Practice Makes Perfect: Homework Does Have A Purpose

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

During spring break, the last thing many students and their parents probably want to think about is homework. However, it is a relevant topic because there is an ongoing debate in educational circles about the value of homework.

In his book, The Homework Myth, popular educator “guru” Alfie Kohn claims that homework is an outdated relic that actually serves to harm students’ learning. According to Kohn, there is little value for students to do any homework because it wastes their time and makes it difficult for them to play sports or talk with their families and friends.

Some school boards take the arguments of Kohn and other homework opponents seriously. The most striking Canadian example was in Toronto last year. In response to some parents, the Toronto District School Board passed a new policy to curtail the amount of homework assigned to students. Under this policy, teachers are only allowed to assign minimal homework to elementary students, no more than one hour per evening to students in grades seven and eight and no more than two hours to high school students. In addition, teachers are forbidden from assigning homework over holidays, and they are not permitted to discipline students who fail to complete their homework on time.

While blanket policies like this may be well-meaning, they make it extremely difficult for teachers to teach effectively. Nowhere in the policy is there an explanation for how high school teachers in large schools are supposed to know how much homework students have received from other teachers. Furthermore, some students work far more quickly than others. Two hours of homework to one student may be twenty minutes for another. Clearly, there are logistical problems with school boards trying to implement arbitrary time limits on homework.

More importantly, there are good reasons for making homework a part of the learning process. When properly designed, homework assignments provide a valuable opportunity for students to reinforce concepts they have learned at school. Simply put, spending focused time practicing a skill is the best way to improve students’ ability to perform that skill. This is why music students practice scales, why athletes spend hours in repetitive drills, and why student drivers practice parallel parking.

The most important skills people learn in life usually require that they engage in considerable repetitive practice so that the skills become habitual. Why would academic skills that are learned in school be any different? There is considerable evidence that homework is effective largely because it increases the amount of time that students spend on-task. In other words, good homework provides practice, preparation, and elaboration of the material that is covered in the teachers’ lessons.

Perhaps the most specious and troublesome claim is that homework takes time away from more valuable activities for students, such as exercising or talking to parents. Using the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research data–often quoted by the homework opponents–one quickly finds that the average television viewing for school-aged children is more than two hours a day. If there is anything that takes time away from constructive childhood activities, it is watching mindless television programs. (One wonders whether homework opponents plan to encourage governments to pass laws that restrict the number of hours that children are permitted to watch television during weeknights.)

The best way to address the homework issue is for teachers to ensure they have a good reason for assigning the homework. Homework should be meaningful and provide students with the opportunity to practice skills and concepts they have recently learned in school. Ensuring that homework is properly designed and relevant to what students are learning is the best way to alleviate concerns about its effectiveness.

Instead of measuring homework by the number of minutes it takes to complete it, let’s focus instead on making sure that it is properly designed and helps reinforce concepts learned in school. This would be a much better approach than following an arbitrary policy like the one set by the Toronto District School Board.

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Michael Zwaagstra is a Research Associate at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a city councillor in the City of Steinbach and a high school Social Studies teacher. Rodney Clifton is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.