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Is homework an unnecessary burden?

IB World magazine investigates if homework still has a place in modern-day education, in a new series of thought leadership articles

Homework is outdated, invades valuable family time and serves no purpose – or that’s what many schools in Europe and the US now believe. As a consequence they have publically ditched the after-school tradition in favour of letting “kids be kids”. With no homework to mark, teachers are using the extra time to plan more creative lessons.

Some critics have even gone so far as to call homework a “sin against childhood”. According to author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, the positive effects of homework are “largely mythical.” He says homework in most schools is set just for “the sake of it.”

Kohn’s research found there is “absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary school [5-10 years old] or middle school [11-13 years old].”

At the high school level [14-18 years old], the correlation [between homework and academic success] is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied. Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.”

Despite the evidence, homework is still a global practice. In China, 15-year-old students spend, on average, 13.8 hours per week on homework. At the other end of the scale, students in Finland spend 2.8 hours a week. As Finland is regularly used as a positive example for its outstanding educational standards and practices, this highlights a failed link between time spent on homework and academic achievement.

Mental health epidemic

 The homework debate is nothing new, and what constitutes excessive amounts of homework is dependent on multiple factors. However, with the increase in mental health issues amongst young people, scrapping homework could be a step in the right direction towards combating the epidemic.

For PYP-aged students, even 30 minutes of homework a night, if combined with other sources of academic stress, can have a negative impact on mental health. Researchers in China have linked homework of two or more hours per night with sleep disruption.

A top school in the UK is in the midst of a five-year review of homework. It is considering replacing it with weekly meditation classes, longer walks between lessons, and flipped learning – an approach where students read up on material before classes.

In France, it’s argued that homework causes inequality. In 2012, French President François Hollande said that homework favours the wealthy. Such students are more likely to have a good working environment at home, including parents with the time and energy to help children with their work, he said.

British author and former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen agrees. In a letter to the UK Education Secretary Justine Greening – published in The Guardian newspaper in February 2017 – he explains his belief that homework widens the gap between rich and poor, and gives an advantage “to children who have parents with a lot of education on their CVs and/or a knowledge of how to teach.”

“Hard evidence” for homework

However, while the case for abolishing homework is gathering pace, there is “hard evidence” that it really does improve how well students achieve, says Professor Susan Hallam from UCL Institute of Education, UK.

Spending more than two hours a day on homework is linked to achieving better results in English, mathematics and science, according to a study published by the Department for Education, UK.

Homework also improves memory, encourages independence and develops positive study skills – including how to deal with pressure, various studies have found.

Professor Harris Cooper highlights the positive influence of homework on overall development. He says: “Beyond achievement, proponents of homework argue it can have many other beneficial effects, including the development of good study habits and a recognition that learning can occur at home, as well as at school.”

Homework can also foster independent learning and responsible character traits – essential skills later in life when students change jobs or learn new skills for advancement at work.”

Homework also acts as a guide for parents. It helps them understand their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses, says Cooper. “Two parents once told me they refused to believe their child had a learning disability until homework revealed it to them.”

Is quantity more important than quality?

Homework does have invaluable benefits, but the amount of time spent completing it is the clear concern. Assigning too much homework can result in poor performance.

Schools are having to tread the fine line of challenging students academically, but not to the point of overwhelming them.

Cooper acknowledges that some students are bringing home too much work. Setting homework policies can help, he says.

Policies should proscribe amounts of homework that are consistent with the empirical evidence (and most do) but also give individual schools and teachers some flexibility to take into account the unique needs and circumstances of their students.”

For example, his ‘10-minute Rule’ advises homework time should be equal to the child’s grade level multiplied by 10, ie a second grader (a 7-year-old) should have 20 minutes of homework per day (two multiplied by 10).

Above all, homework should be authentic, meaningful, and engaging, according to Stanford professors Linda Darling-Hammond and Olivia Ifill-Lynch in the book If They’d Only Do Their Work!

 “Assign work that is worthy of effort,” they say. “Before teachers give out a homework assignment, they should ask themselves, ‘Does it make sense?’ ‘Is it necessary?’ ‘Is it useful?’ ‘Is it authentic and engaging?’ Students are most likely to do homework when it is part of a meaningful curriculum unit and will actually be used in class the next day.”

Look out for the second part of our series on homework where IB World speaks to the IB teachers who have opted out of giving students homework, with surprising results

To make homework meaningful, Professor Harris Cooper suggests:

  • Up until fifth grade (age 10), homework should be very limited.
  • Middle-school students should not spend more than 90 minutes a day on homework
  • Two hours should be the limit in high school.
  • Beyond these time limits, research shows that homework has no impact on student performance, says Cooper.