Is Homework Bad?
Is homework being overassigned in the primary grades? More and more education experts are saying yes. Two new books on the subject are out now, including the latest endeavor by education expert Alfie Kohn. Instructor magazine recently ran an excerpt from the highly anticipated book. "There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age," Kohn argues in the book. "Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure (which I don't), more homework isn't correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school."
Even at the high school level, Kohn says, the benefits of homework are debatable. "Some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores," Kohn says, "but it tends to be small. More important, there's no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework."
Opponents of excessive homework argue that it forces parents to sacrifice already scarce family time for the sake of completing assignments, not because they are necessary for students to grasp concepts but because the schools have decided in advance that children must do something for each subject every night whether it's necessary or not.
So as you welcome students and parents back to school this year, do your own homework. Take a look at the new homework books out there and be prepared for those who have read them too. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn, and The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalisha, are both available now.
'It would really surprise you,' said her mother, Laura. 'Some nights she has sheets with 100 times tables. I don't want it to become a chore because it will put her off. I work full-time; I do not want the time we spend together to be me and her battling about homework.'
Family tension is just one of a string of negative effects of homework for young children, according to an explosive new book which says much of it is pointless. The book, The Homework Myth, to be published in Britain in the spring, also says too much if it turns children off education and does not make them do any better in tests.
The study, by American academic Alfie Kohn, has sparked a huge debate on TV and radio and in hundreds of newspapers. Last week it reached the Wall Street Journal, where it was reported that some of America's most competitive schools were cutting or eliminating work beyond their gates.
'What surprised me is not the downside of homework, but the fact there appears to be no upside,' said Kohn. 'No study has ever shown an academic benefit to homework before high school.'
In the UK, it has emerged that a handful of primary school headteachers have started to drop traditional styles of homework in favour of 'fun' activities and outings that parents and children can do together. One London school has swapped sums and endless spelling for museum trips and cookery tasks.
Even that is too much for Kohn, who will spend his year giving dozens of lectures calling for parents to 'organise' into groups and go into schools to demand changes. 'Kids should have the chance to relax after a full day at school,' he said. In Kohn's eyes, primary schoolchildren should do no more than read for pleasure when they get home.
Soon his message will reach the UK, where the government made homework compulsory nine years ago, starting at one hour a week for five-year-olds. It is likely to reject his arguments.
'Homework is an essential part of education,' said a Department for Education and Skills official. 'A good, well-organised homework programme helps children and young people to develop the skills and attitudes they will need for successful, independent life-long learning.'
It is a view shared by many parents. Andy Hibberd, co-founder of the support group the Parent Organisation, says his sons aged seven and nine benefit greatly from the work they bring home. 'When they go to secondary school, then further and higher education, they will have to do homework,' said Hibberd, from Wingworth, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. 'I think for primary school children to start bringing home a little bit of homework so they are prepared is a good thing. It does not hurt younger children to do 10 minutes a day.'
However, a recent review by Susan Hallam, a professor at the Institute for Education in London, showed that setting the wrong type of work can be detrimental to pupils. 'It needs to be meaningful,' said Hallam. 'If it is just being set as something schools feel they have to do with no real thought to its purpose, then it is a waste of time. Homework, if taken to the extreme, can completely disrupt family life.'
Some headteachers are sceptical too. 'Many teachers have long suspected homework wasn't beneficial for the children,' said John Peck, head of Peafield Lane Primary School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. 'Sometimes it is done more for the parents who demand it. It would be a brave school that decided to eliminate homework.'
At Coleridge primary school in north London, the head, Shirley Boffey, has replaced many aspects of traditional homework with 'home learning'. Sums, grammar and spelling have been reduced. Instead worksheets filled with ideas about making models, trips to museums, cookery and art are sent home.
One sheet suggests that parents take their children to nearby Alexandra Palace to look through the telescope; another asks them to make bread together; while one focuses on learning about the local area. 'We did it for all the reasons that they are arguing in the US,' said Boffey. 'We didn't feel homework was working, we wanted children to enjoy learning and not see it as a chore.'
Some parents love the new system; others are yet to be convinced. Vikki Poole, from Muswell Hill, has two daughters at the school, aged seven and 10, and loves the new system. Her girls took home 'very formulaic' work from their last school. Now the family gets together once a week to do the tasks and Poole loves the new system.
But for others, such as Ilana Wegrzyn, the new regime means extra stress. 'I have two boys, eight and 10. One may have to cook a curry and the other one bake bread. Each topic can take an afternoon. I work part- time, but with their music and sport it is a really pressure.'
Wegrzyn prefers more traditional homework, but she could not deny that her boys love the new work.
Try this at home
The old way
· Complete a page of sums out of a textbook
· Learn lists of spellings by rote
· Learn the times tables
· Fill in a wordsearch
The new way
· Parents help their children to design a poster about their favourite toy, label it and write about what it is called, how old it is, what it is made from and why it is particularly special to them
· Create a work of art using only recycled materials
· Devise a multiplication quiz to play with other pupils. As the maker of the quiz, the child will have to know the answers
· Keep a moon diary, drawing a diagram of the moon each night. Notice how the shape of the moon changes and name the phases