The Place of Homework in the 21st Century

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, 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?