Homework, the tip of the iceberg

Witnessing the effects of six hours of homework after a six hour school day has had my mind churning so much that I cannot sleep. Consider this an open letter to the New Brunswick Department of Education and all educators.

Like the Berlin Wall, homework is a barrier between stagnation and progress. It reinforces many of the hidden messages in the school system:

Hidden messages are being delivered by our educational system to our students each and every day. The basic structure of our schools provides students with powerful lessons that don’t appear in the curriculum. These hidden lessons are unconsciously reinforced by the very nature of the system. Exactly what are they?

They are learning that discovering and creating knowledge is beyond the ability of students and is really none of their business. We have shut students out of virtually every real decision that has an effect on their schools and their learning.

They are learning that the voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgment. The hierarchical nature of school puts knowledge in the teacher’s domain. —US Teacher (no longer online)

John Taylor Gatto’s 7-Lesson Schoolteacher essay also elaborates on these underlying messages in public education.

There is no correlation between homework and learning. If succeeding at school is your objective then homework is not necessary to achieve this. As I’ve asked before in this forum, do reasonable amounts of homework contribute to learning? The authors of The Homework Myth, The Case Against Homework and The End of Homework, strongly disagree, and cite several studies to support this position.

I believe that we have arrived at a point in the development of our industrial education system that many of us realise that it is not helping to prepare our children for productive lives, no matter which measure you use. Bill Gates has called for the abolition of schooling as has renowned author Alvin Toffler, who says that we should “Shut down the public education system” now.

After 100 years of schooling, homework has not been proven to improve school performance. Also, school performance shows no correlation to later success in life. Jay Cross has stated that there is no correlation whatsoever between school grades and later success, measured in any terms – financial, status, happiness or some other criterion. The only correlation is between school grades and university grades, two systems closed off from the real world.

David Warlick is speaking today to educators in Fredericton. Obviously, his opinion matters, as he has been invited to speak at the Literacy & Learning in the 21st Century conference. Let me quote from David’s blog:

we have an 18th century form of government depending upon a 19th century industrial model school system to supply a 21st century electorate capable of making the monumental decisions we will face in the coming years.

A recent presentation by Sir Ken Robinson, sums up how inadequate our industrial school system is in addressing the issues that our children will face on graduation. They need to be creative and we are teaching them to do as they are told. Sir Ken states that “we are educating people out of their creative capacities” and that “suddenly degrees aren’t worth anything”. He says that “our education system has mined our minds in the way that we have strip-mined the earth for a particular commodity”. The system is completely inadequate, as Toffler explains:

The public school system is designed to produce a workforce for an economy that will not be there. And therefore, with all the best intentions in the world, we’re stealing the kids’ future.

And this is where I return to homework. It appears that the education system will not change overnight, in spite of its lack of relevance. However, our children need to prepare for THEIR future now. One way to allow them to prepare is to give them back their personal time. The school system has had 100 years and six hours a day to do its job. That is more than enough to achieve its antiquated goals.

Homework Ban

Now is the time to abolish homework, and let children, families and communities use that time to prepare for a future where creativity and flexibility will be essential.

36 Responses to “Homework, the tip of the iceberg”

  1. Rod Savoie

    Right on Harold. I’ve been preaching the same thing for years. Someone was telling me lately taht one state in the US has already done this (California? don’t remember but it must be googable). What homework basically does is to prepare kids to work 60 hour days when they become adults … not that there’s anything wrong with that, if by choice as opposed to pressures outside the self.


  2. Harold

    Hey Rod, I like your website. Can you add an RSS feed or is that against NRC policies?

    Tom; thanks, great video with an important point – it’s about the journey, not the destination.

  3. Cindy

    I don’t know what the majority of parents are like in NB, but in our school (BC)it is often the parents who are demanding homework. I entered teaching after raising 5 children and I resented large amounts of homework -especially over holidays- that cut into family time. I also resented homework that required me to be involved. I wanted to choose the activities that I did with my kids. As a teacher, I try to remember that. I rarely give homework unless is reading (I teach ENglish 8-12 and it is difficult, if not impossible to complete all reading in class time) during novel studies, or the students have not completed work in class – usually their choice.
    I have also been trying to move towards a more holistic form of assessment – whereby some of what we do is practice and does not form part of their mark – they can show me what they know at the end of the unit. Many parents want a mark for every letter the students puts onto paper. But it doesn’t seem right to assess whether they can write a letter, report, essay or whatever before they’ve had a chance to practice.
    I’ve been enjoying the discussion on the topic of homework/unschooling. Best of luck next year – it sounds like you and your boys are going to have a great time!

  4. Harold

    Cindy; it seems like you’re doing a great job. In most cases, all it takes is an attentive teacher to make school enjoyable. Unfortunately, arbitrary decisions can have serious repercussions for students. Thanks for following the conversation.

  5. Les Richardson

    The main issue I feel is one of BALANCE. Some homework…to develop some responsibility for your own work. Not mind numbing stuff to kill students.

    Les Richardson
    Teacher with a lot of experience (grin)

  6. Ian

    Ok, I’m more than a little confused….

    As a father of a child starting Kindergarten I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone subject my child to 10 hour school days

    I did almost no homework during my time in school, I’ve got an MA and a swank job with a parking space, so there!

    But soft, no haste…

    The most interesting “learning” I did anywhere, anytime, involved larger research projects that couldn’t have fit into a school curriculum.

    So…if I want my son to learn that education isn’t something that is contained in (or constrained by) a “school”.

    Have I just contradicted myself?

  7. Harold

    Schools waste enough of our children’s time, for little benefit and at much cost, to prepare for a world that no longer exists. I work as a free-agent, something that is not normal for my generation but may be the norm for our children. How does school prepare for free-agentry? Through homework?

    If schools and teachers cannot get their instruction done in 6 hours each day, then the system doesn’t work. I want our family time back so that we can focus on some real education.

    We will be homeschooling our youngest son this year, but our eldest is in a high school that values homework for homework’s sake:


  8. Gilbert

    Does homework really take up that much time.

    It certainly didn’t take any time when I was in school and I never really saw my kids spending more than a few minutes per night on homework.

    I remember my son spending an unusual amount of time once on a drawing but that was his choice.

  9. Guy Levert

    The term “Homework” itself is a contradiction from my point of view. Home – a place for family and friends with interesting and creative activities, play, sharing, etc. Work – for too many of us is viewed as interesting, minimal creativity (I work for the Government) and top-down hierarchies. Between Home and Work there seems to be a clash… I agree with some self-development at home (I don’t like to use the word “work” when I am talking about learning). There is lots of very interesting stuff a student can do at home to learn – actually, I would argue that school does not provide sufficient “fun” opportunity for learning.

    Schools have to adapt and if they don’t, learning will not happen -see the YouTube 5 Minute University. I used to teach computer science in a High School from grades 9 to 12 in Ontario. The curriculum was calling for me to teach word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software, and database concepts. Boooooorrring! So, I did teach those “essential” topics, all covered in the very first month of the year – most kids knew it already. Then, I presented the kids with programming – we had access to a PASCAL and a BASIC compiler on our computers. I made links to their other subjects – geography, math, history, languages, etc… I ended up putting together a Computer Science Club for after class activity, and a programming contest. I had less absences in my courses, kids were learning how to control the computer, play with it, create their own programs, etc… Some kids even prgrammed very complex games – monopoly, wheel of fortune, and even a 3D generating program. The feedback they gave me is that “we thought this course was to be an easy one – mickey mouse course – but man did we have fun, even though we had to “work” harder than expected! That was 15 years ago.

    Two weeks ago, my son and I prepared a presentation for his computer class. My son is learning how to use a 3D modeling software (www.blender.org – freeware). He wanted to show is classmates how cool it was to use this software. I communicated with his teacher and my son presented to two groups from grade 8. Before, he started, the teacher had a few housekeeping stuff to communicate to the kids. The first one was about a small project – Guess what! The teacher was distributing them a task which involves learning about MS-Excel – but everything was to be done at school – survey, data collection, analysis and reporting. No too bad, but same old curriculum.

    Then my son presented Blender 3D to his classmates. You should have heard the oooh, aaaah! coool! wicked! coming from his peers. They asked why they couldn’t be learning Blender in class? Obvious response – it is not part of the provincial curriculum, and we are not allowed to install the FREE software on our computers at school – yet!

    My son’s teacher asked if my son could present to other groups from grades 7 and 9… I know that this teacher would love to teach that rather than teaching Excel… Don’t get me wrong though, the basic business tools are very good to master,but there’s more to spreadsheet and wordprocessing to learn.

    My son found something he wanted to learn, his teacher is encouraging him, my son is doing this on his free time at home, and loves to show and teach his peers. Now that’s learning! No homeworks!

    Guy L Levert
    Consultant en apprentissage / Learning Consultant

    Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. William Butler Yeats.

  10. Amanda Cockshutt

    Given that we have kids in the same class, it isn’t surprising I suppose that we get irked about education issues in a kind of coordinated way. You can always tell when report cards are imminent, the homework load is ramped right up! The teachers’ inabilities to plan ahead and cover material at school translate into long homework assignments done in isolation at home.

    I started off by being merely annoyed that school policies were souring my home life, taking that precious couple of hours every evening from me and replacing them with a conflict ridden warzone. The more research I do on homework, the more militant I get in my views on the subject.

    Given that the available research does not suggest that homework improves academic achievement, why are teachers ALLOWED to assign it and INSIST on its completion? I have requested that my children in elementary school be allowed to “opt out” of homework. I was denied permission by the principal, it is too complicated, sets bad precedent…

    Where to go from here? How do we make the point more clearly? How do we insist that we have the right to determine how our family time is spent?

    Ironically, this generation of students with huge homework loads is hitting university hard. They are failing. They have been “trained” to do a lot of homework, but it is not good work, and they have no idea how to do good, hard work.

    Finally, in the absence of any research to support the academic value of homework, many educators tell us that students learn responsibility and good study habits from completing homework. I would argue that the opposite it happening. How does my signing homework logs and reading sheets translate into a more responsible child? We seem to be raising children for whom every little thing is done.

    Homework should be feeding the dog, taking out the garbage, making your bed, preparing your lunch, cutting your toe nails…

  11. Harold

    Amanda, I think that the first step is getting it into the public conversation. Blogs are fine but most people don’t read them. We need to get this into our public spaces, such as the newspaper or the local Tim’s.

  12. Amanda Cockshutt

    I’ve been working on a newspaper article but it keeps ending up long and silly. I want to be very clear what the central issues are and present them as succinctly as possible.

    Maybe we can collaborate on this?

  13. Sara Bennett

    From where I sit, it seems as though you have a good public conversation going on in your community. You have a good back and forth in your blog and a group of articulate, thoughtful parents who are educated on the subject. Have those of you in the same school tried going in together to talk to the administration?

    And yes, an op-ed in your local newspaper is a great idea. Or what about pitching the idea of a show on homework to your local radio or TV station? I’d be happy to be part of a call-in show; perhaps I could even donate a few copies of The Case Against Homework that the host could give out.

    And Gilbert, yes homework does take up too much time. Given that it has no benefit at all in elementary school, it shouldn’t be taking up any.

  14. Harold

    Once again, I watch as our son comes home from school and does but nothing but homework all night long. It is almost 9:30 PM and he’s not finished yet. It was all assigned today and all due for tomorrow.

  15. Amanda Cockshutt

    This is nuts Harold! Rosie babysat from the time school ended until 6:30, then did homework straight from then until 9:30. For the first time, lately, I have heard her talk about being overwhelmed by it and quite resentful of the lack of free time. When she finished last night and it was time for bed, she was almost in tears telling me that she wished she had some time to do her own things.

    Maybe we need to team up and go see the teachers. I find it hard to believe that if Rosie and Lucas (I was assuming you were talking about him??) are spending that much time, that the other kids are getting off with much less time.

  16. Maggie

    Hi Brother!
    I took some time to read your blogs and came across this one. As I seem to remember, way back when, I was Luke’s age that I spent at least an hour after school doing homework at the school with my peers and then after dinner another 2 to 3 hours writing reports…mostly on Social Studies. Once I got into highschool (8 to 12) the homework lessened quite a bit. I think it’s a great opportunity for the homeschool… and you know he’s more than welcome for a break at our home! I guess I just strived more on the work because I wanted to get the HC Stringer Award that you got so the homework didn’t bother me so much!

  17. Cindy

    Could we clarify the definition of “homework”? As a teacher, I assume that homework is work that is either assigned specifically to be done at home, or work begun in class, but there is clearly insufficient time to complete it in class. There are always some students who do not complete what they are given in class (I’m talking high school here) while the majority of their classmates do complete it – Is this homework? I would be interested in hearing what others think.

    And I’d still like to hear what other readers think about the topic of “educating” parents (I hate that term – please excuse the use of it) about the research on homework. For the most part, if parents want their kids to do “homework” they should get them reading something they enjoy.

  18. Harold

    I agree with your definition of homework, Cindy. I was in a class this week and the teacher said that he did not give additional homework. There was adequate time for most students to get their work done in class. However, we have a system of throwing 25 people in one room to learn, and the only factor that connects them is their age, so no teacher can make an hour-long class work for everyone.

    Four to six hours of assigned homework every night is not only too much, it has no positive effect on learning. It also takes away from family, sports and community time. I used to train for two hours after school and still had time to do homework and do community activities. I managed to get to university and pass without having had hundreds of hours of additional homework in high school.

    Yes, educating parents is a key step in all of this. This is why we’re trying to set up a radio segment on the subject. However, the people who should know about the science behind homework, teachers, have a professional responsibility to get the information out.

    A similar situation exists with the curriculum here in NB. The outcomes are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, a model that has NO scientific basis whatsoever.

  19. Dan Meyer

    Differentiation is the name of the game if you want to replace homework with in-class work. Or at least if you want to push the balance further in-class.

    After notes or an investigation (math) I assign maybe 25 problems with the knowledge that only the top 4% will complete them.

    Some students will move through only six of them and it’s my job to make sure they are giving huge, concentrated effort on those six. The top 4% move through all the problems and it’s also in my job description to have thought up some interesting extension problems — one or two — to keep them engaged until the end of class.

    This is all an effort to make the hour-long class work for everyone. There is only one conclusion to draw from all this: eliminating homework makes the teacher’s job harder, not easier.

  20. Strong Bad

    Hi, I’m a grade 6 student and I an frustrated with homework.

    “Stop reading that novel, do your homework!”

    “Stop making that stop-animation movie, you need to do your homework!”

    Homework, in my point of view, is a leash holding us back from being too creative, in fear of us knowing learning that the voice of authority is not always to be trusted and valued more than independent judgment.

  21. Harold

    Perhaps your teachers should read Michael Newman’s book, Teaching Defiance, in which he describes the mission of the teaching profession:

    “It is to teach people how to make up their own minds, and how to take control of their moment. It is to teach choice. It is to help ourselves and others break free from our pasts, plan for the futures we want and resist the futures we do not want. Our job is to teach defiance.”

  22. tired

    I’m a gr. 11 high school student, and although I’m not a stereotypical one, I can still fill the mold to a certain degree.
    I find the amount of homework I have some nights is ridiculous.
    I think having homework in kindergarten is absolutely insane, but by the time they reach grade 2 or 3 they should be able to read a short story each week and finish any work left over from class time. I understand that homework in older grades can help perpetuate good time management skills, a vital thing in the real world. However , two 9 year olds shouldn’t have to book time two weeks ahead to get together and play.
    I am a very busy person and i have to balance many aspects of my life’s schedule (work, school time, homework, volunteering, time with my boyfriend and other friends, church events, and little thing called… ummm, sleep!).
    A big part of being a kid is having fun and exploring, not being frustrated with not enough time to do homework and go to soccer, dance, piano lessons, and whatever other activities they may be a part of.
    Learning should be something that is interesting and motivating to a curious mind to develop further, not something that exhausts and overwhelms a kid who should be trying to figure out the next cool thing to do involving a skipping rope, a basket ball and a big mud puddle. Let kids be kids and leave homework for those who can appreciate it’s value as a way to reinforce and remember what they learned in class.


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