Homework May Be the Biggest Impediment to Learning

I am feeling quite a bit of anxiety, stress, and confusion as I type these words and my feelings have nothing to do with COVID, well, not directly anyway. I am tense because it is mid-afternoon and my son Nico hasn’t started on his school remote learning modules. He tells me he will and I am feeling more and more ok with him having control over his time and choose when he tackles the assignments, but it’s not easy. No matter how much I believe in student agency and that the self-management, accomplishments, and failures are the learning but head and heart sometimes don’t reconcile. Nico has to find his own way, but as a parent, I am grappling with the amount of support I am supposed to give him so that he can find that way. I know in my head what is the best way to make sure Nico succeeds (and learns from failures), but there is still that little voice—which is ever so loud—that tells me to go save him, to keep him on track, to make sure he doesn’t sabotage his prospects of going to a top university of his choice (whatever that means). I want to rescue him from himself so he can fit that nice little narrative. 

Deep down, I know none of this matters. He will fall on his feet and so long as he is happy, that is what is important. Sure, he has to be in a position to be happy, and that comes with having manifold options in front of him (that is, not have doors closed because of lack of “demonstrable achievements”), but succeeding academically and getting into college are not the end goal.

The reason the school remote learning modules are put off is that Nico prefers to spend his time doing things that feed his curiosity. This week he wants to document what he has built on Minecraft: his contraptions, buildings, and social settings. He has been completely absorbed in researching which (free) software best suits his needs for screen capture, recording the computer audio as well as his voiceover, editing, color and audio enhancement, storyboarding, and showcasing his best constructions. He then plans to upload the video to his newly created YouTube channel. This is as authentic as it gets: a meaningful project that he is researching on his own, learning about, solving problems through researching workarounds (the dual audio input), taking the project up and taking a break at will, challenging himself because the concept came from his imagination and he set his own goals, making the product public, growing his numeracy skills and telling the story through unfolding sequences and descriptors (in unconventional ways)*.

This is the learning that really matters. So I am thrilled that he has taken on this project. It’s wonderful to see him excited and enthusiastic about his learning. The skills, competencies, and dispositions he is picking up contribute to his intellectual and socio-emotional growth and will transfer onto other projects as he feels more and more successful. In this light, it doesn’t make any sense for me to worry about his future as a learner and a doer. He is showing, in my eyes, amazing potential and achievement, as well as drive and enthusiasm to explore his own curiosities. 

It also makes clear why he is putting off his regular remote learning schoolwork as much as possible. Nico is still producing quality school work because we have an agreement that he has to keep up with the modules, but we both know that it’s a procedural/compliance issue in order to get the grades that will allow him to succeed within the system. Neither of us is attaching any value to the material. It just needs to get done. Kind of like unloading the dishwasher or hanging up the laundry**.

This makes me ask “During the normal school year, why is it ok for homework to get in the way of what children actually want to do and learn on their own time?” I wonder “How does time doing homework take away from the learning and growing that will make the kids’ lives more fruitful and joyful?” I begin to imagine what a life without homework would be like. Kids coming home and relaxing for a while after a long school day, which may or may not have included after school activities, which would have extended the day even more and tired out their bodies and minds. Kids having the time to be outside and engage in free play or socializing, parents free from having to be the homework enforcer. Children reading more about a topic that interests them or looking up on YouTube how to do something they’ve been wondering about. Family dinners, partly prepared by the children, that are longer, more interactive, with deeper conversation. Kids free to read or try something new, without any deadlines, just pure joy and self-management. Less stress, more rest, happier lives.

Ok, this is an idyllic dream† but even coming back down to earth, a school that does not have homework is a school whose students experience less stress, less anxiety, and better physical health. It is a school where students have time to be kids and explore and deepen their interests, without having to jump through hoops to complete assignments that may or may not contribute to life-worthy learning. It is also a school that does not lead to intra-family stress from homework. It is a school that does not exacerbate socio-cultural disparities where some parents have more time, education, and resources to support with homework than others. It is a school that most likely has a lower suicide rate as stress alleviates and more time is given got school-life harmony.

While homework is meant to reinforce skills or make time for activities that cannot be completed during class time, it comes with a significant opportunity cost: time for oneself, discovery, personal interests, rest, and family time. Alfie Kohn has been one of the most assertive writers to expose the negative effects of homework. He argues convincingly that “there is no reason to think that most students would be at any sort of disadvantage if homework were sharply reduced or even eliminated.” He highlights the risks homework pose to students’ interest in learning, specifically because the process of homework is so painfully meaningless so much of the time.

Since time is a finite resource, we must consider whether the skills homework is supposed to hone are worth the tradeoffs against greater well-being, social relationships, and time to devote to what is personally meaningful (as well as family). Will doing Math problems 1-15 (odd) or completing a worksheet on parts of the brain really develop our children into kind, empathetic humans able to cultivate their own learning and adapt to uncertainty? There should be room within the school day to complete all the work that we has traditionally been given as homework and not have it spill over into the home. Keeping these assignments at school would provide each student with access to the teacher or a peer in case the student runs into difficulty, and it would take the burden of homework off the parents. 

If we need more time than the school day can provide to reinforce skills, maybe we need to re-think our priorities of what we teach,  how we group children, or how the schedule is organized? Why can’t we systematically move away from the algorithmic worksheet and encourage heuristic learning through the application of the skills when students need them for their own personal projects? What if we had an apprenticeship model where students sought others as and when they needed to learn something specific at a specific time for a specific purpose? (This is, after all, what they do when they look something up on YouTube). What skill or piece of content are we teaching is so important that it should take the place of an idea, hobby, or project that the student is interested in or curious about at a personal, motivating level? 

When I was at The Harbour School, we had a no homework policy across all grades—including Middle School and High School—which made the school an outlier within most educational settings, but even more so in Hong Kong, where local culture places so much stress on exams and traditional academic achievement. Having no homework gave each student more time to take on independent learning, based on what they wanted to learn about. We did require students to report back on their personal projects and meet with their advisors to weave their outside activities into the curriculum. This turned the tables and created a flexible curriculum that met the needs of the students by providing a context to teach them skills based content that interested them, helping partly to overcome the disaffection students have for content that they don’t see as relevant. 

One student was interested in fashion. She took classes outside the school in fashion and then wrote about it in Social Studies. She put to use the skills and competencies she learned in class (use of sources, writing, cross-cultural understanding) for something that interested her, deepening and broadening her understanding. Another student who was into comic books wrote his own in his spare time and for his school project researched the influence of World War II on comic books. A third student took a free online course on Dog Psychology (he wanted to be a vet) and brought what he was learning into the Biology classroom. The possibilities are endless when we provide meaningful contexts within which to apply skills as and when they’re needed. This is what fosters deeper learning.  This is how we answer the question “why school?”

I am not certainly not the first person to question the value of homework and many studies and authors (see above) are better positioned than I am to make the case. I am writing from the point of view of a parent who is seeing first hand how task-based homework that isn’t perceived as meaningful by my children is getting in the way of their development and our family’s well-being. I am thinking about what it should mean to flip the classroom, not so that students learn algorithms at home (online?) and practice them in class, but rather so they bring what they love to do on their own time to the classroom, learning the skills they need in school (or anywhere!) to go to the next level. Writing persuasive texts requires the same fundamental skills no matter the content, but creating a culture where the students bring their hobbies into the classroom gives them a reason to write. We need a culture where students don’t leave their baggage at the door. We need a culture based on relationships and caring, where the adults guide students to deeper learning by getting to know them and and supporting them to go farther.

I don’t think having the school day spill over into the home is the most effective use of anyone’s time. Again, I am not pretending to be a groundbreaker on this subject, but I am willing to bet that I am not the only parent who values happiness, mental health, and social well-being for my children over algorithmic tasks. I see what my kids are learning during the lockdown and look at the work they’re being asked to do for school††, and I wonder what the point is. How much will have stuck by September? Does remembering this stuff even matter? What will be relevant for them in 10 years? To me, it seems that taking the fetters off their learning by getting rid of homework is the best way to make sure kids grown into kind, productive, and curious human beings.

*I appreciate how fortunate we are and that in order to be able to build on Minecraft you have to have access to a device and not everyone has this access. 

** Though I could argue that hanging up the laundry is a skill that will last a lifetime, whereas memorizing the periodic table is not. In fact, there is more value in hanging up laundry than in most things.

†So much depends on family values, socio-economic circumstances, the climate at home… so many communities don’t have the financial resource or the support networks to facilitate exploring passions. Life experiences feed curiosity and build schemata. If homes can’t provide these experiences, maybe schools are the best hope. I will also add that it is tremendously for schools to encourage reading at home.

††This is a systemic issue, not a problem with his individual teachers, who are doing their best with what they have and what they’re told to do.

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