Should I Stop Assigning Homework?

What if my students think my class is too easy? And how will we ever get through A Tale of Two Cities?
Easa Shamih/flickr

I have written in the past about my hatred of homework from the perspective of both a teacher and a parent, so when I heard about a teacher who had ditched the practice of assigning homework altogether, I was intrigued and skeptical. Former teacher Mark Barnes wrote in a post called “Homework: It fails our students and undermines American education”:

Students often ask me why I don’t assign homework. “I don’t believe in it,” I quickly respond. “It doesn’t tell me what you’re learning.” They forge ahead with furrowed eyebrows. “Then why do all of our other teachers assign homework?” Although I typically leave that one alone, my experience tells me that the answer isn’t at all elusive. The average educator was taught in her pre-service days that homework is a part of every teacher’s instructional handbag. You lecture, model, assign a worksheet and follow that up with homework that, in many cases, looks a lot like the worksheet. Then you test and move on. Students who don’t complete homework receive zeroes, but they learn a valuable lesson about responsibility, many teachers argue, even though there’s no legitimate research connecting responsibility to homework. 

While I’ve read the research, and I know that there’s little academic benefit to homework before middle school, and even then, the benefit is limited, I’ve continued to assign homework all these years for a couple of reasons. One, students, teachers, parents, and administrators expect me to, and when I don’t I am labeled an “easy” teacher, viewed as less serious or rigorous than my colleagues. Parents may rage about the veritable avalanche of homework that threatens to suffocate their children, but in my experience, parents also view that avalanche as a badge of honor, evidence of academic rigor.

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Two, I have tried reducing the homework load to almost nothing, and it has proven a real challenge. I have taught writing, Latin, and English. Writing is easy enough to deal with; we simply do all of our work in class. The assignments may proceed slowly, but at least I know all of the work is the students’. Latin is more of a challenge in a homework-free classroom, but after some tweaking, I managed to eradicate all but the most important and relevant homework assignments.

I remained a homework holdout when it came to English class, however. I have always taught novels as a cornerstone of my English curriculum, and without reading homework, we’d be lucky to get through a novel a year. I teach plenty of works, such as Shakespeare, rhetoric, and short stories, that function beautifully and efficiently as in-class readings, but I also teach Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. I love reading to my students, and do a lot of it (complete with the voices and accents, of course) but without homework time spent on reading in preparation for class discussion, we’d get through one, maybe two novels a year. In addition, my students practice grammar exercises and study vocabulary and spelling as their homework. I tried to picture a school year in which I shoehorn all of this work in to class time. I hardly complete a year’s worth of material as it is; a year without any homework at all seemed like a disaster in the making.

I presented all of this information to Mark Barnes, who taught seventh, eighth, and 10th grades over his 20-year career in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and he responded in the form of his own novel-length treatise on the benefits of eradicating homework.

Barnes was a “traditional” teacher for a long time, using what he calls the “circle of learning,” made up of lecture, practice, homework, test, grade, move on. After about 12 years of this practice, he realized, “homework was hurting my students more than it was helping them.” His last year spent in the circle of learning resulted in a negative teaching experience for Mark, and poor learning experience for his students. Barnes spent that summer immersed in research on learning and homework, and returned in the 14th year of his teaching career determined to do away with homework and create what he calls a “results-only learning environment.”

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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