Homework: Is It So Bad?

I am one of those people who always loved school. At age seven, I woke up with a fever and begged to go to school even as I could barely stand. I was on the rare end of the spectrum of being independently disciplined with my homework routine afterschool as a latchkey kid. I took a break with a snack and Hawaii Five-0, and then I worked until my parents got home. I loved learning. I loved the feeling of accomplishment when completing an assignment. I know I am not normal, and my personal experience should not be applied generally, even to my own children.

I have seen the recent articles and passionately stated opinions about not having homework expectations for kids. It seems there is quite a range of homework expectations out there – from an unnecessarily long list of tasks for a kindergartener to accomplish each night, to nothing for older elementary school-age kids. I have read the headlines about understanding child development in the context of what is really important to learn socially and emotionally in early years, which should take second place to academics.

My biggest hope for my own children when it comes to education is that they experience a love of learning and a sense of community, which shapes them socially, emotionally, and intellectually. But is homework so bad? I worry when my kids can skate through our evening routine carefree that they are not learning other important lessons about work ethic, responsibility, and doing something challenging when we don’t want to. I fast forward to their future careers and worry that they will be underperforming and lazy rather than passionate and committed, doing tasks they don’t like in service of a larger vision.

So I did what many of us do when we have a burning question about the zeitgeist in parenting: I asked one of my Facebook parenting groups.

This brilliant group – with many educators – steered me to the top researchers on this issue. The teachers in the group were especially passionate that in elementary school, homework causes more problems than good. They shared both anecdotes and their understanding of the research.

What I learned kind of rocked my world view, and I can be pretty loyal to my own opinion sometimes (aka stubborn). The most humbling was the consensus that the main reason elementary teachers give homework is because parents want them to, despite it being counter to what science tells us about effectiveness of homework at these ages. What kind of “Art and Science Mom” am I if I don’t pay attention to the science, but stubbornly insist my kids should do homework because I did homework and it was good for me?

So I went to the science – specifically, John Hattie, educational researcher known for his meta-analysis of meta-analyses (that means a study of all the results compiled by studies of multiple studies), which showed that homework had no effect on grades. How is it possible that homework had ZERO effect on grades?

Thankfully, someone else with a better grasp of statistics wrote a critique of this landmark Hattie conclusion, which echoed my own concerns about taking a research finding too much to heart. Although the meta-analysis can give us a compilation of multiple studies, which is obviously helpful, the nature of it includes inherent flaws.

First, only studies with statistically significant findings are published; there are many studies that may have valuable information to add to the big picture, but because they are not published, their findings are not included. Sometimes, a non-significant finding can be just as important, but this is a longstanding problem in academia.

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Perhaps more importantly, though, when a large amount of statistical findings are lumped together, key differences can be lost, especially in soundbite headlines. For example, there was a big difference between younger kids and older kids, with older kids showing that homework did make a statistically strong difference. And a meta-analysis is not precise, losing potentially important details to how we use findings in real life (for example, homework may help learning in certain subjects). The author of the critique argues that homework is too nuanced a topic to boil down to the big conclusion that it doesn’t help learning.

Just to confuse us, teacher and neuroscientist, Helen Silvester, points to a meta-analysis that shows homework DOES significantly relate to positive academic achievement. (Say what? Do we have a contradiction in research?) She goes on.

Silvester refers to Hattie’s work, citing the difference between primary and secondary students, and his recommendation that giving separate/new assignments to primary students is not as helpful as assignments that reinforce what they have already learned. From a brain development perspective, she argues that short-term memory is operating in the classroom when kids are learning material for the first time. A worthy goal of homework is to solidify this material in long-term memory through repetition and practice outside of the classroom.

Silvester also offers a nice list of “general rules” to help make homework successful. Which is where I lose her, because this is where parenting reality runs head-on into an expert’s theory.

For example, Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle. Well, that sounds just lovely. I will tell my child we are “sharing information” and I’m sure her enthusiasm will pick right up! And, Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory. Again, that sounds fantastic. After 20 minutes of white-knuckling through math problems on the verge of both of us melting down in frustration, let’s look at all the problems AGAIN!

So, homework may not help all of our kids academically as much as we assume, but it may not be as universally useless as some may argue. What about the arguments on how else it affects kids? Anecdotally, it is pretty clear that homework time can turn into power struggle time, and an eruption of emotion and conflict that leaves us questioning if it’s worth it. One study found that more than two hours of homework a night for high schoolers can have negative effects physically, socially, and emotionally. Come to think of it, I was pretty stressed and anxious as a teenager . . . and I definitely did more than two hours of homework a night.

Digging into this homework issue shows us again the limitations of looking to science and research to truly respond to our concerns. In all this evidence about the positive and negative effects of homework, nowhere did I find out whether or not my children with little homework will end up jobless in my basement with no sense of responsibility or work ethic. Where’s the study on that?

This is where I rely on my mega talented parent group. These teacher-parent superheroes assured me that there are so many other ways to instill responsibility in our children. As soon as they pointed that out, I felt like I had been missing the obvious forest for my tiger mom trees. Duh. Household chores. Community service activities. Earning allowance.

Researching this topic actually changed me, and my parenting. I had fallen into the homework trap with my second grader, a portion of our short evening together devolving into tears and pencils flying through the air. My worries about her future work ethic pushing me to push her, even if I tried to do so with compassion and encouragement. It was still pressure that she communicated in no uncertain terms was too much for her.

We recently went to her parent-teacher conference. The teacher spent forty minutes showing us the stacks of work she has done the last few weeks. We heard about how she would write for hours if she could, needing reminders to stop for lunch. It hit me hard: she had an amazing work ethic at school, and she was TIRED by the time she got home.

The science may not have shown me as clear a conclusion as I wanted, but it absolutely challenged my personal beliefs. In doing so, I have felt a burden lifted. Now, I check in with my industrious elementary student about the status of homework, but no longer do I push her. She’s in second grade – it’s not like not doing one math packet a week will ruin her college applications. But maybe this has been another good warm-up lap to challenge my overachiever tendencies before it does matter for college. 

Again people, this parenting gig is a marathon, not a sprint. As we pace ourselves, we can also change and grow and correct well-meaning mistakes. In this case, my "instinct" may have actually been my own demons of perfectionism and overachievement speaking to me. When I took a step back to look at the science, it helped uncover my maternal instinct to nurture my child's love of school in a different way than I expected.