Homework sucks. Nobody likes doing it. I think that’s an uncontroversial opinion, even in these contentious times. I may no longer be in school, but I vividly remember how much I hated it. From grade school to college, it was often the worst part of any class, course, or subject. I doubt I’m alone in that sentiment.
That said, I understand why it exists. Like taxes or colonoscopies, it’s a necessary evil. It’s a means by which we test and reinforce the knowledge we teach to young, curious minds. At the very least, it’s a mechanism for determining who is actually learning and who is not.
I bring this topic up not to start a crusade against homework, as some already have in the past. I’m not looking to uphold or expand it, either. I’m raising the issue because the current state of public education is in a precarious state, especially in America.
It’s already well-documented that America’s ranking in the world of education leaves a lot to be desired. There are many systematic issues for that, some of which I’ve ranted about before. Changing that system doesn’t come easy, but if ever there was a time to re-think our approach, it’s now.
A global pandemic has caused huge disruptions to a lot of things, our schooling system being just one of them. In the span of a year, we’ve upended decades of entrenched educational traditions. The whole ritual of getting on a bus, going to a big building, and shuffling kids through multiple classes every day has been tabled.
Yes, it’s distressing for students, parents, and teachers alike.
At the same time, it presents an opportunity. This is a chance to rethink how we go about education. Why not start with homework? Nobody likes it. If we’re going to change anything, let’s start with that.
As tempting as it is to claim homework doesn’t have a single benefit, I can’t overlook the research that has been done on this topic. People have actually studied it. While the conclusions aren’t clear-cut, the current body of evidence suggests some amount of homework is beneficial in terms of student achievement.
How much constitutes “some?” That depends on a lot, both in terms of the students and the subject matter. Some students can handle more homework than others. For others, it’s genuinely detrimental to a student’s achievement. When you look at the data, the only consistent result is inconsistency.
To me, a guy who despised homework as much as any other school-age kid, its impact varied. There were some subjects that I was naturally more interested in than others. Subjects like history, biology, and writing were already something I did in my free time. Homework in those subjects wasn’t too much of a burden.
In other subjects, like English, Spanish, and certain math classes, it was little more than a test in frustration. I never learned anything from it. I just did it to get it done so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I honestly can’t think of anything I actually learned from that kind of homework.
I know that’s just anecdotal on my part, but the research seems to bear that sentiment out. If a kid is interested in something, their natural curiosity will lead them to explore it. Homework can actually help with that effort. I can attest to that.
Back in high school, I took a world history course in my sophomore year. Around that same time, I developed a fondness for watching the History Channel, especially its many World War II documentaries. I wasn’t assigned to do it. I just did it because I was curious. It ended up paying off.
Later that year, we took an exam on the World War II period. I did not study at all for it, but I still got a perfect score. I just knew the material that well. The teacher even singled me out for my score, which was a nice bonus.
The same thing happened whenever I had to do an essay question for a test. I liked writing, so that was easy for me. I’m mediocre to awful at every other form of testing. I knew plenty of others who were the opposite. That’s kind of the point. Not everyone learns or tests the same way.
The same logic applies to homework. Since not everyone learns the same way, assigning the same kind of homework for everyone is bound to have mixed to negative results. It’s a blanket solution to a complex problem, which may ultimately hurt more students than it helps. It’s a reason why some jurisdictions have already experimented with eliminating it completely for certain grade levels.
I don’t think that solution is feasible, given how entrenched homework is within the current system. While I’m sure many students would celebrate its abolition, those same students may miss out on the benefits of learning outside school hours.
I know if there were no homework when I was going to school, I probably would’ve been more inclined to slack off. There’s a critical balance to strike when it comes to after-school learning. If school becomes too easy to brush off, then nobody benefits in the long run.
That’s why I’m more in favor of reforming it. One potential alternative is to switch from homework to retrieval practices. That practice emphasizes recalling what you learned rather than doing pre-made assignments. That may actually be easier in the current situation, given the growing prevalence of online schools and distance learning.
There are other alternatives that include a greater emphasis on projects, exploring basic life skills, or assigning certain educational games. Some may or may not be as effective, but like I said earlier. This might be the best possible time to consider those alternatives.
It has been year since I’ve been in school, but I remember enough to know that the system I went through had plenty of room for improvement. I also realize I was lucky. I went to public school in a relatively affluent area. I realize that my school had resources that others didn’t.
The current system for schooling hadn’t changed much since I graduated. Up until this year, public schools had clung to their tried and true traditions, which included their approach to homework. I think the time is right to rethink those traditions.
This past year has completely disrupted the schooling for an entire generation of kids. We don’t yet know the extent of that impact, but there’s still time to guide it. Reforming how we approach homework won’t fix everything, but it’ll definitely help the overall experience for the students. School is hard enough, even without a global pandemic. At the very least, let’s make this one arduous aspect of it a bit more bearable.