Why Homework is so Problematic in Primary Schools

Homework is a highly contentious issue with polarised views from both parents and educators alike. One of the problems is that many parents expect school to be the same as when they attended. The old ‘it was good enough for me to do homework’ approach. The problem is that homework is one of those things which cannot be monitored, is inconsistently administered and assumes that kids have households which are conducive to doing it.
My issues with homework are as follows:
– Some households are too chaotic and dysfunctional for homework to take place.
– The majority of homework has minimal impact on student learning
– It can cause major conflict between parents and kids which turns learning into a chore or punishment eg- “Do your homework or you won’t be going out to play”
– Many students have very busy lives outside of school which prevents time for extra school work
– Why do we need kids to be spending additional time at home doing school work?
– It is an equity issue in that not all kids have access to the same resources at home. Eg – internet, books, supportive parents/siblings and basic stationery supplies.

By setting homework for students are we suggesting that there’s not enough time in the school day to complete the work? I would say we need to make better use of the time we have with kids at school not give them extra work to do at home. I have listened to many of my friends who are parents of primary aged children complain about the daily battle they have with their kids over homework. The last thing kids want to do when they get home from a long day at school is sit down for another dose of school and do homework.

The research I have looked at suggests that there is almost zero impact on learning for set homework up to year two and minimal impact from years three to six. This means that we may be spending a significant amount of teacher time and effort in preparing, marking and delivering something which is not helping kids learn. Why wouldn’t we focus our energy on high impact pedagogical practices such as cooperative learning, formative assessment and quality feedback for students instead? We shouldn’t just keep doing something because that’s what we’ve always done.

It is definitely a challenge to influence the entrenched mental models that many parents have about homework. However, anything that’s worthwhile is never easy and I strongly believe that it’s worth the effort. We need to provide some key messages to our communities in ‘parents friendly’ language about homework. I have discussed this issue with many parents over the past 20 years and their views range from “my kids aren’t going to do homework” through to “I want homework every night for my child”. I maintain that as educators we are the professionals and thus need to be the ones to influence the debate. We need to work with parents in partnership to ensure that a clear understanding about homework is enjoyed by all stakeholders.

At my school we discourage set homework. When I arrived two years ago there was a homework club once a week after school. Kids would come in tired and irritable from a long school day and were expected to then sit and do boring homework sheets such as practice spelling words and maths questions. I swiftly closed the homework club and we engaged with the AIS Active After School Communitues Program which gets kids involved in physical activity instead. Kids actually enjoy going to these twice weekly sessions.

At my school we promote the idea of parents spending quality time with their kids which could involve reading, playing games or any other worthwhile activity. Kids need to have time to be kids, play outside and enjoy childhood. Homework intrudes into this very important time of their lives.

I may sound a bit radical but I believe in putting our energy into strategies that make a big difference for kids and discarding those that don’t. That’s why I don’t agree with setting formal homework for primary school kids.

Here are two links worth reading on the subject:

http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/rethinkinghomework.htm

http://www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-homework.html

31 thoughts on “Why Homework is so Problematic in Primary Schools

  1. Love active after school programs! I used to encourage my son to get on his bike after school and ride like the wind to get all of his edginess out of him.

    • It has been very popular. It has encouraged physical activity and fundamental motor skill development among our students. An excellent program which is fully funded by the Australian Sports a Commission (AIS).

  2. Agree with everything you have written. As part of our self evaluation two years ago we surveyed the parent body and most still wanted homework based on two key points:
    – I did it when I went to school
    – it prepares them for high school.
    The research we did supports your conclusion – there is little if any value in doing formal homework.
    Good on you Jason!

  3. Want homework? Read a book of your choosing. Reading skills help writing skills help learning skills help life skills.
    p.s. Comic books, graphic novels, and Goosebumps are all okay.

  4. Great post. I could not agree more. I will never forget reading a piece from Michael Carr Gregg ten years ago now on boys education suggesting that boys shouldn’t get homework til Year 9 (http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/07/18/1090089034737.html). So often homework sets kids up for failure. Another person who has written quite a bit on it has been Pernille Ripp. She also provides some interesting arguments.
    At the very least, if students get homework then it really needs to be different, individualised, personalised, purposeful and specific. Too often it is not. What is worse is that it often undermines the effort of teachers to build rapport and relationships with their students. Haven’t heard many positive conversations around homework.
    If you are a radical, I am happy to be a radical too. Does that make a tribe?

    • Thanks for your feedback. I’ve had a ground swell of support for my post via Twitter. It’s great to know that I’m not alone in my thoughts on homework. I just think it’s one of those ‘traditions’ that we persist with because it’s seen as how things are done at school. We need to lead the change.

      • That would be a great post, traditions that we continue because … everyone else does. Sadly, my school still has a strong homework policy and I am seen as too much the radical. I don’t have the same mandate for change that you do.

  5. I love your post. Our principal came 6 years ago and changed our homework policy for the better. No homework on weekends. Only meaningful homework. Homework may not be used for assessment. From K-3 there is no formal homework. I taught first grade for 18 years. Following in the footsteps of the other grade 1 teacher I gave Home Reading as homework. It was formal with a recording book. Over the years it lagged and I got tired of hounding kids and parents. When I started teaching Kindergarten 3 years ago I sent home a simple book and hundred chart to colour in each night they read. I gave a sticker after 10 days and a certificate if they reached 100. That same year my own son started Kindergarten. He would complain and it was a fight to read those little books every night. He wanted me to read one of our wonderful picture books or another chapter of James and the Giant Peach. I would say less than half my group brought their books back regularly. Most said they didn’t have time to read. This year I am finally letting go of ‘Home Reading’. Sure I send home little emergent readers we create or poems we’ve learned. They are excited to share them with their parents. So far no parent has asked for home reading. I let them know at the beginning of the year…read to your child, talk about books, ask questions, predict, have fun and play games. There is nothing more important than family time. I am tweeting you a great homework poster I saw on FB today. 🙂

    • Thank you for your feedback Andrea. I believe that home readers are ok but are often misused by parents to ‘test’ kids reading. I’d much prefer parents spent time reading quality picture books with their kids.

  6. I understand the desire for kids to spend time with parents and to be active but we have a majority of parents that homework is the only time that they spend one-on-one with their children. We have a homework policy at our school that teachers give homework Monday thru Thursday with the only homework given on Friday is for larger projects that take more research and time. The homework that is given is meaningful in that it allows children to practice the skills that they have learned that day. It also allows them to learn to budget their time with afterschool activities, family life and religious obligations. Our students regularly test at least one level above grade level and we believe that our children are better prepared to handle the rigors of high school. Most of our parents are on board as they see the fruits of their labor with their children.

    • Whilst I respect your schools decision and think your reasons and methods are sound I can’t agree that this would work in schools like mine. Parents spending one on one time with kids can be beneficial or damaging depending on what they do. If it’s a daily battle, they use it to ‘test’ kids or they do the homework for them then it’s having a negative impact rather than the desired effect. The research is clear that it has limited impact on learning for primary kids so the time taken to prepare and mark homework is not having enough effect in my view to justify teacher effort. I would rather they spend the time designing and preparing engaging lessons.
      Thank you for your comment I do appreciate and respect different points of view.

  7. Jason, how many hours a day to students attend elementary school in Australia? Or does it differ by region. Here in Arizona, USA, students attend the elementary schools in our district from 8:00-2:15 with a very rushed half hour for lunch/recess. Grades 1 to 3 have a 15 minute recess in the morning and Kindergarten has two 15 minute recesses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. As a substitute teacher, I can assure you it is a very rushed day! As both a sub and as a grandmother, I think that homework is very important because we move from subject to subject so quickly that I am amazed the kids are absorbing anything at all. Homework doesn’t need to be a battle if parents approach it with interest “tell me what you learned today–teach ME.” When I was in university in Education, the emphasis was that we learn best by teaching. If we could approach homework as the children’s opporunity TO teach rather than to be punished, this could open up a whole new way of learning.

    • In Australian primary schools (elementary) students do 5 hours a day of face to face learning every day. This is for kids from 5-12 years of age. This is more than enough time to spend on formal learning for one day. Kids should be given time to play after school not given more formal work to do. Sure spend some time reading with kids but most homework is practice and drill sheets which are both boring and limited in their effect on learning. Some households are too chaotic for a range of reasons so we can’t assume that every child has the same supportive environment as you’ve described. I applaud your commitment to your students but please don’t turn them off learning by making them do dull, boring and ineffective homework.

  8. Actually, here in Arizona, homework consists of writing stories, reflecting on books that the students are reading, doing projects, getting an extra chance to figure out math problems that they haven’t had time to learn in school. I don’t consider that to be the same kind of rote memorization I had 50 years ago in Canada. And homework in Canada has changed as well. I certainly know how chaotic home life is nowadays–I have four grandchildren 9 years and under with sports, dance and art activities after school. To say nothing of yes, the need for downtime. But I still say that taking an hour at home to check what’s being learned at school isn’t a bad thing–if it’s possible, given home life. If it isn’t possible, then, personal opinion, I consider that a sad commentary on today’s home life.

  9. Active after school programs are great for building healthy lifestyle attitudes and socialization, ma they ever be funded. Regular reading to/for/with also great if not essential. Shopping, games and anything involving authentic use of number sense like measuring for a project.
    The kids who “do” homework probably don’t need to and the kids who don’t are just being made to feel bad. Who wins?

  10. I totally agree with your blog. With 2 girls in primary school, i just haven’t seen any benefit from the work they are set. I especially dislike major projects or speeches that are set as homework, where parents do the work, because the time allocated and difficult is beyond students.

    Maybe parents should be set the homework… To spend quality time with their kids…so many options.

    It is sad that the reason given for homework is that parents want it, who are the professionals here?

  11. Hi Jason,
    I’ve never been a big fan of homework either. I think that because we don’t (yet) offer many opportunities for children to pursue their own interests during school time, they should be doing that after all school.
    My son’s school has introduced an ‘opt-out’ homework policy this year, and I think I’ll be opting out.
    Thanks for the great article.
    Mel

  12. Since much of your argument centers around “research” that shows that homework has little value, your argument would be much stronger if you cited the research. Also, looking at the methodology used in developing findings from the research is equally important. If the researcher looks for a correlation between the amount of time spent on homework and standardized test scores, the researcher must also look at the learning objectives of the homework versus the measurement objectives of the standardized test. If a student studying music spends one hour per day practicing at school, would an additional hour of practice at home lead to a better musician? If a student spent one hour a day at school reading a book, would we expect an additional hour per day reading at home to increase the student’s reading level? Your argument says no to both examples, but I don’t think proper research would have this finding. Therefore, please present your research sources so that we can determine the merit of using this research as the basis for your argument.

    • A really interesting read. I think it really shows how ‘problematic’ homework and doing strong research about it is. I appreciate your input. Thank you.

  13. Very interesting and valid.
    What about when my 11 year old son needs additional support for (example) spelling- where the school environment has not been able to embed fundamentals and he is now way behind his peers. He has tutoring once a week to (hopefully) address this (before secondary school). He is completely resistant to working with me on extra work at home.

  14. I would rather see balance and understanding that as the children get older the ‘home – work’ should be working on creating a home, skills that are not taught in schools, working as a team but cleaning up the bathroom they all use, assisting and caring for others like the washing and folding the clothes. This is especially important for boys. They need to move to think, move a vacuum and calculate the size of the room and how long it will take them to do all the rooms in the house on average.

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