Discussion Questions About Homework For Kids

If you’re confused about homework, you’re forgiven. In a single day, you might hear a story about how U.S. education lacks rigor and another about how students are overburdened and stressed. Some children are taking admittance tests for preschools, and others are being “unschooled” by their parents. Clearly, the importance of homework is an ongoing debate.

Rather than following the latest fad, we’re going to look at the data. We’ll consider whether you should give homework, when you should give it, and how to make homework assignments meaningful. Then, if you do give homework, you will know that you are making the best use of your students’ time — and your own.

Image via Flickr by R. Nial Bradshaw

The older the students, the better

Researchers are divided on the benefits of homework, but most agree that homework is least effective for elementary students. Harris Cooper, a Duke University researcher, found that homework did not correlate to achievement for elementary students, though it did for older students. There are multiple explanations for this. Younger students are more easily distracted, and they are also more reliant on parents to assist them with homework.

Both the National Education Association and the National PTA recommend that students receive about ten minutes of additional homework per night with each grade level, so ten minutes for a first grader, and up to 120 minutes for a high school senior. In recent years, homework has increased mainly for young students, according to an NEA article. Those are the students least likely to benefit from homework.

Consider students’ resources

Another concern about homework is that it perpetuates inequality. Data from the Program for International Student Assessment have shown that high school students from high-income families tend to spend two or three hours more on homework each week than students from low-income families. Students from high-income families are more likely to have a quiet place to study and to have parents who are highly involved in their education. Teachers with students whose families are from higher socioeconomic statuses might also assign more homework because they expect that their students can and will complete it.

Homework tips

Get students involved

You might think that students would never choose to have homework, but Alfie Kohn, author of “The Homework Myth,” argues that isn’t the case. Students dislike homework because they see it as tedious busy work, but most will enjoy the challenge of a meaningful assignment that they helped select, he says. Start a discussion with your students about homework. Find out how long they are spending on homework and which assignments they have found most useful. Offer options for homework assignments and take a class vote, or let students choose for themselves.

Be clear with parents

Sometimes parents dislike homework more than students. Some argue that it interferes with family time and prevents children from playing and sleeping as much as they should. Others worry that a lack of homework indicates their children aren’t being challenged. Be clear with parents, particularly those of elementary students, about how much time homework should take. Also, let them know how much parental involvement you expect. Are children on their own when writing that essay? Or should parents help with grammar?

Make success possible

Homework assignments that merely repeat classwork set up students for disappointment. Students who understood the lesson will breeze through the assignment. Students who didn’t understand will become more frustrated when left to tackle the lesson on their own. The best homework assignments should be an extension of classroom learning, whether that is researching a topic to share with the class or talking to parents about how they create a family budget.

Consider alternatives

If your students struggle to complete homework, look for a better method. If students don’t have a good place to do homework, is there an after-school program or someplace quiet at your school where they can work? One Michigan high school began using a flipped classroom because its low-income students weren’t completing their homework. Students now watch short videos or read at home and do the meaty work, such as writing essays and completing math sets, at school. The school’s failure rate has decreased significantly. Other schools have eliminated grades for homework so that students with a troubled home life aren’t penalized.

Eliminate homework

More schools are trying homework bans. The Chicago Public Schools dropped the requirement that students have homework a few years ago, and one elementary school enacted a ban. Parents were still asked to read at home with their children, but they said this was easy compared to the homework struggle. While researchers disagree about the effectiveness of homework, nearly everyone agrees that good classroom instruction is the key to education. If your students are learning what they should in the classroom, don’t feel that you have to assign homework. Make homework the exception rather than the rule.

In short- You know your students

Researchers aren’t likely to reach a consensus on homework anytime soon. On the PISA tests, students who did more homework scored significantly higher on the mathematics test, but homework did not affect scores in English, science, and history. Given that the students who do the most homework also tend to have a lot of economic and social advantages, it’s hard to determine how much of their success is derived from homework. You are in the best position to say whether homework is needed for your students. Get feedback from students, and use assessments to determine whether homework is aiding learning. The progress that your students make, not the time they spend on homework, is the true measure of success.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Katie Lepi and ran on June 12, 2014. A lot has changed since then, so we’ve had author Sarah Muthler update this piece with the latest techniques and innovations.

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Milo reads. (Lauren Knight)

I watch as my 8-year-old pushes through the front door ahead of me, tosses his coat to the right, somewhere in the direction of the coat hooks lined along the entryway, kicks off his shoes slightly further down the line, and grabs the thick sixth book of Harry Potter, which he is devouring in record time, for the fourth time. He then plops down on the couch, not to be disturbed or interrupted by even the loudest yells and shrieks of joy from his younger brothers for the next two hours. His after-school routine during the winter months looks something like this not because he has been prescribed a reading list by his teacher, but because he has been freed of the unnecessary burden of homework. Two years ago, at a different school, this was not the case.

Milo entered kindergarten a week after his sixth birthday, two weeks after he learned to read, one day after he sat in our living room and devoured an enormous stack of library books all by himself. He was unstoppable, proud beyond measure. His thirst for knowledge in the form of books, a new magical world suddenly and miraculously opened up to him. And then, during his first week of kindergarten, he came home with a thick packet of worksheets along with instructions to complete the work by the following Monday. At first, he eagerly tackled the work: the coloring pages, the sight words, the beginning math in the form of counting and circling things in different colors. But then as the weeks wore on, he started to dread the work. It wasn’t that the worksheets were difficult (on the contrary, they were more like busywork), it was that they were disruptive. They kept him from doing what he wanted to do with his after-school time, which was read, or sometimes play outside, or wrestle around in the living room with his brothers. More than once, the same packet was sent home — the same, exact worksheets, all stapled together in the same exact order — and the obvious pointlessness of it all was not lost on Milo. He whined, “I’ve already done all of these!” but begrudgingly went through the motions so he could get back to what he really wanted to do, which was learn.

And that was when I started to question it all. Was homework really necessary, and moreover, was it doing more harm than good?

The homework debate isn’t all that new. People question how much homework is too much, or too little, and ask How can we improve homework completion and How can we motivate our children to complete or be more enthusiastic about homework? But what if we, as parents, are asking the wrong questions about homework? What if, instead of asking How much time per night or How will this affect my child’s overall grade in this class or How involved should I be in getting my child to complete his homework? we asked, Why homework? What is the benefit of homework for my child? What effect will homework have on my child’s well-being and emotional health?

Articles entitled “Too Much of a Good Thing?” and “The Homework Ate My Family” freely cover the wide range of harms imposed by homework, yet fail to ask, Why should children be doing it in the first place? My argument: they shouldn’t be.

[When a kindergarten assignment is really for the parents]

Alfie Kohn, author of “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing,” examined the usual defenses of homework — that it promotes higher achievement, reinforces learning, and teaches study skills and responsibility — and found that none of these assumptions actually passes the tests of research, logic, or experience. The startling trend, despite research showing that homework for elementary students is not an effective predictor of academic success (and on the contrary, contributes to more negative attitudes towards school in general), is that the age at which homework is being assigned has dropped lower and lower over the past 30 years. School districts that used to hold off on assigning homework until the third grade are now piling it on to kindergartners on a regular basis. Kindergartners, some of whom just recently gave up taking afternoon naps, are spending seven hours in school only to come home to more work. Kohn argues that homework is a burden on parents, stressful for young children, and leads to family conflict.

In addition to these negative dynamics, homework leaves less time for other activities. Children spend all day in school. When they walk out the door of their school and into their homes, shouldn’t they have the right to just be home? Where is the time to just hang out with parents or siblings they haven’t seen all day? Isn’t seven hours a day in school enough?

Kohn and others argue that children and families need their time outside of school for living: for playing, exercising, cooking and enjoying food with their families, doing chores, playing music or drawing pictures, exploring nature, reading for pleasure, discussing things with parents and just goofing around. Children need time to be children. Just as your job does not have the right to dictate to you how you spend your time outside of work, neither should a child’s school be able to dictate how he spends his time outside of school. This is not a new way of thinking by any means; in the mid-1960s, the American Educational Research Association stated: “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.” So why are we moving backwards, assigning more homework instead of less, or none at all?

Much of the push for homework comes from a mistrust of children’s innate need to learn. Parents and educators fear that without constant pushing and prodding, a child will learn nothing at all, seek out no knowledge, and fail to thrive academically. But the reverse may be true. Deborah Meier, American educator and founder of the modern small schools movement, stated in the Homework Myth, “Kids are natural learners: we do not need to inspire them to be so — we need to keep from extinguishing it.” Homework, unfortunately, seems to do just that. Most children hate and dread homework, put it off for as long as possible. According to Kohn, homework may be the “single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.”

What homework does seem to teach is not critical thinking skills or a love for learning, but an ability to do what one is told, complete instructions, and regurgitate facts onto a test the following day. This is in fact an extremely shallow view of learning, as standardized tests are a poor measure of intellectual proficiency. In fact, more recent studies, such as those conducted by Sandra L. Hofferth and John F. Sandberg (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2001) show that time commitment to homework was “not associated with higher or lower test scores on any [achievement] tests.” Rather, the amount of time children spend reading for pleasure was strongly correlated with higher test scores. If, as Kohn revealed from such studies, there is no academic benefit to homework, why do some still argue its importance?

A common argument from homework proponents is that the act of doing homework every night is in itself “character building,” that it helps with study skills and self-discipline, initiative, and independence. However, these ideas are just that: ideas, with no studies to support them. One might argue that time management and study skills can be learned during the seven hours children are in school; nothing magical happens when they enter their own homes to make time management skill acquisition happen. Oftentimes the burden of enforcer simply transfers from teacher to parent once the child is home — the parent is expected to remind the child of her responsibility to complete her homework before she engages in any other activities, or even introduce reward or punishment systems in order to reinforce homework completion. If the parent leaves the child to remember to do her homework herself, there is often backlash from the school in the form of phone calls, emails, notes home, or meetings regarding the lack of homework enforcement. How much responsibility or independence is a child really learning through this dynamic? Perhaps what we mean here is “conformity” rather than responsibility, as in this sense, we are speaking of a child’s willingness or acceptance of what she has been told to do. True independence and responsibility (including greater academic self-confidence) comes when a child is given a greater sense of autonomy, which is, not surprisingly, associated with more successful learning. Homework, or homework, should be chosen by the child if it is to encompass true learning.

So what happens when a teacher decides to stop giving out homework, and instead focuses on covering the entirety of the material during class time? When students are intrigued or inspired by something they learn about in school, they naturally seek out more knowledge on their own, in their own time. They take charge of their own learning. Children and adolescents have an intrinsic motivation to learn; when freed from homework, they often create their own assignments and projects out of their curiosity and interest. I have seen this firsthand time and time again with my own children. Inspired by a lesson on geometry and interested in learning about algebra, Milo recently asked my husband to teach him the basics; they spent time on Khan Academy’s site together. Afterwards, Milo asked for equations to solve and sat at the dining room table completing them. Other times, I have watched as my 6-year-old, Oliver, writes out square root charts to himself (inspired by what he had learned earlier that day in school) while I read aloud at bedtime. They read constantly, and ask to be read to. No one forces them, or even suggests to them that they should be doing this work. They do so because they choose it, because they are inspired, because they have been allowed the space to learn.

To those who will inevitably jump to the conclusion that parents who don’t support homework don’t support education — think again. It is exactly those parents who support a true and genuine love of learning, who value curiosity and observe the human desire and thirst for knowledge, who will question and research and challenge the status quo. It may be argued that parents who question homework policies love education most of all, for to challenge a position, one must thoroughly think about it. One must hold it in one’s mind, turn it upside-down, and dump its contents out, sift through its components to discover and rediscover its value. Out of love for our children and their joy of learning, we must realize that there is a different way to approach education — that just because we have always done something does not mean it is the right path for the future. More parents are saying no to homework. Maybe you should too.

Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at Crumb Bums.

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