The Homework Debate


Educational methods are constantly changing and being reevaluated. The homework debate is a good example of that. Is homework all pain and no gain? Is it a valuable tool for teaching self-discipline, time management and other essential life skills? And is there indeed a correlation between homework and academic achievement? Business Partners’ Thought Leaders in Education discuss the pros and cons of this controversial school policy topic.

Homework and Learning as a Value


Learning is a multidimensional process in terms of the sources of learning (“from where do we learn”), the process of learning (“how do we learn”) and the time of learning (“when do we learn”). The static approach of learning most frequently refers to schooling and to a learning process that involves class time, and thus class work, and homework. Learners learn through the interaction in the class (learning from their teachers and classmates) and through homework, by reflecting on the takeaway from class, advancing their learning through individual/team out-of-class research, and synthesizing from the various sources of learning.

Most scientific research focuses on the value of homework in primary and secondary education and indicates significant correlation and frequently causality between homework and academic performance and achievement (Cooper et al., 2006).1 At the same time, research refers to the “right amount” of homework, as little homework has no impact on learning, while a lot of homework leads to physical and emotional fatigue and fuels negative attitudes towards learning.

However, in a volatile (V), uncertain (U), complex (C) and ambiguous (A) world (VUCA), the present is disruptively different from the future, so we need to develop learning agility: the competence to learn, unlearn and relearn. Learning agility allows us to learn something in one situation and apply it in a different one. Understand quickly complex and new patterns and adapt and apply ourselves in constantly changing, first-time conditions. In other words, learning agility does not depend only on the value of learning but primarily on learning as a value for all of us; where learning becomes part of our DNA, and we all become life-long and continuous learners. In the VUCA world, learning becomes dynamic and disruptive; it goes beyond simply schooling and finally becomes a process of learning from multiple sources and all the time.

In the VUCA world, homework becomes even more important not only because it facilitates the process of learning, but primarily because it helps learners to develop the necessary competencies to support learning agility and develop learning as a human value. Homework by its structure (since it is pursued by the learner herself), emphasizes learning as a personal initiative where the learner directly manages her learning path. During this process, the learner develops a learning attitude in life along with critical thinking, creative thinking, an openness to unknown, an appetite for research and the unexpected, a tolerance to adversity and, of course, a competence to synthesize and advance her learning.

Schooling then ought to embrace and evolve homework not simply as a process of learning but primarily as a process to help learners develop the right attitude towards learning and make learning a human value, so they can function effectively in the VUCA world.

Homework: How Much is Too Much?


After an intense 45-minute high impact workout, the trainer shouted, “Ok, now it’s time for your fitness test.” Completely flabbergasted, I resisted the idea of having a test after such an exhausting session, and like any rational adult, I protested this idea by arguing, “That’s NOT fair!”

My trainer’s response inspired me to think about our students’ growing needs as learners of the future. “Sophie,” he said, “you must always be ready in life. You won’t have the opportunity to prepare mentally or physically when an emergency strikes.” I wondered whether the daily routine of assigning homework that includes drilling facts, endless word problems, worksheets and lists of casually selected spelling words is really preparing elementary school children for their future life skills.

Homework is intended to expedite learning, encourage self-discipline, promote time management and enrich research skills while rehearsing the day’s concepts. These benefits can only be achieved if they are aligned to a child’s developmental potential. In other words, as children grow (grades 3-5), they have longer attention spans, stronger physical dexterity and a more balanced social emotional being, whereas younger children (grades K-2) are acquiring language, scaffolding understanding of the world around them and fine-tuning their motor skills. These developmental milestones warrant for specific homework activities.

Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), Soviet cultural-historian psychologist, identified the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and discovered the zones where children construct meaning. Within the concept of ZPD, a pupil’s independent performance must be supported by what is done with guidance at school. Therefore, the kind of homework given really matters if the goal is to provide rich opportunities and experiences through homework. Just as the school day is balanced with measureable and learning activities that are neither too difficult or stressful nor too easy and boring, so should be the expectations of homework.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences states that nine identified multiple intelligences categorize human cognition potential. These intelligences are a direct link to each person’s exceptional learning capacity and ways a person can demonstrate their innate talent(s). These identified intelligences include: linguistics, logical-mathematical, spatial-visual, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential.

Educators study Vygotsky’s and Gardner’s theories at university and understand each intelligence equates to a learner’s unique blend of capabilities, even interests. Knowing this about human potential, why don’t schools invest in building these intrinsic curiosities by feeding the intelligences accordingly? For instance, if a child in early developmental years shows a great interest in exploring locomotives and automobiles, why not guide this child towards additional means of transportation and even the mechanics around what makes objects move? Nurturing this curiosity gives him the advantage to learn through discovery and exploration. Although this approach is widely accepted by parents and teachers in the early years, unfortunately, as the academic expectations increase, benchmarking content knowledge takes precedence, and traditional processes of homework begin.

Essentially, one approach to always be ready in life includes the integration of Vygotsky’s and Gardner’s theories. Linking these philosophies allows educators to hone in on individual talents by permitting students to be in control of growing needs. I imagine classrooms that provide such flexibility towards learning would have the potential to create a network of innovative intellectuals.

Approaches to Designing a Learning (not Grading) Orientation


Think back to when you were in school. Like me, you probably never gave a thought to how homework was actually supporting your own learning. Like me, you simply did it… or didn’t do it. If you were in the latter category, you most likely received poor grades despite your level of content and skills mastery. What if, however, homework was optional, thus giving you agency over your own learning? At Pinewood, the homework debate speaks to the wider issue of challenging traditional grading practices.

We have used the best minds in educational research to carefully shift the way we think about homework. Our premise is based on the essential difference between formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments, such as homework, classwork and quizzes, are assessments for learning. These assignments are designed to challenge students to play with new ideas, take risks and learn from their mistakes. In contrast, summative assessments, such as end-of-unit tests, projects and presentations, are assessments of learning. They demonstrate what students have learned. Once this distinction is made, it’s easy to understand that homework, which is important for the learning process, should be designed to challenge, assigned as a choice and not graded with traditional marks. Rather, our teachers provide rich feedback on each homework assignment, and the focus of homework shifts to learning for improvement, not doing it for a grade.

Alfie Kohn, a leading voice for modernizing educational practices, summarizes the research on grading with three points below from his article “The Case Against Grades,” which appeared in Educational Leadership, November 2011. Kohn’s points support our shifting practices at Pinewood, including, but not limited to, our approach to homework.

Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they are learning: A grading orientation and a learning orientation have been shown to be inversely related. Every study that has investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative impact.

Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task: Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count towards their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks. They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly—not because they are unmotivated but because they are responding to adults who have sent the message that grades matter more than learning.

Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking: They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”

So, when it comes to the correlation between homework and academic achievement, the key is in the design. At Pinewood, we believe that by placing learning at the center, not grades, students win every time. Indeed, as Grant Wiggins wrote, the point of school isn’t to get good at school. I think we would all agree that the purpose of school is to engage students to understand the world around them and enable them to be empowered, independent, self-directed learners and compassionate citizens.

Cultivating Respect for Homework


To weigh into the homework debate as Vice President for Academic Affairs at College Year in Athens (CYA), the importance of homework is undebatable and indisputable in higher education. A study-abroad program that offers junior level courses to students visiting for a semester or academic year from U.S. universities and colleges, CYA caters to the core of the mission of higher education, which is research and production of original thought. Achieving this requires advanced study habits enhanced by inquisitiveness and structured reading methods. And this is precisely why the “no homework” argument cannot be seen as anything more than a debate for debate’s sake—unless, of course, it stems from a reaction to the nature of homework assignments themselves, which can often be tedious and uninspiring.

So what is homework? What purpose does it serve? According to Cooper, Robinson and Patall (2006), homework improves performance and study habits and creates a more disciplined and independent person who is able to address and solve problems. The fact alone that we learn to designate a time-block, on a daily basis, during which we read carefully, record thoughts, combine and evaluate different readings and sources, and finally, produce something of our own adds to the quality of both our studies and our own private time.

But this cannot happen without consistent and continuous effort. Studying is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. So instead of debating the merits of homework, we should be debating how to better teach students, beginning in their first years in elementary school, to concentrate and learn. This relates greatly to the type of assignments given to the students. From the perspective of someone who teaches and creates courses and academic questions for tertiary students, a combination of assignments that promote autonomy and group work is best, and this exact combination is actually at the core of our institution’s learning philosophy.

Autonomy gives students responsibility for their learning. A classroom environment where teachers set the standards for learning and achievement by controlling everything (type of assignments, assessment tools, etc.) without sharing with the students the purpose and importance of these activities creates an environment where the responsibility of learning is removed from the student and there is little or no accountability. Instead, an environment where emphasis is given to the importance and even personal relevance of the subjects studied and where goals, assignments and assessments are chosen in a way that allows students to see the purpose in what they need to work on make learning a conscious and even enjoyable decision. If a task with clearly set goals and values begins in the classroom, then the purpose of studying at home becomes relevant to the students and enables their individual contribution to the classroom/community environment the following day. This, enhanced by group assignments—an activity that can teach even very young students to contribute their point of view, listen to other students’ viewpoints, and work together to solve common problems and create a common achievement—can offer students a sense of belonging and responsibility of shared goals. Homework that includes both solitary undertakings and group projects does more than teach students the course requirements or various sets of skills: It benefits the community as well.

The Dog Ate My Homework


Homework, viewed by many students and parents as a necessary evil, often causes friction involving teachers, students, and parents. Students and parents might believe on any given night or weekend that there is too much homework, too little homework, or that the homework has little connection to class content. Teachers may believe the amount is just right and all assignments must be done.

As a head of school, I believe a school community, including faculty, students and parents, must have a shared understanding of homework: purpose, length, and duration. Homework should not introduce a new topic or idea. Homework should reinforce topics and ideas students learn in the classroom. Homework should be relevant and should allow students the opportunity to explore or expand ideas and topics of interest within the academic framework of the lesson. Teachers should also use homework as an opportunity to provide feedback to students and reflect upon a lesson’s effectiveness.

An important secondary purpose of homework is the reinforcement of soft-skills such as time-management, organization, and self-discipline. Soft-skills are key to student academic achievement, and I have always believed that soft-skill sets are crucial to personal and professional success. Soft-skills may not be a defined part of a lesson; they are, however, fundamental life skills. Effective homework policies and activities take into account the need to reinforce the academic content and the need to include practice with soft skills.

Teachers must not give students things to do at home just to keep them busy, and teachers must provide timely feedback. Teachers must connect the content to the practice and create activities to make concepts relevant and engaging for students.

I’ll use mathematics as an example. The lesson is calculating area of shapes and objects. A relevant homework lesson might include an activity that asks the student to mea¬sure their bedroom and to propose redecorating. Redecorating might include painting the walls, putting up board space for photos and posters, or even determining how much new furniture might fit. Students might be asked to sketch to scale the bedroom on graph paper and determine what might be needed to change the space. Students would then use the correct mathematical formula to determine how much paint will be needed to paint the room or to determine the size of the board to hang to make sure their photos and posters fit or to determine the area the furniture will occupy. In such an activity, students practice calculating area in a way that reinforces the classroom experience and at the same time develops life skills. Students will likely be engaged with and connected to the relevant content and not find homework burdensome; parents will likely be pleased. Homework activities should create an atmosphere around homework that no longer includes friction, skepticism, or an excuse for not having done assignments.

No more “the dog ate my homework,” and much more, “I got it! Let me show you!”

To Set Homework or Not to Set Homework: That Is the Question


I make no pretense in stating from the outset that at Byron College my teachers set homework. In sharing that, I would expect you to assume that I am a fierce advocate of the contribution it makes to educating a child. Not so.

Much of school leadership lies in making decisions relating to educating a child. Those decisions pertain to the desire of all teachers to ensure that all children thrive in a school setting and that all are given every opportunity to achieve their potential. This is without hesitation the corner stone of education at Byron College, but the role that homework plays in protecting this tenet is an issue much discussed at Byron College; and it should be. In doing so, we engage in questioning our pedagogy and practice, assessing the value and effectiveness of our teaching, and how best a child learns. There is no easy way to decipher the data and research that has been produced over the decades that builds the case for setting or not setting homework, so I don’t try to. Instead I will look at my school’s approach in light of the arguments that are presented.

As a school that prides itself on educating the whole child and not just focusing on academic learning, there is a strong argument for ensuring homework is set to support the child’s acquisition of skills such as time management, self-discipline, and self-organization. However, I don’t believe that homework is the only vehicle for this; in fact, I think that a school which communicates clear expectations and has a culture of independent learning supports this type of learning very well within the school day. I also believe that parents are perfectly able to support their child in this area of development too, and in many cases are better placed to, through family life.

Moving to the argument that homework accelerates a child’s academic progress, John Hattie (Visible Learning, 2011) concluded that setting homework for a primary school child has a minimal effect on learning, compared to secondary school children. The research demands that teachers look at the appropriateness of the homework set—the quality and not the quantity of the learning opportunity. It differentiates the needs of the child at different stages in their education and connects the purpose of homework setting with impactful, accelerated learning in the classroom. Therefore, at Byron College the Homework Policy is part of our Teaching and Learning Policy, and both are influenced strongly by Hattie’s research.

Changing the culture of homework is difficult, and especially so in an international school with so many competing “home” education systems influencing parent expectations. Parents are anxious when they think too much or too little is set, so we follow the 10-minute per year group rule, to a maximum of 90 minutes in Year 11. By having a strategy grounded in research and placing emphasis on quality and purpose, not volume and busyness, I believe at Byron College we have struck the right balance.

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