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The Place of Homework in the 21st Century

May 10, 2009 Assessment, Education, Learning 10 Comments

The more I try to re-focus my thoughts on the struggle of shifting schools and teaching in the 21st century, the more I examine EVERYTHING that has stayed the same in schools. What about classrooms? What about desks in rows? What about teachers at the front of the class? What about homework?


Whether to assign homework and HOW much homework is a controversial issue among teachers, parents AND  students that has been around for a long time.

The Canadian Report: A systematic review of literature examining the impact of homework on academic achievement states:

The impact of homework on students is a contested and polarizing issue. Gill and Schlossman (2004) examined the history of homework in the United States and found that a homework debate had begun as early as the 19th century.

I am not here to convince you to start assigning homework or to stop giving homework to your students.

I am wondering about the impact and benefit  homework has or does not have on student learning (not student achievement on high stakes testing) and  aiding them in becoming life long learners?

I want to make it clear that I do not mean the kind of homework where:

  • students figure out content that teacher did not have time to “cover” during school hours
  • students do busy work to demonstrate to their parents and school administration that they are doing “something”
  • students hand in meaningless (to them) assignments that allow their teachers to have enough grades in their gradebook to “justify” a grade at the end of the quarter/semester/year.
  • parents expect homework and see the lack of it as an a lack in academic instruction
  • parents doing homework for their children in order to have a “better” project than their classmates.
  • parents doing homework for their children because they are too frustrated or stressed out to complete it themselves.

An article Homework only Helps older Students from TheStar.com, a newspaper from Toronto, Canada talks about the above mentioned report from the Canadian Council on Learning  ( Full Report 2009). It mentions the relationship between homework AND learning:

  • Homework is of little benefit to elementary school students but can be useful for older students as long as it is not simply rote learning
  • Among the new rules: Homework should only cover materials taught in class and consist of “clear, purposeful and engaging activities

I send out a tweet to my Twitter network and received the following responses for links to posts, articles and books that deal with the issue.


While reading these articles, there is an overwhelming sentiment that homework assignments are mostly meaningless, busy work, and take time away from “just being a kid”.

Homework in the 21st century: the antiquated and ineffectual implementation of a time honored educational strategy by Joseph S.C. Simplicio

Although the practice of assigning homework on a daily basis has been deemed academically sound by most in the educational community, on the opposing side, many parents with children in grades ranging from kindergarten through college argue that students are expected to spend too much of their out of school time completing homework assignments that are often redundant and meaningless.

In a New York Times article, The Kindergarten Cram, the author Peggie Orenstein draws a connection to Daniel Pink (author of The Whole New Mind)  and his view on what kind of skills we really need to prepare ourselves for in order to succeed in the 21st century. The questions lingers, if traditional homework, that most often is assigned to “practice” and drill what was taught (covered) during classroom time, is really helpful to support skills that Pink is advocating.

Thinkers like Daniel Pink have proposed that this country’s continued viability hinges on what is known as the “imagination economy”: qualities like versatility, creativity, vision — and playfulness — that cannot be outsourced.

Alfie Kohn in The Truth about Homework makes the point that homework might be used for certain skills that need to be become automated, but not to create understanding.

The widely held belief that homework “reinforces” the skills that students have learned – or, rather, have been taught — in class.  But what exactly does this mean?  It wouldn’t make sense to say “Keep practicing until you understand” because practicing doesn’t create understanding – just as giving kids a deadline doesn’t teach time-management skills.  What might make sense is to say “Keep practicing until what you’re doing becomes automatic.

Alfie Kohn also notes that

Children cannot be made to acquire skills.  They aren’t vending machines such that we put in more homework and get out more learning.

Teachers and Homework by Stephen Carr talks about homework as enrichment and calls for a commitment to quality and time appropriate homework:

Think enrichment. Think if not loving, at least enjoying learning. Make homework a task that has some worth. Some value to a student’s life. Never, ever should it be busy work. Assigning 50 problems to complete at home is worthless.

So, after diving into some of the polemic involved with homework in our schools, I am curious to understand how schools and teachers individually are becoming aware, discuss, reflect and struggle with a shift in a homework policy that 21st century learning demands? Or is it a component that stands strong and unaltered by the winds of time?

Here are some questions that I feel would bring awareness and start a conversation among homework policy stakeholders  in our schools.

  • Is homework an antiquated practice that has no place in the 21st century? Is it a practice that needs to evolve?
  • Is homework an effective method for reinforcing educational learning goals?
  • Is homework improving learning for students?
  • Who is actually doing the homework?
  • Is every homework assignment meaningful?

What would be some of your questions to stimulate discussion about homework policy in your next faculty meeting?

Currently there are "10 comments" on this Article:

  1. This is always such a polarizing issue between people. I give homework, but in reality it turns out to be very little. A few 1/2 hrs a few times / week is most likely average. This is at grade 7/8. Others in my building give far more and I am often criticized about not preparing students for highschool. I believe strongly in what you stated at the beginning of this post as well. I don’t give more busy work and worksheets. Most of the homework that students have in my class is finishing up things from the classroom or getting to a certain point in a project, or finding something specific they need for class. It is more often a “keep us fairly close together as a class” kind of thing rather then a “here’s a bunch of stuff to get through” kind of thing. Does that make any sense. If we’re voting, I’m voting for less rather than more as a parent as well as I know the effects it can have on a family. Great post.

  2. nick verney says:

    we are about to look at changing homework that we do in mfl in our school. I am poor at setting homework after each lesson as I hate setting meaningless tasks, and the marking load goes through the roof. However, I think that setting it regularly, if it is enjoyable and useful, is important and is something I should do more.
    Our plan is to use our vle as the standard homework for all our pupils. The standard homework will be to review a lesson presentation online and therefore review the lesson in their own time. This allows all pupils to consolidate learning and to extend learning if they want. we can check they have done it and for how long and there is no marking for us. Once every month we will then set a more extended homework which can serve as a summary. I think pupils will get more from this approach than from completing worksheets / writing things. They can do this in addition if they so wish.

  3. Heather Mason says:

    The homework question is one that I struggle with. Ideally I would love to be the teacher that gives no homework, but as a language arts teacher, there just isn’t enough time for students to finish everything (not cover everything, but finish. The majority of my homework is finishing what we start in class. We start an essay where I can work on it with students, homework is to finish it. We start a story and spend two or three days on the reading portion, homework is to finish it. I have a 45 min class 4 days a week and a 40 min class one day. Not much class time. I don’t consider this busy work nor is it drill, but is this the type of work that the anti-homework researchers are talking about? I don’t know. If I were to stop giving any homework, would I be able to cover all I am required to cover? Does not giving homework mean I have to wait for all students to finish an assignment before started the next whole group activity? Some students work very slowly and not just because of disablilites. Many adv. student are just overly consciencious. If I were to move on, would the extra work bury those that move slower? If there were no homework (and understanding that tech access is still an issue in many schools), are there other ways to involve parents of secondary students in thier classwork that don’t put even more work on the teacher? I don’t have answers nor am I arguing, but these are the questions I have regarding homework in my class.

  4. Ben Grundy says:

    Firstly, great post!
    What I get from this, my own thoughts and listening to/reading others is that homework should be about genuine, authentic and engaging learning at home/out of school. I question how possible it is for teachers to really provide these opportunities on a frequent basis. Without the adult present to scaffold, guide, question, prompt etc it is very difficult.
    My next thought to this then, is whose responsibility is it? And my answer would be – parents, grandparents, carers, etc. Surely spending an afternoon once a week at the zoo, local gardens, hiking, at a museum, going to theatre, building a bird feeder, painting, gardening, etc is a million times more meaningful and authentic for learning that completing a page of math questions or practicing spelling words only. Sure, this practice is essential for learning to be consolidated but this can happen at school in a more genuine way, with the guidance of the teacher.
    Kids’ “homework” should be to live, experience, make mistakes, create, question and enjoy their childhood. Less homework and more of the above mentioned type activities = less stress for child, parent and teacher, more learning, better families.

  5. [...] The Place of Homework in the 21st Century [...]

  6. I think that before we vote yes or no on the issue of homework, we must have a discussion of how teachers are using homework. I think that some teachers use it as punishment; some use it as extensive repetitive practice; and some use it (I have done this) to practice new material. My latest idea is to use it to do a cumulative review 3 nights a week. That way students don’t forget the stuff they have learned and it doesn’t slow the class down when someone skips the homework. My main point is…What purpose does the teacher have for assigning homework?

  7. Kerry Dickinson says:

    Check out Sara Bennett’s blog http://www.StopHomework.com to look at re-examining accepted homework practices. And, check out Vicki Abeles’ new film “Race to Nowhere” at http://www.ReelLinkFilms.com to see how ill-prepared our students are for the 21st century b/c of this over-scheduled, over-academic, over-achieving culture.

  8. Sam Sherratt says:

    Such a contentious issue, homework divides teachers, students and parents. So often given because of parent demand, but not all parents demand it. It seems that schools are often at fault for expecting consistency – I have to give tons of homework because that’s what they had in the previous grade level.

    A solution. Be creative with the tasks you give them. Give them a weekly homework list so they can choose what they do and when. Always connect homework to classroom learning. Try to get them producing work that is used in class when it’s done. Get them working with parents or other people at home. Get them collaborating with each other. Include them in the homework planning process – use their ideas.

    I would much prefer my student to climb trees, ride bikes, swim, run and muck about in their free time – it’s what I want to do in my free time. But, until I work in a school that doesn’t have a standard expectation, they won’t be able to do that so I try to make homework different, lively, hands-on, social, creative, painless and thought-provoking.

    I don’t always succeed.

  9. [...] The Place of Homework in the 21st Century at Langwitches. Practice, Practice, Practice (Or: Homework, Homework, Homework?) from the ASCD Inservice Community Blog. [...]

  10. Judie Haynes says:

    I’m looking a homework for English language learners and think that they do need more practice than can possibly be done in class. I have a chapter on homework in my new book Teaching English language learners across content areas (co-authored with Debbie Zacarian) that sums up homework as:

    “Effective classrooms provide homework that extends day’s lessons, can be completed within a reasonable time, and is “just right” for the (English langauge) proficiency level of the student.”

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