Rethinking Homework

A breakthrough national study of Canadian Schools that was released today concluded that, “homework is of little benefit to students from junior kindergarten to Grade 6, [and] it is often the source of stress and burnout in children, as well the cause of conflict – even marital stress – for many families.”

So, does that mean high school educators can continue piling on homework?

Surely homework doesn’t stop being stressful in later grades, and it certainly still is a major factor in students burning out, especially students who are heavily involved in sports, activities, church, and things like dance or club teams.  In addition, more students than ever are holding part time jobs. Over a third of teenagers have jobs in high school and another third volunteer at least an hour a week.

In addition to these enrichment activities and obligations, teenagers have more complicated home lives than ever.

If a high school teacher is to give homework, they should first hold the work up to some scrutiny. If a piece of homework can’t pass the following test, it shouldn’t be assigned.

  1. Is the homework truly enriching? If the work we send home with kids is not as valuable as the other activities they’re engaging in and the family interactions they could be having, then the work serves no purpose but to turn kids off to the subject at hand and to take them away from other worthwhile priorities.
  2. Can the homework be easily copied? Sending work outside of the classroom that is easily copied – things like word finds, crossword puzzles, worksheets, and study guides -creates a tempting situation that nearly every student succumbs to eventually.
  3. Is the homework about memorization rather than application? Homework should strive to promote understanding by letting the student actually apply knowledge in a unique way or fill a real-world application.

Teachers giving homework must also be aware that students often go home to sick parents, relationship troubles, physically and emotionally abusive situations, obligations to babysit siblings, and a lack of any quality places to study and learn. Assigning homework immediately puts these students at a disadvantage and rewards more fortunate students, creating a divide that carries over into the classroom.

Truly motivated students will choose to learn outside of the classroom, bringing home with them burning questions and new ways of thinking. Inspiring lessons stick with learners after school and change the way they view the world.

Granted, some homework is necessary and can be positive. High school students electing to take high level courses and elective classes know the potential homework load before volunteering for the classes they take. Often, homework can extend learning and enrich a course. However, not all homework is equal. Teachers need to keep their egos in check and understand that their class and the work they assign are rarely the most important things a student will experience in his or her day. They must also acknowledge the complex and busy lives of their students and the hidden message homework can send about learning and a subject.

All teachers and parents who still hold to traditional notions of homework’s benefits should read The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning.

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  • Brad

    While I agree with many of your points I think the benefits of homework in high school outweigh the negatives.

    Without it kids would not be prepared for the vast workload of college and life.

    Crosswords or not, responsibility is something homework helps build.

  • admin

    I think there are other ways students can build responsibility that would prepare them better for college and beyond.

    First of all, college doesn’t involve homework like word finds and the increased workload is made up for a shorter amount of time in class. Much of college homework is self-directed, and much of high school homework is didactic and scripted. To truly teach the right kind of self-reliance and responsibility, teachers should only assign that type of homework.

    Secondly workers are compensated, often at time-and-a-half, for work they do beyond their normal work day. High schoolers aren’t.

    I do agree that there is homework that can be positive and transformative. Like I said, not all homework is bad. I assign homework myself. I just want to be careful of the amount and type that I give.

  • Keeper of the Kobolds of Kher Keep

    People need to remember when they read this that they only claim that homework is useless IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. Worksheets, crosswords, word finds, and other things that are useless are stupid, but that’s a far cry from journal entries in Lit or ethanographies in Writing.

    My main beef is when teachers assign elementary-style homework in high school. That’s just dumb.

  • McCallum

    That makes sense.

    Things like Ethnographies are incredibly enriching and can’t possibly be done within class or school. Journal Entries in Lit are things that students in the class know they’re getting into and they also enrich and expand a curriculum.

  • sasleson


  • Brian Kuhn

    Interesting… just saw this tweeted out but noticed it’s written 2 1/2 years ago. Anyway, I just wrote a post What Homework Should Be

    I totally agree with your perspective (rare for me to totally agree on something…), in particular point #3 “Homework should strive to promote understanding by letting the student actually apply knowledge in a unique way or fill a real-world application.” I added a twist though where I wonder how technology might help… I’d appreciate your comments on my thoughts on this topic.

    • mccallum

      Thanks for the reply and the complement, even if the post is old. I’m going to head over to your blog and check out your thoughts now.

      Thanks again.

  • Jo Hawke

    The points you make are why I stopped assigning worksheets and other “busy work” to my high-school students: it was merely HW for HW’s sake, and they were all cheating on it anyway–learning very little. Now, HW is doing independent reading (novels) and drafting essays, much of which, if you’re diligent, can be completed during class.

    The overwhelm I’ve seen firsthand with my first-grader. His 30-45 minutes of homework a night crushes what’s left of the day, once we’re all finally home from work, school, and sitter. It’s sooo much more than my senior ever had to complete during his early grades, and it’s frankly my husband’s and my homework more than it is our son’s. He’s only six!!

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

    • mccallum

      Thank you very much for your thoughts. I completely agree with you. Now that I have my own school-aged children, I worry about what they will be coming home with each day and expected to do. Sometimes people think I’m not being hard enough on my students, but I think the obligation rests on me engaging them and sending them home with questions rather than worksheets. It does make teaching more difficult, but you are right on with the reasons why it’s worth it.

  • Don

    If every teacher follow the three points in the criteria for effective/helpful homework, my 2d grade grandson would not be coloring in math pages from a workbook, doing word finds (even my wife and I can’t find certain words and we have master’s degrees), and other typical “educator” unformed activities. An hour per night to complete this homework for a 2d grader is truly rediculous and wasteful. I say this as a 22 year retired special education supervisor and 36 year educator.

  • Jim

    I am in the US and we have the same problem w homework. My son gets on the bus at 8am and gets home at 4pm. It’s a long day. One of my thoughts is what right do they have to require homework be done. I can see homework as a guide to extra studies, but to require it be done I think is beyond the rights of the schools. My understanding is their authority stops when the child gets off the bus.
    For me, in addition to homework, they want me to sign off that we did it, sign off that we read every night, document the books we read, it’s really ridiculous and intrusive. In addition to that, I get calls on my cell phone about events at the schools, I get fliers for various fund raisers. I would say about 10% of what is coming my way has anything to do w school, the rest is BS. The thing that really makes me mad is the teachers announce these activities to the kids before they tell the parents. It leaves the kids feeling bad if they can’t make it.

    I am a single dad to 3 boys, the oldest is 7, the youngest is 4. I have very little time.
    I hate BS. My kids are well behaved and do well in school(teacher’s reports not mine).

    Take out the Fluff in school and we would not need homework, hence we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    Discloser…I have a degree in computer science, I love to learn, love for my kids to learn, but I am pretty disgusted w formal education in general.

    • Anonymous

      My kids are just getting into school. Right now, they love learning. I’m getting apprehensive about the type of work they could start bringing home and the way that work will be assessed.

      I shared this post with my high school students, and asked them to hold me accountable to it. The amount of homework I assign has gone down dramatically from prior years, but I haven’t seen a decline in quality of work. I’ve actually seen an improvement in the way they work during class.

      I think you’re right on with what you’re saying about love of learning and I think you’re right to be anxious about school work taking that away from them.