accepts some cultural story about what works and what doesn’t. The bottom line, in my own experience, is that every child has their own learning needs, and every parent can help meet those needs by keeping a few basic questions at the top of mind. Think about the school system, and what it teaches. Read John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, David Albert and others and think about the kind of learning environment that will best serve your kids.

And for all those who say “if kids don’t do homework they will just play video games” (which seems to be the last line of the crumbling defense) I challenge you to do three things: get rid of the PlayStation, cancel your cable subscription and intentionally spend time with your kids co-creating a list of things you could do together. Like any drug, it’s hard to kick, but you’ll be glad you did. Tell them that the deal is, you’ll support them NOT doing homework if they will engage with you to create real learning experiences outside of school, together. And then take all the free time you’ll have and enjoy one another. It’s not THAT hard to do.

PS…and because it’s a movement now I made a little seal (up above there, with the busy beaver as our mascot, too busy for homework) which you can steal and post on your own blog. Better yet, print out a sheet of them as stickers and plaster them on unfinished homework assignments. Now THERE’S an activity guaranteed to get kids and parents working together!


At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.

Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was  decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.

“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”

That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.

The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.

“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.

Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.

Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.

Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great  a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.

In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.

“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”

Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?

No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.

“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”

Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.

Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.

“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”

Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.

“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”

Reinventing Homework
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?

One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.

Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.

“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”

But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.

“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *