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Learning at its Best

Ten Reasons to Abolish Homework (And Five Alternatives)

I don’t assign homework and I haven’t for the last four years.  It’s been a slow journey, because it runs against a very powerful ideology within the United States.  Here are ten reasons to abolish homework:

1. Young Children Are Busy: If a child cannot learn what needs to be learned in a six hour day, we are expecting too much of a child. We are creating a jam-packed hurried day without a chance to play, reflect and interact. Adding hours to an already busy day is absurd.
2. Older Children Are Even More Busy: So if younger students need a chance to play, the reality is that many older students are busy with extracurricular activities,
3. Inequitable Situation: I have some students who go home to parents that can provide additional support. I have others who go home and babysit younger siblings while their single parent works a second shift. I have some who don’t have adequate lighting, who constantly move and who lose electricity on a regular basis. Call those excuses if you want. I’ll call it systemic injustice instead.
4. Kids Need to Play: My son loves school. He loves the chance to learn to read, write and think in a way that is different from how I engage him. However, when he comes home, he needs to ride a bike, throw a ball or climb a tree.
5. Creates Adversarial Roles: It is possible for homework (or rather home learning) to be a positive force. However, when a parent is stuck as a practitioner of someone else’s pre-planned learning situation, it becomes an issue of management.
6. Motivation: It is possible to provides students with meaningful learning experiences after school. However, if that’s the case, why make it mandatory? Why not say, “I offer tutoring if you need help” or “here’s an idea of something you might want to pursue on your own?” When I was in high school, I wrote pages upon pages of poetry, a novel (never even told an adult) and countless short stories. It was, on some level, self-directed homework. And honestly, I would have allowed a teacher that I trusted to provide feedback. However, if the process had been formalized, I would have kept all of that even more underground.
7. Homework Doesn’t Raise Achievement: I know Marzano looked at one study and concluded that homework works. However, Duke University’s study (by Harris Cooper) concluded that homework does not increase achievement and it often decreases it instead. I spent some time looking at the “studies” regarding homework and they all point to a correlation rather than a causal relationship between homework and achievement. The bottom line is that the research is sketchy at best.
8. Most Homework Is Bad: Most homework recreates school within the confines of a home. So, instead of having children do interviews, analyze a neighborhood or engage in culinary math, the traditional approach involves packets.
9. Homework Teaches Bad Work Habits: I know this sounds crazy, because it’s precisely the reason that so many people give for offering homework. However, homework doesn’t teach good study habits. It teaches kids to study, because they have to rather than need to. Similarly, homework doesn’t help children become hard workers, because the work is not self-directed. Want to watch a child work hard and take ownership of learning? Watch a child build a bridge for fun. Let a child read a book for fun (without the bribery of fried dough) and see just how hard a kid will work when there is a meaningful goal. Hard work is a product of motivation. It is an internal drive. When we a parent steps in an makes a child work hard, the work ethic diminishes.
10.The Wrong Focus: Homework is precisely that: work at home. The goal is often increased achievement. The bigger question is whether we want achievement or learning. If the goal is learning, homework kills the desire to learn.

What I Advocate Instead:

  1. Emphasize the idea that learning can and will happen naturally at home or elsewhere in a child’s world.  Visit a skate park and watch the learning that happens.  Spend some time watching kids develop new games in the neighborhood.
  2. If parents really want homework, let teachers give workshops (might be a great time to bridge the gap with homeschoolers / unschoolers by doing a co-teaching workshop) on how to engage children at home in authentic learning.
  3. Provide ideas and support for students who are interested in doing more.  If a teacher had said, “Hey, I’d like to meet with you on that novel you’re writing,” I would have met one-on-one or in a small writing circle.
  4. Treat homework as an extracurricular activity: Students in my class voluntarily do homework when we create documentaries.   They take pictures, film interviews, complete community surveys, work on neighborhood ethnographic studies and volunteer with local charities.  The key here is that it is not graded and is treated as an extracurricular activity.
  5. Ultimately, we need to tackle injustice.  If parents can’t be home with kids after school, there is a systemic flaw that needs to be addressed socially, culturally and politically.

*     *     *

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

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About John T. Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.

Discussion

37 thoughts on “Ten Reasons to Abolish Homework (And Five Alternatives)

  1. Alfie Kohn, author of _The Homework Myth_, agrees with you wholeheartedly.

    I’m in a school that tries to align expectations across classrooms. I also work in a place where Amy Chua “Tiger Moms” are not uncommon.

    As policy, teachers are asked to assign work that will take 10 minutes of time per child’s grade level. I’m at peace with that limit, telling parents that homework is about reviewing/reinforcing concepts learned in class and about building homework routines. Parents may choose to assign more if they want, but we’re not responsible to do so.

    Are the parents at your school okay with the “no homework” idea?

    Janet | expateducator.com

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | September 19, 2011, 9:49 am
    • I don’t typically have Tiger Moms, but when I do, I point them to #4. I tell them that I will gladly assign meaningful homework if that’s what they want. When the control is in their hands and when I am willing to work with them, it disarms a potentially volatile situation. Some still have an issue with the style of homework, but when I present the research, they are typically okay with it.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 19, 2011, 10:29 am
  2. Hooray for #6 as a problem and #4 as a solution!! I think your idea of letting students choose their own homework is fabulous. Maybe make every student in class responsible for a quarter-end project of their own design…with weekly progress reports to the class (either written for the introverts or spoken for the extroverts) on how the project is coming along. This process would not only be more intrinsically motivating for the student DOING the project, but the other kids in class could see the different approaches to tackling projects and could incorporate the techniques into their own work.

    Fundamentals would be practiced without feeling like “work” and the result would be kids “revealing” understanding rather than “regurgitating” textbooks. I think this idea is KEY to intrinsically motivating learners and helping kids find the JOY in the learning journey.

    Excellent article!

    Jen Lilienstein
    Founder

    http://www.kidzmet.com

    * * * * *
    Learning is Meant to be Fun!
    * * * * *
    What “drives” our mission?

    http://bit.ly/paEh71

    Posted by kidzmet | September 19, 2011, 9:52 am
    • @Jen Lilienstein, It bothers me when educators use terms like “make every student…” We don’t have to make children do things if learning is child-centered and passion driven. People like learning without be made to do it. What you are proposing is just another type of homework and it defeats the idea that children’s time at home should be theirs to pursue their passions, be with family and friends, play, or work.

      The type of project you propose could be part of the school day, but kids don’t need teachers making them do things during their precious time outside of school.

      Posted by Lisa Velmer Nielsen | September 19, 2011, 1:31 pm
      • Thanks for the feedback, Lisa! Sounds like I came across the wrong way… My main point is that ALL kids should have the opportunity to experience learning as JOYFUL and EXCITING–and if educators can find a way to reinforce & expose their students to the idea that brilliance comes in all kinds of different packages and basics can be learned/practiced as they pursue their own individual passions, all the better.

        If educators have the opportunity to include something like this as a school day exercise, that would be ideal. :)
        Jen

        Posted by kidzmet | September 19, 2011, 1:56 pm
    • I so appreciate that you recognized the introverts in your comment; so many teachers tend to forget them and their unique needs (and it’s unfortunate).

      Posted by AKBrown3 | October 19, 2012, 11:15 pm
  3. I dig it…

    …and if we replace each instance of “homework” with “school” in this post, John, what happens? What remains true? Which statements become broken and invalid? What changes does it all suggest for us and ours?

    All the best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 19, 2011, 6:55 pm
    • I think the key then becomes the question, “How do we shift from work to learning?” People can slam schools all they want. They can slam the system and complain about industrialization. But just as I don’t oppose home learning (as opposed to homework), I don’t oppose an alternative method of education within the confines of the school.

      The social and cultural realities are that my students have parents who work two or three jobs and they simply cannot unschool or homeschool. I don’t get to choose my students nor do they get to choose me. We don’t get to chose standards, either.

      But . . .

      I can do documentaries, independent projects, murals, blogs and all kinds of learning that they find interesting.
      I can advocate a humane, meaningful relationship to replace traditional discipline.
      I can shift my pedagogy to problem-based and project-based.
      I can do away with grades and homework.
      I can encourage free movement.

      Some would point to me and say that it’s simply a “minimum security prison.” And at that point, it’s not worth it. When we disagree on metaphors, it’s pointless to have a conversation. Maybe it is a prison. Maybe. But if it is, I would hope that a seed can grow under the industrial pavement and something organic is happening inside a place that is designed to be artificial. I would hope (and perhaps I am naive) that authentic learning can happen anywhere – even within the prison walls. I would hope that if we are stuck in a box, we can repurpose that box.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 19, 2011, 7:05 pm
    • great thought prompt Chad

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 9:26 am
  4. John, This is a great post, and really empowers teachers who read you avidly. I love how out there you are, and I think this represents an evolution in your stance–just really out there.

    If school is actually to be about learning, which in your classroom you try to make it be, then your homework policy responds to this definition very directly. Visionary leadership here.

    Appreciatively,

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 9:30 am
    • Thanks for the kind words, Kirsten.

      I like the term “evolution” to describe it. It’s been a slow journey for me. Some people take big, bold, radical steps. Mine has been a slower journey. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never felt visionary.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 20, 2011, 11:24 am
  5. Ok- like the sound and thought here- no home work-K-12. Great. What skills do they have when they hit College? Just a thought. KWH

    Posted by KWH | September 20, 2011, 11:08 am
    • I have a few thoughts on this:

      1. Not all students go to college. That’s a reality and not necessarily a bad reality.
      2. If the goal is to prepare students for college, then we need to approach this honestly. Let students choose their classes and give them huge blocks of free time, just like college. Let them eat and drink. Let them have freedom of movement. If students went to a class twice a week for ninety minutes a piece, it would be reasonable to expect an increased amount of homework. However, high school demands that students attend all day and work a double-shift.
      3. Why are we focussing on preparing a student for the future instead of teaching them in the now?
      4. If schools let students complete independent work, they’ll have the skills and the work ethic to do well in college. College was easy for me because I knew how to work on my own, study on my own and think on my own. I knew how to study when it “didn’t count,” and I wasn’t tied down to a behaviorist mentality. Students who are stuck in a homework mindset often find college difficult, because no one is checking them.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 20, 2011, 11:16 am
      • They ( The Students) wouldn’t learn in your college type setting because they’re not having to pay big bucks to go. I’m glad you learned how to work on your own. Who taught you the work ethic? I think most students today in public school don’t have the self discipline or work ethic to succeed without someone else directing them. Yes, that includes homework and practice. Today as I was helping two 6th graders in a “self directed module” neither of them could come up with what 7 times 7 was. This is directly a result of a dependence on calculators and the lack of drill & kill. With articles like this it’s a wonder why people can’t figure out what’s wrong with education.

        Posted by ed | September 20, 2011, 8:29 pm
        • I wouldn’t be so bold as to say “they wouldn’t learn.” If a task is engaging, meaningful and inherently relevant, students will typically work hard to complete it. That’s been my experience. Then again, I work with a low-SES, mostly immigrant population and the desire for an education is seen as an opportunity rather than an entitlement.

          As for me, I don’t know where the work ethic came from. My parents played a role. I also went to college with the desire to learn how to think better about life. Thus, I didn’t really care about grades or even a degree. I just wanted to take some meaningful liberal arts classes.

          Posted by John T. Spencer | September 20, 2011, 8:35 pm
        • Ed, thanks for contributing to the discussion. We have an ethos here of critical friendship, so pushback is important to us – as is civility. “With articles like this…” doesn’t help us move ahead on student learning any more than statements like, “With schools like these…,” or “With [kids/parents/teachers] like these….” John has done amazing work by both traditional and progressive standards, and while there’s no reason for me to presume that you know that, there’s also no reason you should presume to dismiss his article and work.

          I think your questions about where we find our ethics and what we value in learning are important and deserve consideration, but if you’d like us to join you in considering them, please interrogate rather than attack.

          We believe there are several things wrong with public education and we are working in all sorts of ways to find, imagine, propose, and suggest solutions – including solutions that would help kids find relevance and meaning in the maths that can help them. You are completely welcome to join us in that effort.

          Best wishes,
          C

          Posted by Chad Sansing | September 20, 2011, 9:22 pm
        • 7 times 7 that is fun one! 49 if we are in base ten… Did you engage them in way to find it without a calculator or dismiss their lack of recall and decide to judge instead of teach?

          I would also ask, what was the context, why would using a calculator be out of line? The calculator is just a tool, as is memory. We as human have evolved because we have been able to use tools.

          This might be beside your point and I don’t want to dismiss what you believe is important, but also I might suggest that there might be more to your thoughts then you present. What is it that you believe is being lost by drill and kill or the elimination of homework or what is wrong with education? It is a value or a way of life? Our views on education often come from our own person stories and ideas on life, what are your and how does that effect the way you respond to these types of articles?

          I think there is a discussion to have here, I hope you engage.

          I might recommend this video as a push back on the traditional modes of teaching math

          David

          Posted by dloitz | September 20, 2011, 10:14 pm
        • I want to point out a few things:

          1. Drill-and-kill doesn’t teach number sense. Yet, true number sense will lead to the memorization you are seeking (as an effect rather than a cause).
          2. I’ve had a high level of success on the test, despite de-emphasizing it. Good teaching often leads to results.
          3. You make a false assumption that economic rather than social norms will increase a sense of self-efficacy, motivation and mastery. I’ve found the opposite to be true. Give a child a task that is meaningful, challenging, relevant and autonomous and they tend to run with it. If sixth graders are focussing on seven times seven, they need harder work. Have you considered doing remediation through mental math?

          Posted by John T. Spencer | September 20, 2011, 10:20 pm
      • This is exactly what my DD is experiencing because she is doing dual enrollment — classes that meet on the college schedule and lots of “free” time that she has to manage herself. Before that she was in regular high school — boring. Before that she was at home doing virtual courses — lots of emphasis on managing your own schedule. Before that she was unschooling — I guess she’s always unschooling, even though it doesn’t look like it – and that’s all about managing your own time and your own life. Except for the time spent in standard high school, this has been working very well.

        She plans to go to college and, if she goes, I think all these years of self-management will serve her well.

        Nance

        Posted by Nance Confer | September 25, 2011, 6:31 pm
  6. This is a GREAT thread! Thank you!! I am going to rethink how students might live as writers at home, beyond the school day- not as homework, but instead an an opportunity to observe their world, to see their world with new eyes.

    Posted by Kristine | September 25, 2011, 7:07 pm
  7. Another perspective is to see this as School Work that has to be done at Home with an objective perspective-not everything that is wrong in public education is the ‘child’s fault’!
     Children may be busy nevertheless weak literacy levels will hold them back and teaching provides them with their essential skills.
     Family life is more complicated or difficult but deteriorating literacy skills and the knowledge will create a greater systemic injustice and imbalance.
     Children need to learn in school and explore, surely schools have the authority and flexibility to accomplish both tasks.
     Children endure years of stress and frustration alone-at school or home and parents are frustrated when they can see the child is struggling but without reading achievement tests that clearly connect literacy to student learning and achievement outcomes there is no clear way to identify a root cause.
     Children will naturally be curious and get motivated IF they have the basic tools to do any task to the best of their own ability.
     Offering after school support does nothing for those who need help the most. They will suffer in silence rather than be perceived as ‘unable’.
     Bringing school work home is actually a ‘warning sign’ of trouble which is missed due to endless strategic adjusting in the classroom to allow more time or to alter ways of measuring.
     School Work at home is positive when it is used to allow a child time to work on a project after the teacher has reviewed and provided constructive feedback so they can grow not if they are struggling to do the work because literacy levels are declining.

    Posted by Brenda | November 24, 2011, 1:13 pm
  8. see I don’t think homework should be abolished, I think the classes in school should be harder and that the homework should be less, but more related and meaningful. I’m a freshman in college and during my senior year in high school, actually, all of high school, I found myself bored in class. I was taking the highest level offered in most classes but in the ones I wasn’t, I found myself working ahead of the class (especially in math) and working on that night’s homework, usually getting it done or coming close to getting it done. during class. My teachers mostly needed to reteach things in class the next day that was the last night’s homework on the previous day’s lesson because the rest of the class didn’t remember how to do it because they didn’t do the homework. Certain classes should have homework, but the homework should be limited per grade. I agree that there is a lot of homework given, but what happened to the unspoken rule of 10 minutes of homework times the grade level? My freshman brother certainly never had an hour and a half of homework every night. it was more like 10 minutes. This could be why teachers waste so much class time reteaching every day. Maybe if students took a little more self responsibility to do their homework and go to be before midnight, the Chinese and Europeans wouldn’t be surpassing us.

    Sorry about the rambling, I had to respond and have no idea if what I wrote will make sense to others

    Posted by Sarah | December 11, 2011, 7:56 pm
  9. This article is so exciting and challenging, and is pushing me to think in a lot of new ways–both about homework and schooling, as Chad so astutely pointed out. I particularly appreciate how you link homework to inequities which already exist within our communities, and your ideas about coming up with self-directed, creative and non-mandatory learning both in and after class. A question I have is how do we implement and advocate for this kind of learning and structure in the face of professional pressure and regulation which are strictly opposed to it? When we are told that our role as educators is to oversee international economic competition, what steps do we take to create learning spaces which battle those motives, and which are open to the radical suggestions you make in this article?

    Posted by rad fag | December 28, 2011, 2:21 pm
  10. This is great. I love the alternatives. Education truly is everywhere.

    Posted by justinstrudler | November 28, 2012, 12:50 am
  11. Interesting and thoughtful article. Definitely agree that there is little utility to recreating school at home and that homework can teach bad habits. However, I don’t believe it is an all or nothing situation. There are certain types of assignments that are probably well-suited for homework because the provide for individual initiative and can be done without the time compression of a busy school day. Additionally, targeted, thoughtful homework will allow a teach to provide an individualized learning opportunity for students as opposed to the “class” environment.

    Additionally, I get concerned about the inequity point. I totally agree that more resources should be provided to the school and that the school should provide extra assistance to students who structurally/individually need help. However, I get very concerned if a teacher withholds an opportunity or assignment that would benefit one of her/his students on the ground that the particular student has an advantage. The focus of teaching should be to maximize the experience for each student. The clear structural problems we have in society should not be used to withhold an educational opportunity from any student.

    Posted by James Yoon | January 20, 2013, 10:26 am
  12. For elementary school children, I agree wholeheartedly. These kids must do way too much paperwork during school already.

    For middle and high school students, especially those who are college bound, they need to learn how to manage their time at home effectively and do need homework. They also need to be taught good note taking and study skills to succeed in college. Thanks for the article.

    Posted by Julie smith | January 20, 2013, 2:42 pm
  13. This is a great essay. I love Waldorf schools. They typically do not require homework, at least in the lower grades. They feel play is kids’ work. I heard a Waldorf educator once speak about education as “lighting the fire, not filling the bucket.” They usually don’t give grades, either. What I noticed about my own kids was that they always tried to do their best work in our Waldorf school, but when they went to the public high school, they would just work enough for an A and then stop. The HS teachers always like the Waldorf students because they have not lost their curiosity and love of learning. I think public schools gradually kill kids’ interest in learning. It’s really sad to see so many young people turned off and never realizing their potential.

    Posted by Phyllis Mervine | January 25, 2013, 2:14 am
  14. Reblogged this on Tonia Allen Gould, Children's Book and YA Author and commented:
    My son has started school today at 8:10 A.M., got home from school at 3:10 PM, had a quick snack and then started homework. He just finished up around 7:00 PM. That’s nearly an eleven-hour work day! Most adults only work an eight hour day. What on God’s green Earth are we putting our nation’s children through? Or, does all this homework maybe have to do with STAR Testing numbers and a school’s coveted API score, ensuring your children outperform another school’s children? I don’t know, but I’m impressed by one teacher’s goal to abolish homework.

    Posted by TAG | November 7, 2013, 11:25 pm

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