The recent decision by French President Francois Hollande to abolish homework from French schools has reignited the long running debate about homework.
This debate has been around for more than a century and remains a contentious issue for parents, students and education researchers alike.
A lengthy debate
Last month’s promised ban came as part of Hollande’s wider reforms to education, and followed widespread teacher and parent agitation for a short-term ban on homework in France earlier in the year.
At that time, the president of a French teachers’ organisation stated that homework reinforces socioeconomic and educational inequalities, saying: “Not all families have the time or necessary knowledge to help their offspring.”
On the other side of the debate, the president of another French parents’ association spoke in support of homework and stated: “Of course, it has to be reasonable, but going back over a lesson is the best way of learning things.”
Homework, broadly defined as tasks given to students during non-school hours, has long been the subject of both pro- and anti-homework campaigns, some of which have resulted in court action and the abolition of homework for students in some school grades.
The recent French announcement has led to calls for the abolition of homework in some German and American schools. So should homework be abolished in Australia?
The answer to this question requires a closer look at what homework is supposed to do, and whether it achieves these goals for students of all backgrounds.
The most comprehensive list of reasons for setting homework has been compiled by American researcher Joyce Epstein. These include the practice of already learnt skills, preparation for the next lesson, parent-child communication about school activities, the requirements of school or education department policies, and the enhancement of the reputation of the school or teacher.
But most empirical research into homework focuses on three main issues: does homework enhance student learning and achievement outcomes? Does homework help students to develop the skills of independent, self-directed learning? Does homework involve parents in the educational activities of their children in ways that are beneficial?
In our new book Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policy, we have reviewed and evaluated the research evidence on each of the three issues.
While this research is complex and there are many caveats, the following broad conclusions can be drawn. In terms of academic achievement, homework has no benefit for children in the early years of primary school, negligible benefits for children in the later years of primary school, weak benefits for junior high school students and reasonable benefits for senior high school students.
Sound research has demonstrated that spending more time on homework is associated with lower student achievement; this finding is complemented by research showing that in countries with high homework demands, student performance on international tests of achievement is poor.
Self-directed learning skills are associated with doing homework but the research indicates that the development of these skills occurs when parents are able to assist upper primary and junior secondary school students with their homework.
Parental involvement in their children’s homework activities can be both beneficial and detrimental. It can be detrimental when parents are over-controlling or interfering, but can be beneficial to student motivation when parents provide autonomy and a supporting learning environments for their children.
An Australian ban?
In our book we have argued that rather than abolition, homework needs to be reformed. Generally speaking, homework needs to be better planned by teachers and needs to be of a higher quality.
But it won’t be easy – homework needs to be challenging for students but not too challenging, it needs to be interesting and motivating, and students also need adequate feedback.
So the way forward is to start a conversation between teachers, parents and students about the sort of homework students need. The routine of completing homework (if done well) can help with self-management, planning and organising skills, but these skills take a long time to learn.
Homework setting and practice will have to change so that students are learning about self-management and self-regulation. The sort of homework tasks that promote learning these skills will not focus on drill and practice but require homework tasks where students make some decisions and choices and also exercise some autonomy.
At the same time, guidance for students who do not have family support will require planning (and provision) to complete these sorts of more complex homework tasks. The books explores the equity implications of homework and how providing guidance and support for students should be explicitly planned as part of a homework curriculum.
Less homework, better homework
Overall, there should be less homework, especially homework that emphasises drill and practice. Homework should also be there as a a bridge between the community and the school. In particular, homework needs to be planned around the community’s and family’s fund of knowledge – which may be different from what the curriculum is based on.
In essence, homework can help children but perhaps not in the ways we think. And much of it depends on what you want homework to achieve and how parents and teachers see it.
One of the authors of this article has a six year-old daughter in her first year of school. When he asks his daughter to collect a reader from her school bag, bring it to the place she has chosen for the shared reading and decides who reads first and when, this may not seem like homework.
But in fact focusing on her choice and autonomy will help develop independent learning skills, skills that will hopefully last her lifetime. Understanding homework as a path to independent learning needs to be the first step.
Here’s a shocking thought: What if not doing homework was better for your kids? Would you still make them do it?
We want what’s best for our children, and when kids hit school age we follow the teacher’s lead. If the teacher assigns homework, we enforce it at home. Even in elementary school. Even in preschool and kindergarten. Even when the research disagrees.
Schooling may be mandatory, but homework isn’t. Home time is family time. Kids need time to play and reboot for the next school day, not go into overtime.
When children hit school-age, sometimes it feels as if the school is suddenly in charge of your family life. Night after night parents lock themselves in battles with overtired kids. “You have to do your homework,” we say, even when deep inside we know that the crying, wiggling child stuck in the homework chair desperately needs something else. Time to just be home, relax and play. Help with family chores. Or go to bed. But we think we must uphold homework, so we do. We nag. Cajole. Fight. Beg. And as a last resort, we do our kid’s homework.
There is another way. Say no, respectfully.
You may be surprised to learn that research supports this. Dr. Harris Cooper, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Duke University, conducted a comprehensive review of nearly 180 research studies and found that homework hasno evidence of academic benefit for elementary school students. You read that right. Startling, isn’t it? Cooper’s research on the research prompted him to say this: “There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.” (See further analysis of this issue here.)
Homework does have an impact, though. The same slew of studies show it increases emotional problems: negative attitudes towards school and high conflict in families.
What research suggests is thathomework benefits are age-specific. Homework belongs in high school. In middle school, there’s slight academic benefit, and none in the elementary years. “The research is very clear,” writes University of Arizona education professor Etta Kralovec in her book on the subject. “There’s no benefit at the elementary school level.” (See more information here.) Given these facts, it makes sense to give kids some practice assignments in middle school, but not too much. Even in high school, more than two hours of homework doesn’t help.
RELATED STORY: The end of homework? Why some schools are banning it
I didn’t yet know this research when my oldest child entered first grade, but I knew my child. I knew what he needed – and what he didn’t need – and was willing to buck the system and trust my gut. When school was over for the day, I knew this 6-year-old needed time to run outside, make noise, make faces with his brother, and simply pursue his own interests. Children are told what to do all day long at school. They need time to move their bodies and think their own thoughts. I told our teacher our family wouldn’t be participating in homework. We’d be supporting learning our own way.
I grew up without homework in elementary school, so I was already comfortable with the idea. I knew kids could learn and flourish without it. My childhood elementary school had no worksheets, no textbooks and no chairs, and yet we typically scored at the top of the district when worried officials came in and administered standardized tests. Our school was filled with the joy of learning.
In a homework-dominated culture, I think we forget joy.
Joy is part of learning. Kids are wired to learn just as they are wired to play. But homework at a young age can squash that out. Learning gets a bad name. Learning gets equated with homework.
When homework comes too young, it also delays development of responsibility. Parents turn into the Homework Patrol Cop, an unpleasant position that turns adults in to nagging homework monitors and kids into expert grumblers. These roles often extend into the teenage years. Homework, when it comes, should be the child’s job. My parents never told me to do my high school homework. Instead, my mother would say, “What’s your evening like?”
Homework is mainly a problem because it’s a theft of time. It’s a grave opportunity cost. And kids feel it. Homework steals kids’ time at home. Time they desperately need to play, connect with family, cope with big emotions, be outside and get good, long sleep.
If we want to improve test scores and enhance memory, focus and problem-solving ability, we need to give kids good sleep. Sleep is well established to improve learning and behavior. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 30 percent of elementary kids are seriously sleep-deprived, and only a few are getting the recommended hours. It’s not glamorous, but sleep is vital to children’s learning and success. Homework isn’t.
You have the right to decide what goes on in your home and family.
The first step is to realize you don’t have to be a Homework Enforcer, you can be a parent. Parents are in charge of their children’s upbringing. Your child’s teacher is your partner in this, and good partners tell each other when something is not working.
So – get your courage up – the next step is to approach your child’s teacher or principal and explain what’s going on in your house each night, and what you’d rather see. If you don’t know what to say, but you’re curious about reducing homework load or opting out, check out sample scripts, ideas and more research in my book "It's OK to Go Up the Slide." It’s meant for you whether you’re a teacher or a parent. Learn why substituting reading for pleasure at home is better than homework, and discover respectful ways to change the homework culture. Other good resources include Alfie Kohn's "The Homework Myth."
It can be scary to question school routines. Remember that teachers care about kids. What teachers typically want most is a supportive, involved family who cares about education and doing what’s best for the child. Good teachers are willing to listen – both to you and the research.
It’s time to stop a practice that doesn’t work. It’s time to think, question, examine the research and, for kids’ sake, ban elementary school homework.
Heather Shumaker’s new book "It's OK to Go Up the Slide" (Tarcher/ Penguin Random House, March 2016) dives into homework and more hot-button topics like recess, screens, safety and strangers. Heather is a national speaker on early childhood issues and an advocate for play-based learning and no homework in elementary schools. Visit www.heathershumaker.com for info, blog, podcast and more.
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