Top 10 Reasons Homework Should Be Banned
Homework is one of unique evils that all of us can relate to. Whether it plagued our evenings or weekends – or, for those unfortunate enough to be homeschooled, every waking hour, – for each of us homework evokes an individualized and vivid set of memories. Mine tend to consist of horrendously early mornings spent either trying to disentangle apparently impossible mathematical equations, or frantically scribbling a series of unsubstantiated (though passably well-articulated) ideas and interpretations for a humanities assignment. On a particularly bad morning, I’d have to do both.
Looking back, constantly leaving my homework until the last minute was no more than a matter of course. For a guitar-obsessed teenager who would invest more time in the PlayStation than in any given chemistry or biology textbook, homework was always going to take a back seat, as it did amongst my peers. Indeed, I look back with fondness on friends whose constant failure to even attempt the set homework was matched only by the constantly poor excuses they offered to the teacher: ‘some homeless guy on the bus’ (who presumably had a profound interest in long-shore drift) ‘stole it’ remains my personal favorite.
As a teacher my relationship with homework has taken on a new dynamic. Working in Italy, I am obliged to set (and of course grade) increasingly large amounts of homework: most of which is completed by my female students, little of which is even attempted by my male students. While the dynamic has changed, however, my view has not. Homework does not help. Instead of contributing to learning, it only threatens to blacken the association young people have with education. Here are 10 reasons it should be banned.
10It encourages conflict
The sheer fact that the Internet is abound with websites trying to resolve homework-related conflicts and advising parents on how to get their children to do sit down and do it clearly highlights its inherent dislike by children. Parents are, however, in a difficult situation when it comes to appeasing the school and enforcing its completion.
For those who believe in the educational benefits of homework (see the concerned parental response above), there isn’t too much of an issue. For those who don’t, however, and whose children attend a school that sets it in large amounts, they find themselves in a position where they are obliged to police their children and ensure it gets done; going against their own principals and presumably those they would undoubtedly like to instill in their children. These homework apologists may recognize the fact that homework to a large extent serves to compensate for the failings of the school system. As we’ll see later, work that doesn’t get done at school – often through no fault of the child’s – is set as homework. The idea that it is the child’s responsibility to make up for this, however, is one that parents have to feel comfortable with before they can preach to their children about doing it.
We’re shortly going to look at the negative health effects homework can have on children. Before doing that, however, it’s worth suggesting that one of the most insidious ways in which homework damages children may be psychological. Not only does it put children off learning through the boring nature of the work, but it also has the potential to create negative cognitive associations between learning and conflict in general – especially where there are family arguments over the amount of time and effort spent doing it.
9It favors the few
Speaking at Paris’ Sorbonne University in 2012, the incumbent French president François Hollande suggested banning homework outright; the place for learning, he suggested, should be in the classroom and not at home. This part of Hollande’s address was entirely in line with his liberal principals. As president of France’s Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party), Hollande recognizes homework as an anti-egalitarian instrument that benefits children who come from wealthy backgrounds, who have healthy working environments that are conducive to learning, and who have parents willing to lend time and energy to helping them.
France is an excellent comparison for the US, for its education system is broadly similar: the school day lasts roughly from 8:00 a.m. – 16:00 p.m. though with the difference that most students have Wednesdays, Saturday afternoons and Sundays off. With children of both countries spending a similar amount of time at school, this means that Hollande’s proposal could readily be implemented, if not at least seriously debated, in the US. So why is it not?
The reason is that homework favors society’s elites, and these elites want to maintain the status quo. It favors the children of the wealthy and educated not by educating their children, but by ensuring they tick boxes, achieve grades and are taught competition. There will always be parents who’ll ask for more homework to be assigned and who’ll rally against attempts to curtail the already almost impossible workload, confident in the belief that stunts to their children’s development, their short-term suffering, will be compensated by their future prosperity. Homework encourages competition, and parents will pay to get the edge with private tutors. Trust me. I’m one of those tutors.
8It doesn’t test anything
Without wanting to be completely utilitarian, it’s our duty as educators, parents and general enforcers of homework to question the merit of what we’re asking our children to do. Homework is about memorization not education, and there is a case to be made that if you were able to do the homework it never needed to be done, whereas if you weren’t able to do it, you haven’t learnt anything so the whole exercise was pointless.
Here are a few such examples of pointless homework. In a recent tutorial, a 16 year-old Italian student of mine had to write a two-page critique in English of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – a poem so archaic that even I as a mother-tongue English speaker struggle in parts. I’m not for one moment questioning the value of studying literature, but writing an essay on Romantic English literature when your spoken English is too elementary to accurately verbally communicate seems like a waste of time. In the end, to justify my pay, I dictated it.
In another tutorial, a student’s homework was to translate a page of dense grammatical explanations (meant for advanced adults) about the third-conditional into Italian; an exercise that astounded me not only because of the dastardly difficulty and pointlessness of the task, but also because my students English-comprehension was so low that it soon became apparent that the nervous boy sitting before me had absolutely no idea what he was reading. His mum, however, had paid for this ‘tutorial’ and expected results. So within the allotted time we struggled through together, fulfilled the homework’s crazy criteria and merrily learned nothing.
7It covers what teachers couldn’t get through in the lesson
One thing that teachers won’t like to admit is that, with so many arbitrary targets, rigid curricula and time constraints on those in our profession being set across education systems worldwide, high homework rates are inevitable. In fact, the last 23 years have seen an increase from two hours 38 minutes to three hours 58 minutes in the time spent doing homework each week: something that all-too conveniently mirrors trends in governmental target increases. Unfortunately, when it comes to content, instead of encouraging reflection on the topic covered in class, or curiosity-led research into further facets of the subject, homework tasks often constitute new material that could not be covered in class.
Not only does this mean that we’re unable to tailor homework to the student’s specific academic needs, but it also means that the homework material has often not been pre-taught – something that makes the more conscientious in our profession feel incredibly guilty as we feel we’re letting our students down.
The prevalence of this practice is confirmed by data, which shows that the amount of homework set by teachers is relative to their level of experience. Indeed, as revealed in a 2007 MetLife study into US schools, only fourteen percent of teachers with over 21 years experience assign more than an hour’s homework a night compared to 14 percent of teachers with between zero and five years experience. This, in part, must be explained by the more experienced teachers’ ability to condense their lessons to fit the curriculum – a good working-system for achieving grades, but one not suitable for education in its own right.
Short of introducing an outright ban, a more effective system at least would be for us to invest more time coordinating amongst ourselves to make sure that we’re neither setting too much homework at the same time nor overlapping on test dates. Anyway, that’s all I have time to say on the subject. There’s grading to be done.
6It takes time away from a child’s development
There was a period during America’s Progressive Era (1890-1920) in which education was viewed as a means to cultivate the creative, artistic and emotional aspects of individual children rather than to encourage uniformity and vocational preparation. A return to this view of education is popular among many parents and educators now, however rigid testing systems – along with increasing amounts of homework – are likely to ensure that this doesn’t happen for some time.
Children landed with lots of homework are often compelled to make a choice; invest more time in extracurricular hobbies and interests or continue to satisfy the requirements dictated by the school. Of course, there are extracurricular activities deemed suitable: and special mention, or even dispensation, may be given to students who excel at a particular sport or instrument (often because of the prestige they bring the school). Students whose hobbies do not fit into these narrow categories can expect no such dispensations. It will be a long time, for example, before reading one’s way through a literary canon, making Airfix models, socializing with friends; even playing videogames (some of which have been recognized as having enormous educational potential) are accepted over commitments such as a football match or cello recital when it comes to the hierarchy of excuses for uncompleted homework.
It doesn’t, of course, have to be this way. Precedent could be given to indulging in creative arts outside school. In Finland, homework is kept to an absolute minimum, children are encouraged to play outdoors – even in the biting winter – and they are internationally considered to be some of the happiest and highest-achieving children. While we continue to push our dogmatic beliefs about the benefits of homework, however, it’s unlikely our children will be considered in the same category.
5It’s rarely enjoyable
If homework instilled a love for learning or cultivated a passion for acquiring knowledge, there would be little problem with it. More often than not, however, homework comes in a form that is pointless, mindless and in such vast quantities that there can be no time for absorption or reflection.
‘Memorization, not rationalization’ is perhaps the most depressing mantra to reflect this; extracted from a concerned father’s 13-year-old daughter when asked whether she understands the garbled, and frankly over-complicated, notes she’d been asked to make for an Earth Science test. The phrase hits the nail on the head, embodying the main problems recently outlined by pedagogues Mike Horsley and Richard Walker. For it not only captures homework’s remarkably repetitive nature but also exemplifies a learners verbal knee-jerk reaction to being challenged over the complexity of the task being set for them and therefore the validity of its prescription.
The father and author of the remarkable piece from where the quote comes – in which he takes on her homework load for the week – laments at the end that educators almost unanimously favor enormous amounts of homework. His preference, presumably along with all other rationally thinking parents, would be for his daughter to read a book for pleasure, ‘or write a story or paint a picture or play the guitar’, but rather than being at liberty to indulge in fun and enjoyable activities after a long day at school, children are expected to engage in a poor imitation of the administrative drudgery of adult life.
4It encourages bad learning habits
You might remember from the introduction that I’m not much of an ambassador for good homework practice. Though I don’t remember much about homework at elementary school, I doubt I was much better at doing it then than I was in high school (though presumably there was less to do). More often than not I’d have something to hand in, and it was usually of a decent standard considering the groggy fog under which it had been written. But I was always tired.
In fact, I was so tired that at any opportunity I would sneak naps in between lessons, which was hardly a productive use of my time. For the most part, my years spent at university (where I actually loved what I was studying, although the paucity of contact hours meant that all work was homework) knocked this habit out of me. But I knew many people who continued to treat their university studies as they treated their school studies, just as I know people who have taken these habits with them into the working world.
These people learned their bad habits early, but not in the classroom. In the classroom, there was the potential to avoid doing work but there were also proportional repercussions. They learned these habits at home, where there was no immediate punishment for procrastination (at least that wasn’t parentally administered).
If not for discipline, there is no reason why school practices should invade the home environment, especially if you can monitor, and if necessary tweak, learning habits in the classroom. School exercises have no place at home; in fact the distinction is required. For if you can create the distinction between work/study-life and home-life early, this sets a good tone for establishing a healthy work-life balance later in life.
3It’s a nightmare for teachers
‘Homework’, according to Canadian talk-show host and political commentator Tommy Schnurmacher, ‘is cruel and unusual punishment. Banning it will improve the life of students, parents and teachers in one fell swoop.’ Indeed, contrary to the idea that teachers derive pleasure in reciprocating the same homework-related misery on their students they once had to deal with, many in our profession view homework as the most unnecessary of evils.
Firstly, there’s the grading. Not only is it often painfully repetitive – at best marking formulaic, short answers; at worst trying to decipher assignments written in such a way that makes the Rosetta Stone look like a walk in the park – but it also takes up time that could be better spent planning lessons to optimize their effectiveness. But we do it, and we do it assiduously. This is not only because, and believe me when I say this, one of the last things you want is to do is to tell your students that you haven’t had time to grade the homework that they (certainly reluctantly) took the time to do. It’s also because we believe it our duty to provide feedback that will make their pointless undertaking of the task in some way worth its while.
2It has detrimental health effects
In 2014, the University of Stanford published the results of a study showing that high school students who exceed the upper limit of more than two and a half hours homework a night were more likely to show negative health and stress related symptoms. This correlation is hardly surprising, but deserves to be teased out in a little more detail.
The most clearly affected area, as attested in a Chinese academic paper, is a child’s sleep patterns. Hours of homework eat into time that could be spent resting for the school day ahead – where, let’s not forget, there are trained professionals to monitor and address first-hand the students’ educational needs. Stress is another major factor that’s easily induced by unrealistic workloads. Fifty-six percent of students from Stanford’s study reported homework as a root cause of stress, while 33 percent mentioned the immense pressure to achieve good grades. Of those sampled, less than 1 percent didn’t consider homework a stress factor. But don’t just take statistical evidence; browse any message board or comment section on this topic and you’ll soon find parental anecdotes about their children crying until the early hours over unmanageable expectations.
It’s worth briefly returning to Stanford’s study to look at the pooled data. The survey looked at 4,000 students attending 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle class Californian communities – where the median income fell above $90,000. A staggering 93 percent of these students attended college after graduating and reported doing over three hours of homework each night. This, in itself, is instructive, and reveals a socio-economic trend that needs to be questioned: why do wealthier parents often want heavier workloads for their children.
1There are no academic benefits
A TIMSS (Trends in Math and Science Study) survey, conducted in 2007, revealed that fourth grader students in countries that set below average levels of homework were more academically successful in math and science than those in countries that set above average levels. In Japan – ranked second in the results table – only three percent of students reported a particularly heavy workload of over three hours a night while a staggering 20 percent of Dutch students – whose scores were in the international top 10 – claimed to do no homework whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to countries like Greece and Thailand, where higher workloads have done nothing to rectify lower scores.
These results are not alone in debunking the myth that homework in any way benefits the academic performance of elementary students. So why, we should ask, are policymakers and educators so hell-bent on enforcing it? In his 2006 publication The Homework Myth, prolific author and outspoken critic of the current educational system Alfie Kohn set out a well argued and evidentially attested thesis saying that the purpose of homework is twofold. Firstly it’s meant to instill an air of competitiveness in children, not only within the physical classroom, but, because of the quantitatively driven approach of policy experts, within the global classroom – against China, Singapore and Finland, for example. Secondly, homework is used as a weapon to combat adults’ inherent mistrust of children, keeping them busy so they don’t run riot. This latter suggestion may baffle belief, but a concerned parent’s response to the suggestion that homework be banned (‘we have to have homework… otherwise the kids won’t have structure and they will just come home and fool around’) attests to its current orthodoxy.
The thing about homework is that is doesn’t work. As shown by numerous studies, it brings no educational benefits, acts as a root cause of conflict between children, parents and teachers and has detrimental mental and physical effects on children that, by the fact that they’re avoidable, are absolutely inexcusable. Children are not the only ones to fear the evils of homework though. Teachers, under increasing amounts of pressure to meet targets, cover curricula and achieve grades, are incentivized to set more and more of it and grade more and more of it; something that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t so aware of its utter pointlessness.
The most important problem, however, is that homework is more closely associated with punishment than with pleasure. Made to be completed during time that should be spent engaging in creative, playful and recreational pursuits, homework doesn’t even have the courtesy to be enjoyable by nature – as is completely apparent from my students’ faces when I fulfill my duties to the school in setting it for them. And such truth is not surprising when you consider that for homework to be enjoyable, it would have to be everything it’s not: optional instead of mandatory, creative rather than prescribed and objectively appreciated instead of subjectively assessed. Improvement to our children’s education, until we redefine what our definition of education really is, can only be achieved through one thing, its removal.