Gifted Exchange readers with middle or high school children may be personally involved in one of the latest educational controversies: the idea of homework, especially over weekends and vacations. As schools close for the holidays today, many kids will come home with assignments to be completed before they return in January. Is that a good thing or bad thing?
Two books that hit shelves this year from respected education writers (Alfie Kohn's "The Homework Myth" and Sara Bennett's and Nancy Kalish's "The Case Against Homework") claim the latter. These books have gotten a lot of attention. Bennett and Kalish were on the Today Show, for instance. On national television, they told parents that the amount of time kids devote to homework has "skyrocketed," to the point where kids are losing out on quality time with family, educational play opportunities, etc.
I've long been suspicious of this claim, so I'm glad to see that Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews has likewise poked some holes in this argument. In late November, his column, The Weak Case Against Homework, notes that the studies both sets of authors cite hardly show an oppressive load. In the past two decades or so, the time 6-8 year olds spend on homework has increased from 8 minutes a day to 22 minutes a day. As Matthews points out, that's less than the time it takes to watch one episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. For 15-17 year olds, the ones supposedly crushed by homework these days, the daily homework burn rate has increased from 33 minutes in 1981 to 50 minutes in 2003.
Maybe 22 minutes or 50 minutes is too much if such work takes time away from other edifying pursuits. But 15-17 year olds, by some estimates, spend about 2.5 hours each weekday on TV and other non-studying related screen time (ie, cruising MySpace and IM-ing friends). Matthews notes in amazement that Kalish and Bennett try to nuance this figure by claiming it's so cozy to cuddle up and watch Lost together as a family.
Matthews (and I) agree with the anti-homework crusaders that much of the homework kids get assigned is dumb. Worksheets may drill and kill. Far better to assign reading and ask kids to bring in comments to class for discussion. It amazes me how many teachers do not ask kids to read a chapter in a textbook, or a primary document, before the subject is first broached in class. Won't kids get more out of a lecture if they're not encountering the material for the first time? Extended research may also be best done at home, when kids can synthesize and delve into issues before being whipped over to the next subject by a bell 50 minutes later.
But... and here's the big "but." Spending two hours a day watching TV is pretty dumb, too. Why not devote more energy to calls for better homework and more academically rigorous schools instead of penning an ode to watching Lost together as a family? Bennett and Kalish got the idea to write their book because their own children were suffering under a high load of homework in a very upscale school. The average child, on the other hand, hardly suffers from this excess of expectations. I'm still reeling from a figure I cited on this blog last week (that only 18 of 100 high school freshmen graduate from a 2-year college within 7 years or a 4-year college within 10). Spending a few hours over Christmas vacation reading or studying hardly seems like a worse way to spend the time than playing video games.