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?
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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.”

Contrary to my first concern, Barnes found that most parents were in favor of his doing away with homework, particularly once he outlined the research for them. He shared what he had learned with his principals, and they signed off on his efforts. “Ironically, the people who often struggled with my no-homework policy the most were colleagues. They were getting pushback from students, who argued, ‘Mr. Barnes doesn’t assign it, so why do you?’” he wrote. Barnes points out that a no-homework policy does not mean that his students never work outside of class; indeed, they often do, because they enjoy the learning and want it to continue outside of class.

While this all sounds lovely to me, and I can get behind his enthusiasm, I had to bring the conversation back to my English-class dilemma. Barnes reminded me that he, too, was an English teacher, but conceded that he did not teach many novels in class in favor of shorter works. His class was a project-based classroom, so many students did choose to prepare for their projects outside of class. Barnes eliminated all work that required rote memory, and leaned more on context clues and word roots instead. “The result of eliminating traditional, mostly rote memory, homework was one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career,” Barnes wrote.

Barnes said that his students typically out-performed their grade-level peers whose teachers relied on homework and memorization methods in their classrooms.

Barnes concluded his email with a final assessment of his six years as a no-homework teacher:

Above all else, my students enjoyed class and become intrinsically motivated independent learners. They loved that I didn’t assign traditional nightly homework. We discussed it often, and the consensus was that kids want more time for sports and other co-curricular activities. They want to play with their friends and spend time with family. Bottom line, homework gets in the way, and the research supporting it as a learning tool is sketchy, at best. I would add for the no-homework skeptics, and they are legion, you have to keep in mind that any research that supports homework is based almost universally on test results. Teachers create tests, based on the practice activities they create. If a student practices memorizing Spanish words by writing them over and over, and then takes a multiple-choice test on those words, she’ll likely do well on the test. These manufactured results say nothing about real learning.

A year and a half ago, when I first started questioning my own homework practices, I looked to my own children as a barometer of what I deemed a reasonable homework load versus an unacceptable intrusion on free time--the time children need in order to relax, play, be quiet, and imagine. At the beginning of this journey, I was willing to admit that “teachers who sacrifice these vital elements of childhood for anything less than the most valuable homework assignments are being derelict in their duty to their students and the teaching profession.” But in light of Mark Barnes’s experience with what sounds like a balanced and vital classroom culture, I am left to wonder how long homework will be a part of my own classroom repertoire.  

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Jessica Lahey is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand 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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