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Homework Wars

 Even experts don’t agree on whether it’s necessary

The new school year has begun and in millions of homes across the country so have the homework wars, those almost nightly battles between parents and children, between expectation and experience, between philosophy and reality.

Does homework help kids learn? How much is too much? What happened to the freedom to enjoy childhood and to develop talents, interests and even patterns of imagination? What about intrusions into what otherwise could be meaningful family time?

While answers to these questions are elusive, they also reflect a debate that has raged throughout educational circles for the past two decades. On one hand, many professors, researchers and theorists hold that homework in the elementary years is at best only marginally helpful to student learning and achievement. On the other hand, public policy-makers are very wary about heeding the research and seeming to be soft on academic rigor.

Homework tips for parents

I would caution parents to be careful about equating lots of homework with academic strength because quality matters more than quantity.

I’ve worked with great teachers who assign huge amounts of homework and great teachers who assign very little homework. I’ve also worked with ineffective teachers who assign huge amounts of homework and ineffective teachers who assign very little homework. What’s most important is that the homework engages the child to learn outside of school. Writer Daniel Pink has studied motivation and has concluded that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the key for all learners to really become engaged with whatever they are trying to learn. If we have some control over the tasks, if it’s clear to us that we can improve our skills or performance by doing the work and if the work has meaning to us, it is likely that we will be motivated to do it.

Here’s Pink’s recipe for effective homework assignments.

Does the assignment offer students some autonomy over how and when to do this work? Does the assignment promote mastery by offering a novel, engaging task (as opposed to reformulation of something already covered in class)? Do the students understand the purpose of the assignment? That is, can they see how doing this additional activity at home contributes to the larger enterprise in which the class is engaged?

If teachers ask themselves these questions as they are composing assignments, they and their students will likely reap the rewards that come from great student engagement. Purposeful homework can include introducing new content, practicing a skill that students can do independently but not yet fluently, such as math facts, or providing opportunities to elaborate on or explore topics covered in class.

The 10-minute rule is a good rule of thumb. It holds that an appropriate number of minutes for a child to spend on homework (outside of reading) is 10 minutes times the student’s grade. For example, second graders should spend about 20 minutes per night doing homework, fourth graders 40 minutes and so on.

Parental involvement is positive if it is interactive. Parents should be given clear guidelines that spell out their role. Teachers should not expect parents to act as experts regarding content or as teachers of the content. Parents can be helpful if they ask questions that help students clarify or summarize what they have learned. Assignments that require children to explain their written work or other products completed at school to their parents or that require students to interview their parents about their experience or opinions have the potential to be very positive. Many of these assignments cause students and their parents to engage in conversations that relate to the academic curricula, thus extending the learning. They also can produce genuine conversations that feel more natural and less like schooling.

Too much homework, especially compliance-oriented assignments that do not provide some measure of autonomy, mastery and purpose can be counterproductive to learning.

There’s a debate because there are no easy solutions to the homework dilemma. I do believe in homework, but I also advocate for a more thoughtful and deliberate approach.


Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a Pre-K3 – 12th grade independent school in Land O’Lakes that serves families from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando counties. Visit www.academyatthelakes.org for more information.

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