The Homework Conundrum

Is homework helpful in elementary school? The data says NO, but are schools paying attention?

Some say the best part of school vacations is not family time, nor extra sleep, or even visiting warmer climates. The best part, according to kids and parents alike, is that homework disappears for a full week!

While education has changed dramatically over the last century, one thing has remained astonishingly the same — the much-dreaded nightly homework. Kids hate it! Parents hate it!

The most current research is solidly against homework, finding no correlation between homework in elementary school and any improvement in academic achievement later on. Yet try to eliminate homework and suddenly parents are in an uproar, afraid that their children’s academic future will be undermined. I know this from firsthand experience, when, as the principal of a private school, I instituted a modified homework policy in line with the most up-to-date research. My move was met with some resistance.

A debate about the benefits and shortcomings of homework has been ongoing among scholars and researchers in the world of education. Based on current studies, the prevailing theory is that there is little benefit to homework in elementary school and no positive correlation between having younger children do some (versus no) homework, and no correlation between more (instead of less) homework and any measure of achievement. Although it is contrary to what parents may want, the data raises serious doubts about whether meaningful learning is enhanced by homework for most students.

Ignoring the research, many parents worry that tampering with the traditional nightly homework routine will be an incorrigible mistake. Yet surprisingly, other educational reforms have been welcomed with opened arms. Classrooms, once furnished with ruler-straight rows of desks and chairs, now are filled with children seated around kidney shaped tables. Frontal teaching, once the gold standard, gradually is being replaced by the rotational model, where students are taught in small groups that move through learning centers around the room. But homework is still seen as the holy grail and remains untouchable.

Not all countries hold homework in such high esteem. In France, President Francois Hollande banned homework in 2012. Similarly, there’s no homework in Finland, the country that boasts the highest rate of college attendance in Europe. Even across the United States, a smattering of schools, whose educators pay attention to the latest research data, have banned homework in favor of allowing kids to be kids.

Alfie Kohn, the author of “The Homework Myth,” writes, “Homework is frequently the source of frustration, exhaustion, family conflicts, a lack of time for kids to pursue other interests and, perhaps most disturbingly, less excitement about learning. It may be the greatest single extinguisher of children’s curiosity.”

To remedy the problem of assigning excessive homework, many schools require teachers to adhere to the 10-minute per grade homework policy. At first glance this appears to be a sound and sensible rule, yet in reality this 10-minute policy does not work for everyone because 10 minutes of homework for a strong student can often take up to an hour or more for a struggling student. This undermines the value of a seemingly reasonable policy and wreaks havoc on the family all the same.

I have worked in schools for more than 30 years and so I have heard endless complaints from children and parents about homework — I have heard that children can’t complete their homework without the help of a parent or a tutor, that it can take all evening to finish one assignment, that there’s no time for fun family activities. I’ve seen parents request an afternoon dose of medication to help children who have attention issues maintain focus during evening hours as they work to complete their homework assignments.

Why then do we insist that our young children continue with homework, despite all the latest data? Is it because we all grew up doing homework and it worked out well enough for us? Or is it because homework lends structure to the afterschool hours until parents return home from work? Or because the alternative is simply too much iPad, iPhone, screen time (you fill in the blank), etc.? Or possibly all of the above?

I’m sure we all can agree that the last thing kids want to do at the end of a long school day is take out their books and do more schoolwork. Rather, just like adults at the end of a long day at the office, kids also need to relax and unwind in the evening.Unfortunately, when kids spend their after-school hours doing homework, they have little time left over for extracurricular activities — for playing with friends, for family activities, or for much needed physical exercise at the end of the long school day. Considering that the benefits to homework in elementary school are questionable, the hours and the mental energy that homework consumes could be devoted to doing other things that have much more tangible and productive outcomes.

In this age of technology, when we are all tethered to smart phones, and far too absorbed with digital information, trends, and social media, family time and interpersonal activities can provide a welcome balance toward enhancing a child’s education as much, if not more, than math problems and writing samples. For example: cooking together, building with Lego, playing board games and word games (scrabble, banana grams, puzzles), or other creative adventures all can be educational activities, especially when parents and children engage in them together.

Here are some homework alternatives that can enhance a child’s social and emotional intelligence:

  1. Cook together — learn math using measurements
  2. Go Grocery shopping: read ingredients to help choose the healthiest products for the best prices, figure out best deal between sizes of items
  3. Read together every night — parents reading aloud to children, and children reading aloud to parents
  4. Visit a museum
  5. Go on a hike
  6. Volunteer/do community service
  7. Photograph interesting buildings or landscapes in the neighborhood

With information readily available at our fingertips, research in the techno/computer age is completely different than it was just a few decades ago. Who could have imagined a spell checker on the computer when we were growing up? Or a search engine like Google that can bring up the answer to any question within seconds? The ease of access to information suggests that homework should evolve into something new, thought-provoking, and creative, to meet the needs and challenges of the 21st century learner.

Just as education has changed and evolved over the past century to meet the demands of our ever-changing society, it’s time for homework to do the same. In the words of John Dewey, the famous educational reformer and champion of progressive education, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” I’m sure we all can agree that the time has come to reimagine homework for the technological world of the 21st century. That’s where our students live.

As a school psychologist, past principal, mother, and grandmother, I’ve watched countless young children struggle with homework assignments that we now know may not have had the value we attributed to it, and therefore may not have been necessary. Going forward, let’s pay attention to the recent studies about when homework begins to be effective, and let’s let that data inform our decisions.

During vacation time, as throughout the school year, let’s tell our children to read. According to the data, reading is the only type of homework that leads to improved academic achievement in elementary school age children. So, let’s hold off on homework until middle school, when it will yield the results we are all seeking.

Dr. Tani Foger

Founding Principal Yeshivat He’Atid

School Psychologist & Educational Consultant

Reach her at DrFoger@gmail.com

About the Author
Dr. Tani Foger has worked in the field of education, both in Israel and in the US, for over 35 years. She is an experienced educator and psychologist, with particular expertise in special education, second language acquisition, student learning styles, teacher consultation,social skills, and parenting. She is the Founder and Director of "Let's Talk” - Guidance Workshops for Moving Forward and Conquering the Challenges in our Lives. Dr. Foger is a skilled facilitator offering workshops for all ages at all stages.
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