A TIMSS (Trends in Math and Science Study) survey, conducted in 2007, revealed that fourth grader students in countries that set below average levels of homework were more academically successful in math and science than those in countries that set above average levels. In Japan – ranked second in the results table – only three percent of students reported a particularly heavy workload of over three hours a night while a staggering 20 percent of Dutch students – whose scores were in the international top 10 – claimed to do no homework whatsoever. This is in stark contrast to countries like Greece and Thailand, where higher workloads have done nothing to rectify lower scores.
These results are not alone in debunking the myth that homework in any way benefits the academic performance of elementary students. So why, we should ask, are policymakers and educators so hell-bent on enforcing it? In his 2006 publication The Homework Myth, prolific author and outspoken critic of the current educational system Alfie Kohn set out a well argued and evidentially attested thesis saying that the purpose of homework is twofold. Firstly it’s meant to instill an air of competitiveness in children, not only within the physical classroom, but, because of the quantitatively driven approach of policy experts, within the global classroom – against China, Singapore and Finland, for example. Secondly, homework is used as a weapon to combat adults’ inherent mistrust of children, keeping them busy so they don’t run riot. This latter suggestion may baffle belief, but a concerned parent’s response to the suggestion that homework be banned (‘we have to have homework… otherwise the kids won’t have structure and they will just come home and fool around’) attests to its current orthodoxy.
The thing about homework is that is doesn’t work. As shown by numerous studies, it brings no educational benefits, acts as a root cause of conflict between children, parents and teachers and has detrimental mental and physical effects on children that, by the fact that they’re avoidable, are absolutely inexcusable. Children are not the only ones to fear the evils of homework though. Teachers, under increasing amounts of pressure to meet targets, cover curricula and achieve grades, are incentivized to set more and more of it and grade more and more of it; something that wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t so aware of its utter pointlessness.
The most important problem, however, is that homework is more closely associated with punishment than with pleasure. Made to be completed during time that should be spent engaging in creative, playful and recreational pursuits, homework doesn’t even have the courtesy to be enjoyable by nature – as is completely apparent from my students’ faces when I fulfill my duties to the school in setting it for them. And such truth is not surprising when you consider that for homework to be enjoyable, it would have to be everything it’s not: optional instead of mandatory, creative rather than prescribed and objectively appreciated instead of subjectively assessed. Improvement to our children’s education, until we redefine what our definition of education really is, can only be achieved through one thing, its removal.
“My mother worked as a saleslady at the well-known Five Corner bakery in Journal Square during the day. Her orders were that I do at least one page of homework for every one of my subjects before she came home. It didn’t matter what my teachers would assign, those were her rules and I didn’t dare to violate them! However, I usually allowed others to make the rules and then decide whether I would follow them. Turning on our small Bakelite radio, I would ignore my mother’s rules and listen to my favorite adventure shows.
“Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, Superman, who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, and Tom Mix were my favorite daily half-hour radio programs during the week. Tom Mix was forever solving some mystery that I could help him with, since I had a decoder badge that cost only 10 cents, along with a box top from a Ralston Purina’s “Wheat Chex” cereal box. Since it tasted like straw, wanting to get a decoder badge was the only way I would eat this blah cereal for breakfast.
The radio shows were way too exciting, and my homework always took second place. When my mother finally came home and saw that I had not done my work, she would get quite upset and make me do twice as much, seated at the kitchen table where she could keep her eye on me. Being under her direct supervision wasn’t much fun, but I would sit there until she was satisfied that I had finished my assignments. My mother showed no mercy! If my father found out about my being lax, there would be hell to pay! For whatever reason, I never seemed to learn….
Oh, woe is me, woe is me…. I was in trouble again… No, I was still in trouble!”
― Captain Hank Bracker, "Seawater One...."