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Probing Question Is Homework Bad For Kids


Stevie Naeyaert

Ask an eleven-year-old whether homework is a bad thing, and you'll likely be greeted with vigorous nodding and not a hint of ambiguity. But do grown-up experts agree?

As with so many things, the answer is mixed.

"Very simply, too much of anything can be harmful," says Gerald LeTendre, head of Penn State's Education Policy Studies department. "What Harris Cooper has advised—and he's one of the leading researchers who has some very good, accessible books on the subject—is it's best to have no homework for kindergarten through second grade, and then maybe 10 minutes per day, increasing by 10 minutes as you go up each grade, so that you're up to an hour or hour and a half of homework by middle school."

More than that and there can be negative effects, studies suggest. Overburdened by homework, children may become disillusioned with school and lose motivation. And excessive homework can interfere with time otherwise spent connecting as a family by playing games, taking walks, or just talking about the day. This was a complaint LeTendre heard frequently as he conducted studies of homework amount and frequency.

Among other things, these studies found that the popular opinion that America does less homework than other nations is simply not true. "There are myths about the "lazy Americans," LeTendre notes, "but our findings about amount of homework were that the U.S. tends to be in the middle, not too far to one end or the other."

"Lyn Corno at Columbia University had an article that said 'homework is a complicated thing,' says LeTendre. "We think of homework as something very simple, almost like an afterthought. It's not. It can be a very effective tool, but it is complicated."

One of the complicating factors is age. "Most small children and early adolescents have not yet developed the kind of self-reflective or self-monitoring skills to get the benefit out of either homework or self study," Le Tendre explains. "But as you move into high school, individuals are increasingly self-aware and can better self-monitor."

But age alone will not predict the usefulness of homework. "If the homework isn't addressing the child's actual academic problem, the child is going to continue to fall further behind and get hopelessly lost," LeTendre cautions.

The problem, he adds, is that most teachers use "the shotgun approach," photocopying worksheets and giving each student the same assignment. And many neglect to go over the homework after it's completed, opting instead to merely check off whether or not it was done at all.

"That's not very effective," says LeTendre. "Let's say you assigned a worksheet on addition of two-digit numbers. If that's what the child's been having difficulty with, then maybe the child, by doing it over and over, can figure it out and make some improvements. But maybe not. Maybe the child still doesn't get it and you need to talk about carrying the one. Or maybe the child knows how to do it and is bored to tears. If there's no feedback and no monitoring, the homework is probably not effective."

What is effective, believes LeTendre, is identifying the specific area where the child needs skill-building work, assigning that homework at an individual level, and then going over it with the child at regular periods to be certain that they're making progress.

"That kind of homework is exemplary," notes LeTendre, "and you don't see it very much."

The more teachers individualize homework, in terms of its focus and monitoring, the better, LeTendre says, and the same goes for parental monitoring. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the level of parental involvement that suits your ten year-old may not suit your teenager. Recent studies have found that parental involvement may be positive for elementary and high school students, but negative for middle school kids. "In other words," laughs LeTendre, "don't nag your pubescent children about homework. Kind of common sense."

What's important at all ages is communication. Figuring out what the best homework is takes some time and a little bit of research on the part of both parents and of teachers. According to LeTendre, it is crucial for parents and teachers to be on the same page.

"Read Harris Cooper's books, such as The Battle Over Homework. That would be my first recommendation for parents," he says. "The other would be to go talk to the teacher. Ask the teacher to clarify the goals for this homework. Ask what the expectations are for the parents, and then be up-front with the teacher about what effect this has on the family. Try to negotiate something that works for everyone."

Unfortunately—at least from the perspective of your eleven-year-old—there will still likely be some amount of homework involved.

Gerald LeTendre, Ph.D., is a professor of Education and International Affairs, and Chair of the Education Policy Studies department at Penn State's College of Education. You can reach him at letendre@psu.edu.

The Learning Paradox: How Too Much Homework Harms

How Much Homework is Too Much?

As we build increasing awareness about learning, motivation and the general well-being of children, more people are beginning to wonder if the way we use homework is part of the solution or part of the problem.

The National PTA recommendations fall in line with general guidelines suggested by researcher Harris Cooper: 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for twelfth). High school students may sometimes do more, depending on what classes they take (see Review of Educational Research, 2006).

The National PTA says that “when you add classroom time to homework time, school-age children should not be working longer than an eight-hour day.”  (Hints to Help Reduce Homework Stress pta.org)

According to my research and my own experience as a parent, children in elementary school are sometimes being given homework that takes their required school time well beyond an eight-hour day.  Spending too much time on homework means losing important family time and missing out on exercise, time outside and other stress-reducing activities. For these reasons and others, it can create more stress for children than they know how to handle if too much homework is given too early in their development.

Paradoxically, by trying to help children learn more by adding graded homework for every child,we may be hurting the learning process more than we’re helping it.

Here are some of the reasons why giving homework for additional practice is not necessarily better for learning:

…Because love of learning is driven by curiosity and exploration, not repetition.

children “lack the time to pursue interests they care about” Homework Harms Kids, Says Debunker, by Kris Rushowy, TheStar.com

“damaging our kids’ interest in learning.” The Myth About Homework, Time Magazine

“single greatest extinguisher of a child’s curiosity” Homework Harms Kids, Says Debunker, by Kris Rushowy, TheStar.com

“I’ve heard from schools in the U.S. that have banned homework that kids are more likely to read for pleasure, to follow the news in the newspaper, to pursue a question online, to show their parents a science experiment they did at school, and so on.” Homework Harms Kids, Says Debunker, by Kris Rushowy, TheStar.com

I agree with Bill Glassner (1992, p. 231) that children would be better emerging from schooling ignorant, than hating to learn. It’s the children’s willingness to learn that is most harmed by compulsory homework. Children don’t like it, many parents don’t like it, teachers don’t like it. For good reason.” Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

…Because completing independent work requires a level of development that only comes with age and is not well developed in the elementary and early middle school years.

“One of the complicating factors is age. Most small children and early adolescents have not yet developed the kind of self-reflective or self-monitoring skills to get the benefit out of either homework or self-study” LeTedre explains.  Probing Question: Is Homework Bad for Kids? by Alexa Stevenson

…Because more homework is not better for the child.

“It is generally agreed that the younger the child, the less time the child should be expected to devote to homework. A general rule of thumb is that children do 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. Therefore, first graders should be expected to do about 10 minutes of homework, second graders 20 minutes, third graders 30 minutes, and so on. If your child is spending more than 10 minutes per grade level on work at night, then you may want to talk with your child’s teacher about adjusting the workload.” Homework: A Guide for Parents by Peg Dawson, EdD, National Association of School Psychologists Online

“The trouble seems to crop up in the elementary grades when kids do too much homework — defined by some as an hour or more. Studies have shown a negative correlation between math scores and the amount of homework completed. In other words, the more homework the students did, the worse they performed on math tests.”  Does More Homework Mean Better Grades? ABC World News With Diane Sawyer

…Because too much homework creates a burden on students and harms their academic skills.

“Prior to the late high school years, children who are given more than 30 minutes of homework a night show declines in their academic skills, compared with children who are given none. “  Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

“The problem, he (LeTendre) adds, is that most teachers use ‘the shotgun approach,’ photocopying worksheets and giving each student the same assignment.” Probing Question: Is Homework Bad for Kids? by Alexa Stevenson

“Teachers have to set homework, police its completion, and mark it. For the majority of students who are progressing well, this extra work is an unnecessary burden on both students and teachers. If instead teachers could design specific remedial activities for the handful of struggling students, both they and their students would be less burdened.” Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

…Because too much homework takes the place of things children need, like relaxed family time, play and rest.

“Homework eats into relaxation time, which would offset stress.” Bill Glassner, quoted in  Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

“takes the place of “evenings for family and serendipity” The Myth About Homework, Time Magazine

“Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.1” The Importance of Play in Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds by Kenneth Ginsberg, MD, and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, American Academy of Pediatrics

“Homework does not meet children’s needs and indeed violates their requirements for recreational and extra-curricular activity time, and for sleep…” Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

“homework demands can limit the time available to spend on other beneficial activities, such as sport and community activities” Homework: Is it Worth It? Memory-key.com

Bright students who are conscientious about doing homework have no time left to pursue other recreational activities; less able students do not do the homework but because this defines them as failures, they do little else either.” Bill Glassner quoted in Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

…Because when children who have not developed the skills to handle independent work are given challenging assignments and asked to do them by themselves without parent help, it creates a stressful dilemma for them and their parents.

 “nightly grind that is stressing out children”  New Recruit in Homework Revolt: The Principal, The New York Times

“brought home homework only a parent could complete”  Do Kids Have Too Much Homework? SmithsonianMag.com

“straining parent-kid relationships” The Myth About Homework, Time Magazine

“Most homework is more easily and better done at school.” Bill Glassner quoted in Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

“turned their living room in to an anguished battleground” Do Kids Have Too Much Homework? SmithsonianMag.com

“Then there’s the nightly nagging to get started on the homework. This policing role leads to tension in the family and disputes between parents and the many children who cannot or do not want to do the work.” Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

…Because to get the homework done and protect free time, parents, children and teachers have to lower their standards for completing the homework, which sends the wrong message to children.

“schools are deciding what happens during family time” Homework Harms Kids, Says Debunker, by Kris Rushowy, TheStar.com

“To avoid arguments, teachers (and parents) accept low quality homework, sending the message that it is acceptable to do poor work.” Bill Glassner quoted in Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

While there are differences of opinion on the impact of too much homework, I believe that we need to fiercely protect the rights of all children to keep their:

  1. curiosity
  2. love of learning
  3. time to play, and
  4. time with family and friends

…and that whatever approach we take to the homework issue should be in that context.

“When we lack choice, activities become work, and when they are joyless, they teach us very little – other than to dislike them.” Homework Hysteria by Louise Porter, Child Psychologist

Additional Resources: 

Research Spotlight on Homework National Education Association, nea.org

Homework: What the Research Says Brief National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, nctm.org

Rethinking Homework by Alfie Kohn, Principal

Research Spotlight on Homework, National Education Association, nea.org

American Students are Underwhelmed by Homework Assignments Carnegie Mellon

Do Students Have Too Much Homework?  The Brookings Institute

The Balanced View: Homework Sharingsuccess.org

For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

2014 Axiom Business Book Award Winner About 7 LensesInfo@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt@7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 

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