School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework. Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.
After the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.” That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.
Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region, and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.
Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013, spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003. While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework. South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.
The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework. Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).
The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school. Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas. All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.
The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback. A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.
The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers. This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.
Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent. The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities. What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement. Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.
What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework? Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework? Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?