Head of School Blog

Homework: The Debate Continues

Jill Singleton
Ask three educators whether they think homework is a valuable tool for promoting academic achievement, and you’ll likely get three different answers – “Yes,” “No,” and “I’m not sure.” Ask any three parents and you’ll likely get similar answers. Why the lack of consensus? This is probably because the research on the value of homework is contradictory and inconclusive.

The debate about the importance of homework is not a 21st century phenomenon. As early as the 1880’s, Civil War hero and president of the Boston School Board Francis Walker was quoted as saying, “Over and over again have I had to send my own children, in spite of their tears and remonstrances, to bed, long after the assigned tasks had ceased to have any educational value and had become the means of nervous exhaustion and agitation, highly prejudicial to body and mind.”

While several studies suggest that there is a positive relationship between homework and achievement, other researchers and academics refute the findings and/or the methodology by which the results were obtained. Proponents of homework claim increased academic achievement as well as the following benefits: strengthening the connection between home and school; building stamina for increasing academic demands; teaching self-discipline; fulfilling the expectation of parents and the public; and increasing opportunities for learning without increasing the hours spent in school. On the flip side, homework critics claim the following negative impacts: the burden it places on parents; the stress it creates for children; the conflict it creates within families; and the loss of opportunities to engage in other meaningful activities.

Like many polarizing issues, I can’t help but feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I asked teachers at All Saints what they viewed the value of homework to be, and received the following responses. “An analogy I share with (my students) is that homework is like working out. In school you learn how to do something with your ‘trainer.’ At home you practice by yourself to get stronger.” Another teacher responded this way: “I think homework teaches a sense of responsibility beyond the classroom, encouraging students to take risks when they are challenged–to make a mistake or to be uncertain of something is okay. Also, sometimes in class something seems clear but when you have to revisit it in homework the student realizes that he/she has not really grasped it.” Still another said this, “(In my class), as in all grades, homework is a reflection and reinforcement about what is happening in the classroom. It gives parents a glimpse of what is being taught day to day.”

Although not all teachers at All Saints agree on the precise value of homework, all agree on one point – homework should be completed by students and not revised and edited for correctness by their parents. Taking her “training” analogy one step further, the first teacher referenced above elaborated, “If a parent or other adult corrects the work or helps to the point where they are actually doing it for the student, the student will not get stronger in the subject. If a student cannot get through his/her homework alone, it is a signal that the work is not ‘just right’ for him or her and that is important for the trainer to know. Just like it is when working out you are supposed to sweat a little and get a little out of breath; but it is not okay to be in pain or to suffer.” Another teacher cautioned parents against rushing to explain a homework question to their child when asked. “I would encourage students (not parents) to put a note on their homework regarding what they did not grasp. Also when a student says to a parent, ‘I don’t understand the question,’ I would ask that the parent have the child read it aloud (and most times that makes the child actually process the words and most of the time they do “get it”’). Sometimes we just rush to explain when we should let them give it another shot.”

As outlined in our Parent Handbook, teachers at All Saints avoid excessive homework in order to encourage time for extracurricular activities, reflection, creative play, and quality family interaction. Assigned work is designed to accomplish the following:
1) Reinforce skills and knowledge that require practice;
2) Bridge the gap between home and school; and
3) Encourage reading.

We also follow the popular guideline of roughly 10 minutes per grade level, with a maximum of 60-75 minutes for an Eighth Grader. I would add to this list of reasons, the development of self-discipline and a sense of ownership for one’s work. One of the points in our mission statement says we seek to develop “The discipline and integrity to be successful in school and in life.” Homework, in my opinion, has the potential to nurture this discipline by providing the child with a daily ritual of sitting down and spending some time reflecting on the concepts being explored in class and practicing the skills that were introduced. I also believe the child has the opportunity to develop integrity by doing his/her best work by him/herself. This means asking oneself whether one’s best effort was expended, or whether more time should be devoted to a task.

So the next time you’re supervising your child’s homework, try to avoid the temptation of becoming a homework partner or overseer. Let your child develop the discipline and the integrity to face this challenge on his or her own. Don’t expect perfection and know that our teachers don’t either. All teachers at All Saints are very well-versed on what their students’ work should look like. Rushing to “help” may have the adverse effect of sending a message to your child that he/she is not capable of completing the work independently, that his/her work is not good enough, and will also inhibit a teacher from knowing when some extra teaching or reinforcement may be needed. Perhaps the greatest benefit that homework has to offer is the child’s sense of accomplishment for completing the work “all by myself!” As parents and teachers know there is no greater joy than realizing we are successfully working ourselves out of a job; perhaps stepping out of the way now will pave the way for students to chart and own their individual paths to futures we can’t even begin to know or imagine.

To read more about the homework debate, check out this article: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar07/vol64/num06/The-Case-For-and-Against-Homework.aspx

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? I’d love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com