What’s for Homework? I Hope Nothing
By Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg
Toms River, New Jersey
Before you begin reading this article, I would like to address one question that you are going to ask. Sometime during your reading, you will begin to wonder whether I knew what a sensitive topic I was touching when I wrote this article. So, before you begin, let me assure you that the answer is, YES!
I recognize that this subject is controversial, and people on both sides of the issue have strong opinions. I also understand that many people will not agree with all the contents and ideas discussed. I write this article not to convince you, but to raise your awareness of the issue and to begin a productive dialogue.
In addition, I recognize that many may argue that such an article is best reserved for an educational journal. I write this article here because I believe that all educational partners—parents, teachers, and administrators alike—must partake in this critical conversation. Only through a healthy dialogue with all partners will we have a chance of reaching a successful result.
Finally, I want to dispel any notion you may have while reading this article that I am suggesting that we dumb down education. On the contrary, I believe that if we take heed of some of the points and concerns raised and make appropriate changes, the end product and the overall result will be a smartened up education.
My opening invitation is for all of us to sit back, for a moment, and imagine how our personal world (our own home and family) would be different if we would not have ANY homework assigned to children in grades 1-8.
Before you get too excited about the possibility, allow me to share with you some of the concerns you can expect to hear from those readers who may be horrified by the notion, even at the elementary level.
- We need homework because there is not enough time during the school day to get everything done.
- We need homework because children must review what they learned in class to remember what they learned.
- We need homework because children must understand that learning is not only an activity to be performed at school.
- We need homework so that the parents can see what the children are learning.
- We need homework so that we can teach good work habits, develop organizational skills, and strengthen self-discipline.
- We need homework because children sometimes need individual instruction that only the parents can provide.
In all fairness, this article will not present a totally balanced view of the two sides of the homework debate. Since the status quo is one that has homework as the norm, to effect any reasonable change, it is necessary to present a more lopsided approach, with the scale tipped in favor of eliminating homework, in its current style and format.
Before I address these points, let’s take a moment and reflect on the earlier invitation, to think about your children not having homework assignments on a nightly basis. Are you beginning to see a picture of a calmer setting at home? Are you thinking about all that the children will learn at home because they won’t have assigned homework from school? Are you picturing a family setting in which there is far less turmoil and chaos? Are you smiling at the thought of what can happen to the family because of all this extra time and the lack of power struggles and screaming matches?
You may be amazed to learn that tens of thousands, and perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of dollars have been spent to study and seek evidence that homework is a good thing for elementary students. While these studies were not performed specifically on schools such as ours (with dual curricula, smaller class sizes, more motivated families) I believe that the results can be shared. The results state very clearly that there is zero value and benefit from homework! For a detailed review of the studies, I suggest you read The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, by Alfie Kohn.
Please note that this article is only addressing homework for children through 8th grade. It may be that some form of homework is necessary at the high school level.
One of the arguments in support of homework is to acquire the important skills of organization, self-discipline, responsibility, etc. The stories people tell me about battles that take place in their home convince me otherwise. They describe arguments about the location at which the homework is to be done, when homework is done, and the way children wait until the last minute before bedtime to work on a long-term assigned project. It seems to me that sometimes homework is strengthening rather poor skills and habits.
In response to the argument that we need homework because it develops good work habits, develops organizational skills, and strengthens self-discipline, I must be honest and admit that these goals aren’t realized with homework. Those students who already have these skills dispense with their homework quickly and efficiently and those students who don’t already have those skills struggle terribly, spending long hours and many tears doing a poor job on their homework assignments.
Many argue that we need homework because it allows children to master the subject or skill learned during the day at school. By learning things more than once, during the day, they have a better chance of “getting it.” Review is a prerequisite for any quality learning. However, this argument is up for debate. While we may all agree that review is important for the learning process, who says that the review should happen at home?
One of the overall goals we have for our children is to develop self-discipline. For example, we want our children to exercise self-control in their behavior and not always depend on the adult in the room to assure proper behavior. The same is true with homework. The external pressure that controls children and makes them do their homework does not change them in any meaningful way. Don’t we want children to develop a love for learning, whereby they WANT to learn at home, instead of being forced to learn at home? That way there can be some change and they can develop a positive attitude towards learning.
Having touched on some of the issues of why homework may be needed, allow me to make the case against homework with the following points:
In recent years there has been a greater awareness that the school must take the place of the home in the area of teaching values and behaviors. This unwise fallback position may be another example of the reversal of roles – the school is doing the job of the home and the home is doing the job of the school. Perhaps we should go back to the original successful design in which schools teach subjects and skills while homes prepare children for life as mentchin?
Many families point to homework problems as the cause for so much conflict at home. Even in families with few children, the challenge for the parents to find the necessary time that is needed to assist the children with homework is great. With our larger families, ka’h, this becomes a near impossible task in many homes.
Many homework assignments require too much work and assistance of the parents. In addition to the obvious concerns of lack of time, etc., this creates a fairness issue. The children whose parents can help them get an upper hand over the children whose parents can’t help. I have heard too many parents voice the objection that they were already students and they don’t need to do the work again.
Many parents have created a false reality in which the quantity of homework assignments is a measure for how much is being taught in class. They have concluded that the more homework, the more that is being learned in class and the more that needs to be reviewed at home. As a former school principal, I can tell you with full conviction that there is zero validity to this conclusion. On the contrary, I would argue in reverse. The more homework, the less accomplished in class and the poorer the lessons being taught.
Many children don’t pay full attention in class and don’t put forth the necessary effort to learn because they know that they have homework to fall back on. The homework becomes a crutch that allows the students to not learn in class. In many situations, the child is first learning the material when the homework is being done. If there were no homework, the child would be forced to learn the material from the teacher, in the classroom.
One of the most common concerns we hear from the classroom is the lack of time to get everything done. With our dual curriculums, every minute is precious and should be treasured. Now let us make some quick calculations about how much time is used in the ordinary elementary classroom for homework. Count the amount of time being used for assigning homework, recording homework, reviewing homework and checking homework and you will be amazed at the total. Can you imagine what more we may be able to accomplish with the better use of this time?
Unfortunately, for many students, homework fosters cheating and lying. How many of us remember the teacher asking some students if they copied the homework from someone else?
Frankly, I can go on and on listing more problems with homework. I believe that we have said enough to make a case against homework. If you are interested in researching this further, I suggest that you read some of the material on the subject. Again, I suggest the above-mentioned book, dedicated entirely to the case against homework.
While this article is in strong support against the current model of homework, I am not suggesting that we eliminate all homework. Rather, I do believe that we must make changes with the way we understand and use homework in its current state. This article just raised some of the considerations and laid some of the groundwork for a future article that will have some suggestions for changes to be made.
Let me share with you a one-sentence summary from a principal of one of our own schools. “It is simply amazing to see how a ‘No Homework Policy’ increases the students' natural desire to learn, how it cultivates children who want to learn simply because they enjoy it!”
Keeping the status quo and not making changes is usually the easier road on which to travel. When one thinks about making changes in a school, the first thoughts that usually come to mind are, “But we have always done …”, “But we can’t be the only school in the country to…”, and “But our parents will never…”. I encourage all to not allow pessimism to get in the way of common sense and logical thinking. The question should not be if we should make changes, rather, what changes we should make.
This is the 1st article by this author on this topic. Please write for an additional one.