The middle school version of John McAuliff might have been onto something. Note: This is not a photo of the actual middle school version of John McAuliff. Just a photo to illustrate the universal frustration of homework. (Photo from JupiterImages)
When I was in middle school, I never understood homework.
“Work is for school!” A miniature me would insist to my exasperated parents. Home is for family, for relaxing, and for having playdates — at least I felt it should be.
As it turns out, my middle school defiance might have been the right idea.
All that homework might have been a waste of time. No — not even a waste of time.
It may have been detrimental to educational progress, according to a new study from the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The experiment followed 10,000 students around the world, and found that those burdened with homework actually achieved lower scores.
In the last two years before college, homework was found to have some benefit, but in general, it simply made students unhappy.
A 2010 study found that unhappier employees made for worse performance and lower profits.
It appears that what we are seeing in schools might not be that different.
In the schooling scenario, the unhappy employees are overburdened, unhappy students. The lower profits are lower test scores, which in the United States can get schools shut down.
It appears that reducing homework could make students happier, and possibly improve test scores, assuming the relationship is causal.
When told that homework might not have been effective, many students expressed bitterness, and even anger, mixed with a dash of “I told you so!”
Bridget Whan-Tong, University of Richmond freshman and Marley Smit, a Hampshire College sophomore agreed that, in Bridget’s words, “I would be a little upset because I had to actually do all that work for six years.”
Smit also agreed that “I can see how it makes the work kids do in school less enjoyable. It did make me resent school a lot more than I could have because of all the extra work.”
Claire Suh, also a Richmond freshman, thinks that overburdening students with homework creates a “just get it done” motivation that “could perpetuate an apathetic demeanor about education and learning.”
None of the students thought that homework was ineffective, but stopped short of suggesting it be done away with entirely.
They argued that it is the amount of homework that is the problem, not the concept.
Smit and Jason Kuster, a Case Western Reserve University sophomore, gave their proposals for homework reform:
“I think homework that served almost as a mini-quiz of what was taught in class that day might be a good exercise in memory retention.” Smit said.
“A system in which I learned some of the material outside of class, had it reinforced in class, and had any issues cleared up then would really work for me.” Kuster added.
How should homework be reformed? Should it be done away with entirely, or perhaps more personalized?
John McAuliff is a Spring 2012 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent. Learn more about him here.
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A TIMSS (Trends in Math and Science Study) survey, conducted in 2007, revealed that fourth grader students in countries that set below average levels of homework were more academically successful in math and science than those in countries that set above average levels. In Japan – ranked second in the results table – only three percent of students reported a particularly heavy workload of over three hours a night while a staggering 20 percent of Dutch students – whose scores were in the international top 10 – claimed to do no homework whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to countries like Greece and Thailand, where higher workloads have done nothing to rectify lower scores.
These results are not alone in debunking the myth that homework in any way benefits the academic performance of elementary students. So why, we should ask, are policymakers and educators so hell-bent on enforcing it? In his 2006 publication The Homework Myth, prolific author and outspoken critic of the current educational system Alfie Kohn set out a well argued and evidentially attested thesis saying that the purpose of homework is twofold. Firstly it’s meant to instill an air of competitiveness in children, not only within the physical classroom, but, because of the quantitatively driven approach of policy experts, within the global classroom – against China, Singapore and Finland, for example. Secondly, homework is used as a weapon to combat adults’ inherent mistrust of children, keeping them busy so they don’t run riot. This latter suggestion may baffle belief, but a concerned parent’s response to the suggestion that homework be banned (‘we have to have homework… otherwise the kids won’t have structure and they will just come home and fool around’) attests to its current orthodoxy.
The thing about homework is that is doesn’t work. As shown by numerous studies, it brings no educational benefits, acts as a root cause of conflict between children, parents and teachers and has detrimental mental and physical effects on children that, by the fact that they’re avoidable, are absolutely inexcusable. Children are not the only ones to fear the evils of homework though. Teachers, under increasing amounts of pressure to meet targets, cover curricula and achieve grades, are incentivized to set more and more of it and grade more and more of it; something that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t so aware of its utter pointlessness.
The most important problem, however, is that homework is more closely associated with punishment than with pleasure. Made to be completed during time that should be spent engaging in creative, playful and recreational pursuits, homework doesn’t even have the courtesy to be enjoyable by nature – as is completely apparent from my students’ faces when I fulfill my duties to the school in setting it for them. And such truth is not surprising when you consider that for homework to be enjoyable, it would have to be everything it’s not: optional instead of mandatory, creative rather than prescribed and objectively appreciated instead of subjectively assessed. Improvement to our children’s education, until we redefine what our definition of education really is, can only be achieved through one thing, its removal.