Is homework helpful?

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In September 2006, Maclean's magazine (which might be considered Canada's version of Time Magazine) ran a cover story with a provocative title: "Homework is Killing Kids (and it's not making them any smarter either)." Inside was an interview with Alfie Kohn, an outspoken former teacher and author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Kohn contended that there is no research evidence indicating that homework is helpful. While that's a bit of an exaggeration (see, for example, Cooper, Robinson & Pattall's article in the Review of Educational Research which found that some kinds of homework is related to improvements at school), Kohn argued that, for elementary school students, there is no link between homework and achievement. At the high school level, there is a small connection, he said, that disappears when sophisticated statistical methods are employed. Kohn's point is an interesting one: even if there is an effect on academics, are the potential benefits of homework sufficient to outweigh the costs? If parents and educators were asked to list the potential benefits of completing homework assignments, there could be a number of responses: higher grades, better learning or retention, improvements in work ethic, and quality family time spent together. Admittedly, the research is mixed with regard to the positive impact on learning (check out Trautwein, Schnyder, et al. in Contemporary Educational Psychology), especially when kids have negative feelings about working at home. Kohn also argued that most of the work sent home with kids is "busy work," aimed at giving them something to do besides playing video games, rather than improving their critical thinking skills.

With regard to the supposed improvements in work ethic associated with homework, I couldn't find a link between the two. In fact, the studies I looked at (see, for example, Trautwein et al.) proposed that the relationship went in the other direction: students with a better work ethic spent more time doing homework. Kohn indicated that he was unable to find any evidence of a homework/work ethic link. He argued against the quality time factor as well, saying that family time could be better spent in activities other than homework. There's also evidence that direct help with homework has a negative impact on grades for middle-school students. Contrast these mixed results about the benefits of homework with the unequivocal findings about the positive impact of extracurricular activities - it makes me think that schools might be better off assigning kids to sports teams rather than assigning math homework!

Despite all of his concerns about homework, Kohn didn't believe it should be eliminated. Instead, he proposed a shift in thinking for teachers: send work home only if you can make a case that it's important enough to interrupt family time. Kohn believed that it made sense to send home assignments that could only be completed at home, such as an interview with a parent about their career. Leisure reading was another example of homework that he considered appropriate. Completing 50 long division problems would be more appropriately assigned as an in-school project.

Despite Kohn's assertions and the publicity they received when his book was published, teachers continue to send work home, and if it isn't completed, there might be a direct effect on grades. He recommended that parents open a dialog with teachers about the issue - but at the end of the day, Kohn believed that lower grades were a small price to pay "for getting back curiosity and emotional health."

You can read the Maclean's interview here.

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