10 Reasons Homework Should Be Mandatory
It seems we’ve entered a period in which the homework debate is swinging to one side once again. Calls for homework to be banned far outweigh those extolling its merits, something undoubtedly shaped by the negative personal experiences that many writers and commentators had with it at school.
The well-rehearsed arguments these people use tend to focus on the same issues: homework carries no academic benefits, instills in kids an inherent dislike of education, takes time away from personal extracurricular development, and benefits the privileged few who can afford extra tuition. All of these, however, are demonstrably untrue. Having to complete homework during your school years deepens your understanding of a subject. It places the responsibility for learning on you, as the individual. And it teaches fundamental organizational skills that can be refined and carried throughout life.
Perhaps the most helpful addition to the homework debate would be to suggest that it shouldn’t be black and white. Making homework mandatory would indeed be beneficial, but only if homework is reformed, targeted and modernized. Likewise, we should put effort towards identifying those who would benefit from having to do homework. Indeed, those who demand an outright ban often fail to differentiate between age groups. But while the benefits of assigning elementary school kids homework may be debatable, for high school students preparing for college, they are not.
Homework is an invaluable preparatory tool; one that teaches discipline, organization and, if assigned correctly, one that can make kids fall in love for a subject through increased and detailed exposure to it. Here are 10 of the most important reasons why its prescription in schools should be mandatory.
10It improves grades
At Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary High School in Montebello, California, Principal David Chambers implements a very simple policy. He makes homework mandatory, requiring his students to complete it for the next day, either before or after school.
The idea first came about when Chambers was tasked with monitoring the records of the school’s numerous failing students. Noticing that many of them were receiving F grades in several subjects, Chambers decided that decisive measures had to be taken. So he set up a simple but effective system involving minimum school administration while maximizing the performance of his students. Students (and their parents) are notified that they must attend a study hall session in which to complete their homework. Teachers in charge of overseeing these twice-daily study sessions receive a stipend while a college student is tasked with the hour-long task of inputting the data into the school’s database.
Chambers’ mandatory homework policy is based on the theory that academic achievement increases the more you expose students to their subject material. In tandem with other evidence, the school’s academic record has so far proven this to be true. Firstly, students have seen an average GPA rise of half a point. Secondly, the school’s honor roll has gone from comprising 32 percent of the student body to 50 percent. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the number of students receiving failing grades has fallen by about a half, compared to before the policy’s introduction. But a rise in grade point averages is not the only argument for requiring students to spend more time with their books.
9It exists in other countries, just not in the same form
The Internet abounds with arguments stating that there’s a correlation between the amount of homework a county’s children complete and the academic success they enjoy. But this is to use statistics as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than for illumination. When people cite statistics comparing the grades of US students with those of other countries, what they’re neglecting to say is that kids in many other countries voluntarily study at home or elsewhere and revise what’s been covered in class.
Take Japan, for instance. A Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) study ranked Japan fourth and the US tenth in science scores, despite the fact that Japan sets comparatively low amounts of homework. This statistic would seem like a compelling argument for abandoning homework in the US if we didn’t consider unquantifiable cultural factors. But these factors exist, and the fact that Japanese kids take it upon themselves to complete homework that their teachers don’t set is more a truism than a cultural stereotype.
Instead of attending after school sports training or returning to their PS4s, many Japanese kids attend juku – or cram schools after the obligatory school day has finished. These schools exist because the Japanese education system guarantees neither graduation from junior high to high school nor graduation to college. Juku therefore make up a vital component of a highly competitive academic environment in which a large amount of work is completed. In essence it’s homework, just not homework assigned by their daytime schoolteacher.
8Students can go into greater depth with a topic
It’s important to clarify that it’s not the amount of homework a student completes that determines their grades, but the deeper understanding of the material they gain from having completed it. And this, in itself, is a compelling reason for its continued and mandatory implementation in schools across the country.
This isn’t to say that obliging students to spend more time with a subject will necessarily have the desired effect. Students can, of course, be put off a subject for a variety of reasons such as the quality of their teacher of the attitude of their peers. But the fact is that children have an inherent love of learning, and it’s certainly more useful to start from the position that children who spend more time with a subject are likely to accrue a deeper knowledge and have a higher likelihood of a developing a love for it.
The most important thing for teachers to do is to make sure that specific, marked homework doesn’t introduce anything new. Instead if should offer an opportunity to review the class material. Indeed, these teacher responses testify the value of providing extended practice for subjects already covered in the classroom and show how homework helps consolidate and strengthen a student’s understanding of the topic. Children are, of course, at liberty to grow their knowledge in other ways: through reading, socializing, even playing educational video games. But in terms of school homework, more often than not the introduction of a new curricular topic outside the classroom is counterproductive.
7It’s useful for teachers
Used in the correct way, homework provides teachers with a useful tool for evaluating what their students have and haven’t understood from their lessons. Though there’s little wriggle room in today’s rigid curricula, homework at least gives teachers an indication of topics that might need a little more attention. But it goes further than just this. Effective teachers are also able to set homework that will open up the way for targeted and specific feedback which goes beyond a mere check mark.
Another benefit of homework being used in this way is that it teaches responsibility. Provided you have a quality teacher who’s able to highlight and target a specific area, the onus falls on the student. If they’re told they have to improve something particular – spelling, for example – and continue to be careless or inattentive, this is something for which they must ultimately take responsibility when grading becomes involved.
It’s vital, therefore, to make sure that teachers assign homework that is beneficial to their students’ learning needs and don’t just assign homework as a matter of school policy – setting it for the sake of setting it. An effective teacher should instead be able to use homework as a tool that targets specific areas where students are struggling.
Homework, when considered in this way, is not the educational evil it’s so often made out to be. Instead of advocating its removal, perhaps we should address some of the more important issues: class-sizes, under- (or disproportionate-) resourcing and the insistence that teachers keep up with increasingly pointless and arbitrary targets.
6It involves parents with a child’s development
It isn’t the parents’ responsibility to work through the homework’s content with their child. It is their responsibility, however, to facilitate good learning habits that are conducive to the homework being completed. This isn’t to say that a parent can’t also be active in their child’s learning by helping them. But parental responsibility – instead of lying with completing graded exercises that will harm more than help their child’s academic development – should lie with innovating new and exciting ways of learning. This fantastic article, The New Homework, outlines a dozen ways a parent can help nurture their child’s intellectual curiosity and adapt homework to the Information Age.
Among the activities it suggests is getting your child to research a controversial topic (they suggest global warming). After googling ten websites for information, you get your child to identify the site’s author or sponsor and try to decide on the site’s propagandistic aspect or bias on a scale of low to high. This activity, in theory, should open your child’s mind at an early age to the interests that lie behind the masses of information they’ll be exposed to throughout their life. In sum, it’ll teach them to think critically.
Another might be to ask your child to come up with a topic they’re particularly interested in and turn it into an extended project, to research over the course of a few months. This will teach them the value of developing a deep, ever-expanding knowledge of a topic, and teach them the foundations of keeping and developing the later skills and hobbies that will shape their non-professional life. Just as importantly, it’ll do something to reverse the tide of instant gratification that seems to be submerging most of today’s younger generation.
5It can be fun
With recent technological developments, teachers are no longer so limited in the type of homework they can assign. Today’s teacher has on hand a wide choice of educational tools at their disposal: websites, apps and software that speak more to the current generation than photocopied worksheets and dry textbooks ever could. Let’s take an example.
A student has to revise for an upcoming Spanish exam. They’re told to go away and revise, in particular, irregular verbs. In the past – short of being able to go away and immerse themself intensively in a Spanish-speaking environment – the only way of doing this was to sit over a long, repetitive and completely disengaging verb list.
A modern language teacher might instead assign an hour on the language learning website Memrise. With this website, users memorize words in a gamefied context using the scientifically proven and effective technique of spaced repetition. More than this, users are encouraged to create visual memes for each word they learn, strengthening the memory and making it easier to recall.
Or there’s another increasingly well known website, Duolingo. Duolingo develops language learning through a series of translation-based challenges, again in a gamefied context. It encourages regular participation by offering a number of points-based incentives and is usable in a version specifically designed for teachers setting homework.
Both Memrise and Duolingo have been developed as apps, downloadable straight to your smartphone or tablet. This allows the teacher greater flexibility, and means that with a larger arsenal at their disposal, their homework can be more fun, engaging and targeted.
4It teaches personal responsibility
The benefits in terms of personal responsibility that homework has on children are well known. Instead of focusing on them here, I’d rather go beyond the school gates to talk about some of the longer-term benefits that carry over into adult life.
Even for those who argue – incorrectly, in my opinion – that school doesn’t equip you for later life in a practical sense, you have to concede that homework does. By this I mean it teaches us that many of the administrative-type things we don’t necessarily want to do must be done on our own time. This is especially the case for deadlined tasks like job applications. And the way that students learn and refine this discipline comes from having completed homework at school.
Homework’s lessons also extend to within the world of work. People working in mid- to high-powered jobs often have to take their work home with them (although the term homework isn’t used, presumably on account of its infantile connotations). But even those who don’t have to write up reports, prepare for presentations or sales pitches or attend a company’s books find themselves facing a growing amount of paperwork to be completed not in the work office but in the home study.
Daily administrative tasks, like keeping track of your personal finances, filing your tax returns and paying your bills are an ever-present feature of modern life. Schoolwork and, more specifically, homework equips people with the skills to do this – if not in terms of technical ability then at least in terms of personal discipline and responsibility.
3It equips students for college
In the working world, there’s no one to stand over you while you work towards a deadline. If you don’t perform (or repeatedly underperform), you’ll be left to face the consequences. The same applies for the step before – college. Having left the safety and supervision of the classroom, students are quick to learn that there’s no one to hold their hand throughout the semester and supervise them while they work. The onus, in short, is entirely on them.
This is the issue alluded to by high school biology teacher Andrea Townsend in this Atlantic article: A Teacher’s Defense of Homework. Owing to the practical nature of her subject, she believes that the best way to prepare her students is to spend as many school hours in the lab as possible while supplementing this with homework that involves reading and completing scientific assignments. Townsend does this in the belief that setting supplementary homework of this kind is the best way to prepare her students for the academic rigors of college. And it may be that the need is greater than ever: the Center for Public Education has recently reported that two-fifths of college freshmen are academically unprepared for the demands of college.
One of the most important advantages that homework offers isn’t one that can necessarily be quantified however. It doesn’t relate to test scores, grade point averages or degree classifications. Instead it relates to the ability to continue challenging yourself academically, intellectually, and, most importantly, recreationally.
2And it equips people for lifelong learning
The argument I’m going to make here is not so much about homework in the prescribed sense (filling out worksheets and equations, for example), but about the continuation of education at home. As a society, we’re dedicating less time to educating ourselves through the best knowledge building habit we posses: reading.
James Patterson’s recent article, entitled The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking, argues just this. We are, according to the prolific author, at an all time low, with the average American spending less than 10 minutes a day reading for personal interest. There’s a demographic pattern: the over 75s are more likely to invest about an hour a day in literature, while those between the ages of 35 to 44 are reading for a troubling 12 minutes a day at the weekends, and 10 minutes a day during the week.
The significance of this is that we’re damaging our capacity for long form thinking. We live in a society where we’re bombarded with brevity: snappy tweets; Facebook posts; Instagram hashtags and short, vacuous, ‘articles.’ If you’re reading this – an article of around 3,000 words in total – and you’ve got to this stage, I’m being completely sincere in saying you should give yourself a pat on the back.
But the fight back has to start inside (or, technically, outside) the classroom. Teachers and parents must start encouraging their children to read, and to read voraciously: to devour whatever literature they can, to assimilate as much knowledge into their sponge-like minds as possible and to learn to think critically and question. Fail to do this, and one thing’s for certain – we’ll be raising the barriers to intellectual progress for generations to come.
1It’s here to stay.
Although a glance over Google may throw up the odd instance of a school or small community banning homework, it seems highly unlikely that an outright ban of homework will be implemented anytime soon. This is because the often-weak arguments against it have yet to be commonly accepted amongst politicians and policymakers. In fact, even where influential figures wade into the debate, the strength of the status quo often prevents radical changes from being made.
A few years back, the current French President Francois Hollande made an address that identified homework not only as fundamentally anti-egalitarian, but as a root factor in establishing inequality. But as there’s no evidence to suggest this is the case, Hollande’s proposal failed. In fact, trying to draw up a comparison between countries with lower social inequality and lower homework rates is a completely thankless task. Besides, as we’ve seen in the case of Japan, countries have different ways of setting extra work anyway.
Perhaps the most important reason why homework won’t be banned, however, is that it’s become a culturally institutionalized part of life for children and teenagers. In his recent publication The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn suggested that a large part of homework’s function was to occupy our children’s free time; to combat our inherent mistrust of them by keeping them busy and engaged in something worthwhile. While Kohn’s negative view is too cynical, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that adults view homework as an orthodoxy – a right of passage children need to go through, just as their parents did, to be able to one day follow in their footsteps. Until this deeply entrenched idea begins to change, homework – like death and taxes – will remain a fact of life.
There are numerous academic advantages that come with students being set and made to complete homework. It’s been proven to quantifiably raise academic achievement and, in some cases, turn failing students into thriving students. There are statistics to show that certain countries that don’t assign homework enjoy higher rates of academic success, particularly in math and science. But these statistics ignore cultural aspects; namely that in certain eastern countries homework exists, just in a form that requires its completion in another school, not the home.
But it would be wrong to only consider the benefits of homework in terms of grades. One of the most important things homework does is it forces kids to spend more time with a subject – something which, if done correctly, can lead to them developing a love for it. Cultivate this and you have a career, if not a lifelong passion. This only works, however, if the right kind of homework is set. And while there are many who’d advocate its mandatory implementation, there are few who’d suggest that it isn’t in need of an overhaul.
The way to go about getting our kids to love homework isn’t by setting masses of pointless, time-consuming workbook exercises. Instead, we should exploit the pace at which technology is adapting to every aspect of our daily lives and technologically modernize our homework accordingly. There are already some examples of how we can do this – websites like Duolingo and Memrise, for example – and the coming years will undoubtedly bear witness to more. And it’s crucial we do this now. For if we can teach our kids the benefits of homework, and the personal organizational skills and joy for lifelong learning that come with it, we’ll be putting this generation in the best possible position to one day reap the rewards.