Out Homework

As children are getting ready for the start of the school year, parents are likely prepping the kitchen table's inevitable transformation into their kids' homework station. With the amount of homework currently assigned to students, it seems kids spend most of their waking hours reading, studying, writing, memorizing, analyzing. When are they supposed to spend time outdoors to run through the grass, ride their bicycles, or climb trees? When do they just get to be kids? 

A LITTLE HISTORY ON HOMEWORK

Homework’s feeble start can be traced back to days when children of every age were grouped into one school room, all learning at a different level. (Remember the schoolhouse in Little House on the Prairie?) During an era when children worked on the family farm and were depended upon to complete important household tasks, relatively little time was spent at in the classroom. So when children were expected to recite lessons at school, they had no choice but to prepare at home.

The current debate on homework is not a new topic among parents. Believe it or not, there was an early movement to ban homework that began back in 1900; by the 1930s and 40s, many schools had eradicated homework altogether for grades K-6.

“The first backlash began in the early 20th century as repetitive drilling came under attack, and by the '40s, homework had lost favor.”— NY Times

So why the ebb and flow of homework? If you take a quick look at American history, it’s easy to identify issues that motivated our country to hit the books past school hours. An article in The New York Times shares:

“The launch of Sputnik in 1957 generated hysteria that we were losing ground to the Soviet Union, and more homework was one response, but the practice again waned in the 1960s. Homework came roaring back after “A Nation at Risk” in the 1980s as Americans again feared their children were falling behind.”

Sure, it can be beneficial to continue practicing math equations and to read literature assignments at home. Applying concepts learned in school to situations outside of the classroom is essential, but how much homework is too much? According to the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association, the standard is 10 minutes of homework for every grade, meaning 1st graders get 10 minutes, and high school seniors should have a total of 120 minutes. But children are being assigned much more work than that. Some kindergartners are getting as much as 25 minutes of homework a night, the same amount meant for 3rd graders.

Is all this homework actually helping our children, or is it a disservice to their physical, mental, and social development?

EFFECTS OF EXCESSIVE HOMEWORK

Research shows an obvious increase in both mental and physical health issues that relates to the amount time children spend on homework. Kids are suffering from anxiety, depression, ulcers, migraines, sleep deprivation, and weight loss, all that can be attributed to the decline in the amount of time children spend playing.

“One hundred years ago, rather than diagnosing children with attention deficit disorder, pediatricians simply prescribed more outdoor exercise. Homework was blamed for nervous conditions in children, eyestrain, stress, lack of sleep, and other conditions,” states the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kids who spend a large amount of after-school time on homework don’t necessarily benefit from the extra work. Stephanie Donald-Pressman of The New England Center for Pediatric Psychology shares: ”The data shows that homework over this level is not only not beneficial to children's grades or GPA, but there's really a plethora of evidence that it's detrimental to their attitude about school, their grades, their self-confidence, their social skills and their quality of life."

When children spend multiple hours on homework after school, they're apt to miss out on playing with friends and family activities and have less time for extra curricular activities, which in turn results in less physical activity each day. Complex at-home projects can often require parental assistance and often computer work. Too much time spent on computer screens directly before bed actually makes falling asleep more difficult, which in turn leads to being tired at school, less attentive, and less engaged in their lessons.  

Image via Venspired


THE IMPORTANCE OFPLAY

Child psychotherapist Katie Hurley emphasizes the importance of play: “We are conditioned to believe that pen, plus paper, plus books equals learning. Truth is play equals learning.

An article in the The Atlantic written by an American educator teaching abroad describes the Finnish tradition of giving school children frequent breaks—15 minutes for every 45 minutes spent in the classroom. While the American teacher first viewed the practice as excessive, he began to see the benefits. Freedom from structure allows the children to recharge, and when they return to the classroom, they’re more attentive. “It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.”

Children don’t need worksheets to apply lessons they’ve learned in school. When they spend time outside running around, engaging with other children, they learn social skills like problem-solving and decision-making, co-operation, helping to enhance their social-emotional development. Play is beneficial to teenagers, too, helping to develop independence and perseverance.

Play offers children a break from structure. It gives them opportunities to apply their skills on their own terms, to make decisions, experience the consequences, and learn from their choices. Play is their homework, essential in cultivating creativity, in growing strong and thoughtful minds. A better balance of homework and play should be stuck in an effort to most effectively educate our children--to help them grow into well-rounded, intuitive, inquisitive, and thoughtful adults. 

How much time does your child spend doing homework each day? Do you think it’s a fair amount? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.

Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was  decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.

“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”

That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.

The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.

“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.

Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.

Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.

Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great  a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.

In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.

“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”

Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?

No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.

“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”

Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.

Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.

“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”

Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.

“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”

Reinventing Homework
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?

One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.

Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.

“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”

But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.

“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”

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