This weekend, a fellow mom asked for my opinions on the value of assigning homework in elementary school. When I first began teaching 9th grade English over 10 years ago, assigning homework seemed like a no-brainer… that is until I realized that I was only getting a small portion of it back from my students. If assigning homework meant daily arguments with students only to reteach work I had already assigned, I wasn’t up for the challenge.

Now that I’m a mother and have become active volunteer at my girls’ school, I am learning how ideas and expectations about homework play out among students, teachers and parents at the elementary level.

Interestingly, the same questions remain: What is the appropriate amount of homework? How much time should students be spending to do homework? What kids of tasks are meaningful for student learning? How much should families help?

What the research says…

I decided to look for informed opinions on the subject. I found a Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, in which she quotes research done by Duke University professor Harris Cooper:

“Elementary school students get no academic benefit from homework — except reading and some basic skills practice — and yet schools require more than ever.

High school students studying until dawn probably are wasting their time because there is no academic benefit after two hours a night; for middle-schoolers, 1 1/2 hours.”

More important, Cooper adds that “most teachers get little or no training on how to create homework assignments that advance learning.” That rang true for me and echoed comments made by many other blogging educators like Justin Tarte and David Truss discussing the value of homework in the their own work.

So if homework is a waste of time, why are we assigning it?

I have certainly seen my share of mindless busywork, and couldn’t agree more that our penchant for “more homework” has gotten in the way of a well-balanced childhood (not to mention dinnertime). Nonetheless, I still couldn’t bring myself to throw out the concept of homework completely. Two hours of homework a night for a second-grader does seem ludicrous. But you can’t expect children to successfully complete their first year of college if they’ve never been expected to do work on their own. It would be a disservice if they didn’t get a reasonable amount of preparation.

The problem with the Homework vs. No Homework Debate, is that it misses one of the most fundamental questions we should be asking: “What is the purpose of homework?” We must first agree on our goals in giving homework, before we can begin to evaluate whether it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, or even whether we should assign it at all.

It seems I’m not alone in my observations of this collective confusion on the subject. As the Washington Times article states, “teachers themselves don’t uniformly agree on something as basic as the purpose of homework (reviewing vs. learning new concepts), much less design or amount or even whether it should be graded.” With all of this inconsistency in assignments and expectations, it’s no wonder teachers, students and parents end up conflicted, frustrated and confused.

What’s the purpose?

In my many years as an educator, I’ve been asked this question a lot, especially by students. Now as a parent, I’m wondering about my own daughters’ schooling. In this process, I’ve come to define the positive outcomes of homework in the following ways:

Any good academic program includes a balance of teacher-directed instruction and independent student practice. That is, in order to internalize new skills and concepts, students need opportunities to practice applying them on their own. Dr. Nancy Hill of Harvard University calls this “scaffolding independence”. Homework can also be a powerful way for teachers to see what kids can do without their assistance.

Homework allows students to integrate new knowledge into the larger context of what they have already learned. Children do this when they learn addition in class and then apply it at home by adding up the cost of items on a shopping list. Dr. Hill’s research shows that students benefit when they receive support from their families in connecting what they are learning in school to current events and future goals. This type of learning not only reinforces the “why?” of learning, it also gives children opportunities to transfer knowledge learned in one field, to another.

When given regularly, homework develops self-discipline, independence and a sense of self-efficacy (the feeling of “I can do this on my own!”). When well-designed and supported homework becomes a part of a student’s routine, it offers regular practice in academic thinking and behaviors that will help him or her later on. For older students, homework offers a chance to develop organization, time-management, and self-assessment skills, that are necessary for college or professional life.

One added benefit of homework can also be to communicate with families about what is going on at school. My girls’ school is now assigning Everyday Math for homework. In this program relies on simple at-home activities that allow families to interact with their children about math concepts being covered in class. In this way parents can become educated about what is being covered in class while they learn ways to enhance and reinforce their child’s learning.

So what does good homework look like?… I’ll talk about that tomorrow in Part 2 of this series.

Related Reads: Homework Tips for Parents, Helping with Homework Doesn’t Help

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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