Posted on February 8, 2007
In last week’s Thursday letter (published this past Sunday on the MPI website, 2/3/07), I reported the results of the parent and student homework survey. In today’s letter, I follow up the survey results with some research about the effects of homework on learning, much of which will seem contrary to widely held assumptions about homework.
First, some background as to why we even embarked on this informal study. Parents of middle-schoolers were concerned about the quantity of homework their children were assigned each night. Several parents of fifth graders were concerned about whether their children were going to be prepared to handle the homework load in middle school. The solution? Increase the homework in elementary school, some suggested, to build some mental muscle and teach time management skills.
The faculty and I began our research on homework, which led to the reading of educational researcher Alfie Kohn’s best-known book, The Homework Myth, and many relevant articles found on the web. Apparently, the practice of doing homework is a rarely questioned yet unproven approach to teaching. As we were doing our research, we wanted to know what our parents’ assumptions and understandings were about homework.
Let’s begin with the widely held belief about homework — that homework is necessary for academic achievement and intellectual development. According to the most recent research results reported by Alfie Kohn and Harris Cooper’s meta-analysis (the combination of many studies), careful analysis of the data indicates that there is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age. Some studies show an association between homework and test scores in high school; however, there is no causal relationship (academic success and intellectual development are not caused by homework). In Cooper’s 1998 study, he and his colleagues reported that for elementary-age students, there was no significant relationship between grades and amount of homework assigned or completed. In fact, he summarized in his report, “There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”
Another widely accepted assumption is that doing homework helps children develop self-discipline, time management skills, responsibility, and good character (almost 50% of the parent surveys indicated non-academic benefits related to homework). According to Kohn, there is no empirical data nor experiment of any kind conducted “to investigate common claims about responsibility, self-discipline, and so on. . . . The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is basically a myth.”
One of the best chapters in Kohn’s book is the chapter on the relationship between learning with regard to time and practice. He discusses the commonly held assumption that homework is justifiable because “it gives students more time to master a given topic or skill.” However, studies have demonstrated that “more hours are least likely to produce better outcomes when understanding or creativity is involved.” In other words, spending a lot of time trying to learn something repeatedly is a sign that learning is not taking place. For example, we already know that when children are taught to read by focusing on the meaning of the text rather than only on phonics, their learning does “not depend on amount of instructional time” but on making sense of the text.
Most of us hold to the belief that practice makes perfect, and in many situations, that adage might make sense, e.g., learning how to serve a volleyball, learning how to improve a tennis swing. This is the view held by behaviorists that everything we do and are is a function of stimuli and reinforcement, and that behavior can be shaped by rewards (remember Skinner’s famous salivating dogs?). Thus, when homework is assigned to reinforce concepts that we assume students have learned in the classroom, we are hoping that students are able to complete math or vocabulary worksheets — able to demonstrate the behavior — but not necessarily understanding. No quantity of worksheets will improve learning unless students understand the concepts. Giving practice worksheets to students who still lack understanding often reinforces negative attitudes about their ability and sometimes reinforces errors. Lots of practice can help students get better at remembering correct responses, but not get better at thinking.
There is one more point to make about one of the survey results. We asked parents if their children had any formal activities after school. We have extremely busy students. From kindergarten through fifth grade, over 75% of the children are involved in sports; nearly 50% also participate in some kind of arts lesson (e.g., art, music, dance), and another 30% are also involved in an extra-curricular academic program (e.g., learning a foreign language, tutoring). Even after a long day in school and in an afterschool program, many students still have homework assignments to complete when they get home. When do our children have time to play in the neighborhood? Have time to engage in the pleasures of family life? Have time to enjoy family or parent/child conversations? Have time to just be a child? As Kohn aptly states, children are “missing out on their childhoods,” and he feels that homework unnecessarily displaces all the rich opportunities for living their childhood.
The faculty and I have at least two tasks, the most important being to design assignments that take into account the needs and preferences of all children and which provide experiences for thinking and sustaining excitement for learning. This is an ongoing responsibility. The second task is to articulate a homework policy at the elementary school that is both developmentally appropriate and relevant to our views of teaching and learning.
I want to assure parents that the purpose of the surveys and the research provided in today’s letter is not to promote a no-homework policy, as Kohn argues for many more reasons than explained here. Teachers share the same misconceptions that parents have about homework. Rather, the intent is to re-assess the value of homework in light of the research and to consider a sensible homework policy in the elementary school. The teachers and I were happy to hear that for the most part, parents and students feel that the children are assigned the right amount of homework, based on the grade level. Parents and students were able to identify a wide variety of engaging assignments that they felt “taught the child something meaningful and valuable,” among them inquiry research and reading, assignments the teachers also feel are meaningful.
I’m almost certain today’s letter will prompt some kind of reaction because we’re all passionate about our children’s learning. Although I could devote many more Thursday letters to the topic of homework, I hope that what we can accomplish as a school is to create a homework policy that makes sense and that supports an enthusiasm for learning.
Each child should have come home with a brightly colored flyer about a change in the Grandparents’ Day schedule on February 28th. Please tell grandparents, aunts, uncles, or family friends who are planning to attend the celebration that lunch and student presentations in the classrooms is 11:00 to 11:45a.m. Everyone will walk to the gym for the special program. (We will provide a shuttle to transport any guests needing the service.) The program will be held in the gym, 12:15 to 1:00pm. After the program, your child may go home or remain in school. We will have afterschool care for students already enrolled in the program. Please remind grandparents to r.s.v.p. so that we can prepare adequately for lunch.
Yes, we alerted parents in some classrooms about ukus. At this point, we have checked and re-checked the heads of students in these classrooms, and the classrooms have been professionally treated. Now’s the time to be pro-active: check your child’s hair and treat appropriately, if necessary. Remind your child not to share hats or clothing with other students.
Hope to see some of our families at the M Club Silent Auction and Dinner fundraiser for the MPI sports program, this Saturday at the Sheraton Waikiki, 5:30pm.
For our children,
Edna L. Hussey