The end of homework?

Overwhelmed by how much work your kids have each night? Some schools are rethinking what they assign.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Katie Lynes, a mom in Toronto, has fought the homework battle — not with her two kids, but with their schools. It began in 2008 when her twin daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, started grade four French immersion. “By the time Christmas rolled around, there were tears every night,” says Lynes. “I thought, ‘this is ridiculous.’ They hated it. But it wasn’t French immersion that was the problem, it was the homework load.” Ironically, that was the year their school board implemented strict limits on the amount of homework assigned, including none on weekends and holidays. But her daughters’ teacher wasn’t sticking to the guideline for grades one through six, which says that homework should be mostly reading, or interactive and play-based.

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Lynes has spent the last five years writing letters and calling meetings with teachers, principals and even superintendents, making it clear that her family is not going to have their nights and weekends hijacked by homework. In grade seven, her girls had five projects due in the two weeks before Christmas (the official policy says homework should be less than an hour per night at that age), so Lynes complained to the principal. She asked a family-studies teacher to scale back a project for which each daughter was to shop for and prepare a separate three-course meal. “And then I was supposed to write a review — so now I had homework.”

Battling this barrage of endless assignments sounds completely exhausting to me. I’ve heard enough stories like Lynes’s to know that I need to be pre-emptive about the homework load coming my way soon. When my oldest daughter enters grade one next year, she’ll likely go to a Montessori elementary school, in part because of its homework philosophy: Homework should be an extension of a child’s own interests, and all other busy work should be avoided. Montessori educators theorize that the more freedom children have to make up their own problems and choose their own work, the more they will challenge themselves.

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The value of homework has actually been debated for hundreds of years. In an 1860 Scientific American article, homework was likened to “wild beasts devouring our children,” and experts pointed out that it’s “impossible to develop the child’s intellect” if he’s been “boxed up six hours in school [and] might spend the next four hours in study.” While this may be a bit dramatic, today’s anti-homework crusaders are essentially saying the same thing — that it’s detrimental to a child’s well-being to work a second shift after a full day of school.

Harris Cooper, a psychologist at Duke University in North Carolina, is regarded as the world’s leading modern-day homework expert. After analyzing 30 years of conflicting research and literature, he found that opinions have run the gamut. “Assessments ranged from homework having positive effects, no effects or complex effects, to the suggestion that the research was too sparse or poorly conducted to allow trustworthy conclusions.” Nevertheless, Cooper ultimately comes out in favour of homework, especially in older grades. “For high school students, homework has substantial effects. Junior high school students also benefit from it, but only about half as much. For elementary school students, the effect of homework on achievement is negligible.” Cooper is comfortable with 10 minutes of homework per grade, starting in grade one — a rule of thumb that many North American schools follow.

But a study conducted by two University of Toronto professors in 2007 found that 28 percent of Canadian grade one students, and more than 50 percent of grade two students, are already assigned more than 20 minutes of homework a day. Add this to sports, music lessons, transit, dinner, bath and — if you’re lucky — some family fun time, and what you get, according to the researchers, is stressed out kids, frustrated parents and marital strife. “The sad thing is that the biggest stress in my life since my kids entered school,” says Lynes, “is the school. Teachers and administrators aren’t really aware of the stress that flows from the classroom and into the home. Our lives are already stressful — we don’t need that.”

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Those on the anti-homework side of the debate, including authors Alfie Kohn (The Homework Myth) and Sara Bennett (The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children), point to the negative effect homework has on lifelong learning. The trend is gaining traction worldwide. Many schools in New Zealand and Australia have made homework optional, a high school in Germany has banned it altogether, and the president of France has proposed a countrywide homework ban for primary students.

Cooper is skeptical of the current anti-homework hype — he’s seen public opinion swing from one extreme to the other and back again. “The cycle is about 15 years between public calls for more homework, then public calls for less homework,” he says. He explains that successive generations of parents worry that their children are overburdened, and then they worry that their kids aren’t as well trained as children from other countries. But when you look at the big picture, he says, “the actual amount that teachers assign hasn’t changed all that much over the last 50 years.”

Many of the Canadian teachers I spoke with agree that today’s overscheduled kids have too much on their plate, and that the research suggesting homework is ineffective rings true to them. Joe Bower, a public school teacher in Red Deer, Alta., says that after 12 years of rigorously assigning traditional homework, along with severe late penalties, he had an epiphany. “Who the hell gave teachers the right to tell parents how they’re going to spend their evenings, weekends and holidays? Imagine if parents came in and said, ‘This is what you’re going to teach for the next two weeks.’”

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So Bower changed his approach to something more personalized. First, he familiarizes himself with the interests of each kid, then he fills the room with books and movies on those topics. For students who are interested in pursuing these interests at home, he comes up with customized projects designed to inspire and stimulate. Last, he leaves it up to the children if they want to participate. It’s what he calls “The Mission Impossible Theory of Homework” (as in, “Your homework, if you choose to accept it…”). Homework isn’t part of the overall grade calculation, either. “In an optimal learning environment,” he says, “the learner would have at least as much say in the homework as the teacher.”

Rick McCleary, a grade six teacher in rural Burford, Ont., is one of those veteran educators you’d think would be set in his ways. But after 27 years of teaching, he finds himself at the forefront of an education revolution — he’s an early adopter of the “flipped classroom” model. Here’s how it works: McCleary and other teachers across the country videotape themselves explaining new concepts and then post the videos online for students to watch as their homework. McCleary has made videos for math, science, art and even phys. ed. He holds a flipped-classroom workshop for parents at the beginning of the year, where he explains how to watch the videos.

“I have three boys of my own,” he says. “I’ve been there. They used to come home with homework, and I didn’t know how to help them. But the videos seem to work really well.” This system allows for more one-on-one help in the classroom and leaves time for in-school group activities that develop problem solving and creative and critical thinking. In one year, membership of the Flipped Learning Network has grown from 2,500 teachers to more than 12,000, and Canadian teachers are the second-biggest group. Teachers in British Columbia hosted an international conference on the new method this past June. Before long, say advocates, most children will have had at least one portion of their education “flipped.”

All of these homework alternatives sprouting up give me hope that mainstream public education is changing across Canada. But, Lynes reminds me, even if you live in a district with a good homework policy, you’re still at the mercy of that year’s teacher. Lynes urges parents to fight for a healthy balance, while keeping an open mind. We all want our kids to learn and strive. “Give educators the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “And assume that they have the best interests of the students at heart — most of them do.”

A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline “The end of homework,” p. 54.

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