Homework. Almost every student has had to endure it, and about that same number has complained about it all the way through – myself included. For these countless victims, homework, after a while, can begin to feel like a Groundhog Day of stress. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, this continuous cycle of anguish, worry, and sleep deprivation may seem to be repeating itself without end. Yet, while it may sound exaggerated or hyperbolic, such feelings are entirely present – and justified. Even today, beginning in the earliest elementary years, students are burdened with the stress of daily schoolwork. There’s that fourth-grader, who has to stay up late just to finish that lab. Or that second-grader, who has to finish that math worksheet at 10, even though he has to wake up early the next morning. Or that first-grader, who still has that cityscape diorama to finish. Or even that eleventh grader, who has their first SAT on Saturday but still has that AP Physics homework they still haven’t finished yet. These are all the faces of an increasingly dire educational dilemma, as educators, experts, and parents begin to weigh whether or not all of this stress-inducing, sleep-stealing, time-consuming work is really worth all the sacrifices being made.
As students’ and families’ lives become increasingly busy in today’s fast-paced world, the debate over the long-held, unquestioned tradition of homework is becoming now more urgent than ever before. Experts are now beginning to consider whether social lives, quality family time, and extra time to partake in hobbies may be more important than completing twenty-seven different algebra worksheets. While some continue to contend that homework is beneficial in terms of students’ academic achievement, new research is beginning to show otherwise – that the detrimental impacts of homework on mental health, as well as it’s essential prohibition of other out-of-school activities, might outweigh any positive impacts of assigning homework.
One of the arguments central to homework advocates’ message is that homework benefits students academically – that is, that doing the supplemental work at home would give children a significant boost to performance in school, and, therefore, lead to an increase in grades. Janine Bempechat, in her The Case For (Quality) Homework, writes that these arguments are founded upon long-cited research demonstrating that there is some correlation between homework and academic achievement. Specifically, Bempechat explains, there have been some studies carried out over the years which depended upon correlational research between homework and student achievement, due to the extensive obstacles posed to “randomly assigning students to homework/no-homework conditions.” However, that research, she adds, is inconclusive, and there isn’t enough solid evidence demonstrating any causality between homework and academic growth, especially at the elementary level. This can best be summed up by Lyn Corno, an educational psychologist cited by Bempechat – “Homework is a complicated thing.”
On the other hand, updated, rigorous research regarding the connection between homework and student achievement is now beginning to reveal somewhat of a different story: In terms of academic growth, students of all grade levels – elementary school students in particular – really don’t stand to gain all that much from homework. Jay Mathews, in his Washington Post article Homework Doesn’t Do Younger Kids Much Good. So Why Is It Still Assigned? cites such research. One of the leading scholars on homework and education as a whole, Duke University psychologist Harris Cooper, examined a vast array of studies on the issue, reaching one main conclusion: that “for elementary school students, the effect of homework on achievement is trivial, if it exists at all,” while somewhat stronger in grades seven through twelve. For any homework to be effective, Cooper maintains that it should be short, and should allow for students to succeed relatively quickly, without any struggle. For example, rather than having hours of textbook work, students could read, for enjoyment, for a certain amount of time every day, benefitting from a balance of moderate schoolwork and the more creative activities which they would now have time for. All of this begs the question: Why overwhelm students with multitudes of worksheets, projects, and textbook work when a moderate amount of reading – which would then allow kids to be kids, sparking their imaginations and encouraging them to participate in other activities – would be even more academically engaging and effective?
Well, homework advocates may answer this question with another frequently made argument – that homework is, generally, not harmful to the mental health of students. Those who support homework may even go so far as to claim that completing homework, in itself, provides benefits to the mental well-being of children. Katie Russel, in her article for The Telegraph, Does Homework Help Primary School Children Or Is It Unnecessary Stress? highlights the view that homework can help students’ mental development. More specifically, Russel lays out the case that homework can move students to gain independence and confidence. Edward Balfour, a principal at Beechwood Park School, is quoted in the article as saying that homework is “part and parcel of developing independent learning,” with such challenging work helping “towards developing independence and confidence in young children in preparation for adulthood.” However, the vast majority of evidence has come to show that in most instances, this is simply not the case. How is it possible for students to feel independent, curious, and confident when they don’t even have time to partake in encouraging, quality family time; when they can’t explore the world around them and gain independence through new, interesting experiences; and when they’re always anxious about finishing all their homework in the little time they have?
In the CNN article Your Kid Is Right, Homework Is Pointless. Here’s What You Should Do Instead, Elissa Strauss makes this point. With the high-stakes climate in the academic world that exists today, children – and parents, for that matter – simply have too much on their plates, often leading to unnecessary stress, feelings of inadequacy, and unhappy, busy lifestyles. Homework is one of the main contributors to that problem, Strauss argues, and to eliminate the issue, schools and educators should eliminate the source. As Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, is quoted in the piece as saying, “Kids should have a chance just to be kids and do things they enjoy, particularly after spending six hours a day in school.” The replacement for homework? Constructive, quality time with family and friends, with a specific focus on ensuring that parents give their kids the attention and support they need. Cooking, reading, and playing board games, as well as fun, educational activities that might require “logic or analytical skills” – such as playing a game of chess – have shown to be effective, beneficial alternatives to traditional homework. Not only do they provide children with many of the same skills as homework does, such as perseverance and stamina, but such activities also don’t carry the extra baggage of homework, lacking the stress and mental health impacts that often go along with it. It only makes sense – if we remove the source of students’ stress, and allow them to live happier and healthier lifestyles, they, in turn, will have the motivation to aim higher and succeed academically.
Homework. It’s an issue that has gone on for too long, and, at this point, is almost ingrained into our society. For generations, students and parents have privately bemoaned it. Yet, for just as long, only a tiny fraction have spoken out about the extent to which the excessive amounts of homework have disrupted their lives. But it’s not too late for change. If parents, students, and educators make their opinions heard, a flawed educational system – which may not be working for all – has the opportunity to change for the better, allowing students to receive the education they need and deserve. If substantial changes are made which improve the quality of homework, while reducing the often excessive quantity – or homework is eliminated altogether – then maybe kids can explore the world around them, or spend time with their family and friends, or learn in a way that best suits them. Then maybe kids can start to be kids. Even on a school night.