The Tyranny of Homework: 20 Reasons to Stop Assigning Homework Over the Holidays
By Miriam Clifford
December 20th, 2012Features
Many students agree that assigning homework over the holidays really is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Upon returning from winter break, you’ll probably have a handful of students saying the dog ate their homework or it got blown away in a winter storm. But you’ll probably be surprised to learn that some research suggests assigning too much homework can be a bad thing. A 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times, suggests that some districts have cut back on the amount of homework in the effort to consider children’s social development. In fact, the San Ramon Valley district modified its homework policy and no homework is allowed over weekends and holiday vacations, except for reading.
The US National Education Association recommends no more than ten minutes (of homework) per grade level, per night.
Homework has fallen in and out of favor over the decades. California even established a law in 1901 limiting the amount of homework teachers could assign. Assigning homework is highly in favor now a days. With recent trends of information overload, packed activity schedules, and childhood obesity, it’s no wonder educators are reconsidering their stance on homework.
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Here are 20 reasons why you shouldn’t assign homework over the holidays. Perhaps one of your students will print this list and encourage you to reconsider your ideas about homework.
- Students are learning all the time in the 21st century. According to a recent article in MindShift traditional homework will become obsolete in the next decade. Thanks to computers, learning is occurring 24/7. With access to software programs, worldwide connections, and learning websites such as the Khan Academy, learning occurs all the time. According to Mindshift, “the next decade is going to see the traditional temporal boundaries between home and school disappear.” Try to see if you can bridge the gap between school and home by getting students interested in doing their own research over holiday break. Rather than assigning homework, create a true interest in learning. They will often pursue learning about topics they like on their own. After all, this is the way of the 21st century and information is everywhere.
- More homework doesn’t necessarily equate to higher achievement. Yes, too much homework can actually be a bad thing. A 1989 Duke University study that reviewed 120 studies found a weak link between achievement and homework at the elementary level and only a moderate benefit at the middle school level. In a similar recent review of 60 studies, researchers at Duke U found assigning homework was beneficial, but excessive amounts of homework was counterproductive. The research found homework was more beneficial for older students than younger ones. The study was completed by Harris Cooper, a leading homework research and author of “The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents”. Cooper suggests that teachers at the younger level may assign homework for improving study skills, rather than learning, explaining why many studies concluded less benefit for younger children. Many teachers do not receive specific training on homework. Cooper suggests that homework should be uncomplicated and short, involve families, and engage student interests.
- Countries that assign more homework don’t outperform those with less homework. Around the world, countries that assign more homework don’t see to perform any better. A Stanford study found that in countries like Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic little homework was assigned and students outperformed students in counties with large amounts of homework such as Greece, Thailand, and Iran. American and British students seem to have more homework than most counties, and still only score in the international average. In fact, Japan has instituted no homework policies at younger levels to allow family time and personal interests. Finland, a national leader in international tests, limits high school homework to half hour per night. Of course, there are other factors not taken into account in the study, such as length of the school day. But in itself, it is interesting to see this issue from a world perspective.
- Instead of assigning homework, suggest they read for fun. There are great holiday stories and books you can recommend to parents and students. If you approach the activity with a holiday spirit, many students will be engaged. They may want to check out the stories on their own. You can start by reading the first chapter in class and leaving them intrigued. For instance, you can read the first chapter of TheGift of the Magi and suggest students read it over winter break. With younger students, you might promise roles in a play for students who read over break.
- Don’t assign holiday busy work. Most academics agree that busy work does little to increase learning. It is best to not assign packets of worksheets if they do nothing to add to student learning. You also don’t want to waste valuable time grading meaningless paperwork. Some studies show that much homework may actually decline achievement. Assigning excessive amounts of homework may be detrimental. In fact, a 2006 study by Yankelovick found that reading achievement declined when students were assigned too much homework. Actually, interesting reading such as Harry Potter produced higher reading achievement.
- Have students attend a local cultural event. You can let parents know that instead of assigning homework, you are suggesting students attend a particular event that relates to your classroom. For instance, if you are reading Shakespeare, they might attend a related play or ballet.
- Family time is more important during the holidays. Assigning less homework makes it easier for families to have time together. Family studies at the University of Michigan, show that family time is extremely important to achievement and behavior. Studies on family meals, suggest that students who have dinner with their family have better academic scores and behavioral outcomes. Perhaps this is only a correlation, but family time is undeniably important to child development. Students spent most of their days at school while parents are at work. When all is said and done, remember what it was like being a kid. The things you remember most about the holidays aren’t the assignments you took home, but the time you spend with family and friends.
- For students who travel during the holidays, assigning homework may impede learning on their trip. The Holiday time is the one time of year that many families reconnect with distant family members or travel. I remember having to pack hoards of books over some holidays to Spain and it was not fun. I wanted to enjoy the time with family and experience the country fully. Traveling in itself is a learning activity. Let students experience their travels fully.
- Kids need time to be kids. A recent article from Australia’s Happy Child website, “What is the value of Homework: Research and Reality” considers this issue and explains how children need unstructured play time. Homework can have a negative influence on early learning experiences. Suggest students use holiday time to do physical activity, such as ice-skating or sledding. Many kids don’t get enough exercise. Childhood obesity is a major problem in the United States. Suggesting students play outside or participate in a sport is a good way to get them to value physical activity. The holidays are a great time for kids to go sledding in the snow or play with friends outside. If no one has homework, classmates might exchange phone numbers to play together. You can suggest this to parents. If the teacher thinks physical activity is important, students will too.
- Some education experts recommend an end to all homework. Etta Kralovec and John Buell, authors of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, controversially suggests that homework may be a form of intrusion on family life, and may increase the drop-out rate in high schools. The authors blame homework for increasing the achievement gap due to socio-economic differences in after-school obligations. Consider challenging your own views of the benefits of homework and try to create a level playing field when considering assignments.
- Send a letter to parents explaining why you are not assigning work. You might want to take the Christmas holiday as a chance to engage parents to play a learning game or do some art with their kids. If families know there is an intentional purpose to not assigning work, they may take the chance to spend more one-on-one time with their child.
- You can make the holidays a time for an “open project” for extra credit. Students might take this time to do something related to the curriculum that they would like to explore on their own terms. Before the holidays, you might talk about topics or provide books students for students to take home. Learning for fun and interest, might produce more meaningful engagement than assigning homework.
- Suggest they visit a museum instead. With families at home, the holiday time is a great time for students to see an exhibit that interests them or do a fun activity at a nearby museum. Sometimes encouraging these field trips may be more beneficial than assigning homework. You might want to print coupons, a schedule, or a list of upcoming exhibits so that families have the information at their fingertips.
- Encourage students to volunteer during the holiday time. The holidays are a great time for students to give back. Students might volunteer at a local soup kitchen or pantry. Volunteer organizations are often at their busiest during the holiday time. Plus, students learn a lot from the experience of doing community service. I remember visiting a group home during the holiday time in high school and helping kids wrap Christmas gifts for their families. This is a great alternative to assigning homework, especially for Generation Y who highly values civic involvement.
- Develop a class game. You might have the class play a learning game the week before vacation and have them take it home to show their family. My fourth grade teacher had hop-scotch math. We often drew with chalk outside to replicate her game at home. Try to think of a holiday-themed game or one that the whole family can get involved in.
- Students might learn more from observing the real world. Learning isn’t just about paper and pencil activities. Teachers should also inspire students to seek ways to learn from real-world experiences. They might cook with their parents and practice measuring. Or tag along with a parent who is putting up holiday lights or building a shed. Ask students to observe a job around the house or ask their parents about their job over holiday break. They might be enlightened to learn more about the real world and different jobs they might pursue in the future. Perhaps some students might be able to go to work with their parents instead of a formal assignment.
- Go on a hike. Students learn a great deal from nature. Tell students to go outside on a walk and be ready to share their experience when they get back. Did they observe natural phenomena you talked about in science class or different types of rocks you discussed in geology? Or can you tie their walk into a discussion of poetry?
- Tell students to visit an amusement park. If you are teaching physics or math, amusement parks give ample room to explain the laws of physics and mathematical probability. This outing would allow students to think about the real world implications of science. You may want to even plan a lesson beforehand that ties this idea in. On another level, it allows students to create a lasting memory with their own families.
- Kids need rest! Everyone needs a mental breather and the holidays are the best time for students to play and take a break from school. Kids need a full ten hours of sleep and adequate rest. The vacation time is a great time for students to take a mental breather from school. With many family outings and vacations during the holiday time, they will have less time to complete homework. They will come back to school feeling re-energized.
- Many parents and students dislike holiday homework. You want parents to buy-in to your classroom community and support your endeavors with students. Assigning homework over the holidays is usually unpopular with parents because it may the one time of year they have to give children their undivided attention. Instead, you might want to take a survey to see if parents agree with the idea. You can then send a letter with the survey results. Taking parents’ perspectives into account shows you value their opinions and feedback. Students prefer some free time too. Not surprisingly one student created a Facebook page, titled, “Why do teachers give us homework over the holiday.” If the students know you are giving them a break over the holidays they may work harder for you when they get back.
If you’re still not convinced, check out this fact sheet based on The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. If you still plan on assigning homework over the holidays, at least keep in mind some guidelines.
The US National Education Association recommends no more than ten minutes per grade level, per night. If you must assign homework make sure it is meaningful and doesn’t take away from time with families. And most of all, remember what it was like being a kid during the holiday time. Homework is generally not a part of those memories, nor should it be. Those days playing outside and spending time with family are lifelong memories just as important as school.
Childhood is over in the blink of an eye.
About Miriam Clifford
Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching from City University and a Bachelor in Science from Cornell. She loves research and is passionate about education. She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening. You can find her @miriamoclifford or Google+.
As the holidays come to an end, thoughts of students and lesson plans replace time spent indulging in puddings and turkey. But teachers know all too well that it’s challenging enough to motivate a class on a Monday morning after a weekend, nevermind after a longer break. To reignite energy levels this January here are my tips as a neurologist and former teacher:
What gets the brain’s attention?
All learning starts as information perceived by the five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. There are also millions of sensory nerve endings throughout the skin, muscles and internal organs. But the brain is only able to process about 1% of this information and it gives priority to certain things.
With the help of brain imaging, we can see that the sensory information that gets priority is that which helps mammals survive. This tends to be information that is unexpected – our attention filter first takes in sensory information about change and novelty.
On the first day back get your class to share stories
After a break, there is a higher than normal amount of new sensory information competing for access to the brain. Students have not seen each other for a while and the novelty of returning to school is enhanced by their interest in what classmates did during the holidays.
So beginning the first day back by returning immediately to routine is unlikely to get your students’ attention and can cause bad behavior and inattention. But if you know that a child’s brain is programmed to be curious about new experiences and what friends have done, you can use it to promote important qualities.
Students are likely to want to tell their class about what they got for Christmas or a trip they’ve been on. Tell them they can do this but only if they also share something that they did for others or generous acts that they saw or heard about.
Get class attention through curiosity
It’s essential that students remember the information you teach them. For this to happen, you can use strategies to make sure the sensory information you provide (through what you say, show, do or have them experience through physical movement) gets through their attention filters.
Once students have had the chance to satisfy their curiosity about classmates, you can redirect their focus to classroom instruction by starting with sensory input that is most likely to get through the attention filter. Through neuroimaging research, we know the types of novelty or change that get attention priority include movement, curious objects, pictures, videos, unexpected class visitors or speakers, changes of colour and things you do that are unusual. So why not wear something unusual? Have music playing when children enter class, open with a dynamic video clip, a curious picture, or an optical illusion?
Here are some other suggestions:
What you say (or don’t say). A sudden mid-sentence silence is a curiosity the attention filter wants to know more about. A suspenseful pause in your speech before saying something important increases alertness and memory of what you will say or do next.
Change the furniture arrangement. Or put up photos of last year’s students doing an activity your students will be doing in the unit they are beginning, light a candle, put a new exciting poster relating to the new unit under the one that has been hanging and when you walk by, “inadvertently” bump into the wall so the old one falls down and the new one is suddenly revealed.
Get moving. Since movement gets high priority, you can move in an unexpected way such as doing what you usually do (handing out papers or posting information on the walls) while walking backwards. That could lead to a lesson about negative numbers, negative electric charges, going “back” in history, or the past tense of verbs.
Rotate techniques, lest the unexpected become expected. Greet students at the door with a riddle or a note card with a vocabulary word. They can seek their new seats by looking for the table with the note card that has the riddle answer or the definition of their word.
Good teachers are highly responsive to their students’ moods and needs. Knowing a bit of the neuroscience can help you prepare for times when it’s harder to get your students’ attention. I recall a poster that read:“A Mind Stretched Will Never Revert to its Original Size.” That mind stretching is what teachers do. Using strategies to first captivate their attention will hook into their brains’ intake programing, stimulate their curiosity, and sustain the attentive focus needed to turn information into knowledge.
Judy Willis is a neurologist and former teacher. She writes books and does international presentations about how the brain learns best.