Revisiting the Homework Wars

With another school year in full swing, an old educational topic has come in for continued debate: homework.

When a colleague and I wrote a book two years ago questioning the value of homework and suggesting alternatives, many professional educators labeled us as dangerous radicals. USA Weekend ran a feature article attacking us. Nonetheless, the article's own poll and accompanying reader commentary indicated widespread doubts about homework.

Even as some schools and parents seek more homework for their children, others are organizing to forge constructive alternatives to the practice. Homework is a debate unlikely to die soon not merely because of the pedagogical issues it raises but because it touches and grows out of broader cultural anxieties about the sanctity of work itself.

Kathy Seal, co-author of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, has hinted at some of the central issues in this debate:

"Though homework has a clear benefit in high school, there is no research showing that any amount of it advances the education of elementary school kids."

Seal's work goes on to invoke a broader moral vision, the importance of play and pleasure in human life, especially in sustaining the very core ideals of a culture.

Her larger moral arguments are important because proponents of elementary school homework now like to make a sweeping moral argument of their own. They claim, with little proof, that homework may not produce better test scores for grade school students, but it is the only way to sow good study habits.

Seal counters that "when kids play, they are free to experiment and to learn from their experiences without worrying about how well they're performing. That's important, because research has shown decisively that that when children study because they enjoy it, their learning is deeper, richer and longer-lasting."

Seal is right in her critique of elementary school homework, but even she is too charitable toward high school homework. Research we conducted in Maine shows that homework assignments have played a major role in high school dropouts among disadvantaged families.

In interviews with dropouts as part of a study for the Maine Department of Education, we asked students if there was a moment when they knew they were going to leave school. Every teenager cited tales of the crushing burdens of homework in the context of substandard housing, poor educational resources, and inadequate adult assistance. Teachers and other counselors working with these students confirmed such stories.

Contemporary learning theory also suggests that homework as conventionally organized is a poor way to advance student learning. Learning theorists recognize that not only do students progress at different ages, they also do not all go through one invariant set of stages. Just as not all students are naturally right handed and should not be made to write in this fashion, distinctive learning styles are developed and may well persist over a whole lifetime. In such a context, it is important for teachers to recognize not only when students are having problems but also why.

A modest amount of independent work, say two hours a day, is appropriate for high school students, but all children should have equal resources for such independent work and all should enjoy substantial free time. Teachers or other adults with adequate resources and experience in assessing individual learning styles should be available to aid our children in independent projects.

Many educators are now also coming to recognize the importance of offering children and parents various forms of non-academic enrichment on a year-round basis. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson of Johns Hopkins University, point out in their study of children's academic progress: "Better-off children in the study more often went to city and state parks, fairs, or carnivals and took day or overnight trips. They also took swimming, dance, and music lessons; visited local parks, museums, science centers and zoos; and more often went to the library in summer."

It is also curious that US educational and business leaders embrace longer homework in part by citing the Japanese example. They argue that Japan has enjoyed economic success because its schools turn out workers with strong basic skills, primarily through an emphasis on work. Yet that economy today faces severe problems and even Japan now has growing doubts about its work and school practices. Some of its business and educational leaders now concede that workaholism is not merely a psychological problem but a barrier to innovation. Japanese production line workers may be more facile in taking math tests than in redesigning existing products or national economic priorities. Many Japanese leaders worry that workers spend so much of their lives in narrow cognitive tasks that they are unlikely to be broadly creative. Even the Japanese Educational ministry recognizes that the emphasis on long school hours must be re-examined.

It may well be the case, subversive not only to the Right but to even much of the Left, that the importance of play is culturally under-appreciated.

Not only grade schoolers, but high school students and adult workers deserve time for the kind of unstructured play that fosters creativity and sustains a life-long interest in learning.

Work as the solution to all our woes is reform on the cheap and at the expense of all. Children, like all of us, are more than recipients of school knowledge. They are siblings and community members, budding artists, musicians and athletes. They are natural inventors and scientists and spiritual beings. Do we allow our children to exercise these selves?

John Buell is co- author, with Etta Kralovec, of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning [Paperback, Beacon Press].

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