Is Homework Pointless?

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Growing up, I was one of those little kids with the huge backpack about twice my size.

Around the third or fourth grade, my family started to inquire why I carried so many books to and from school. When I told them I had to for all my homework, I remember them launching into narratives about how “when I was your age” they didn’t have much in the way of homework.

By the sixth grade, I was staying up half the night to trace maps of the Lewis and Clark expedition, finishing up math assignments, and completing my reading for English. Most of the time, I would skip dinner to complete all my assignments. When my father would check on me close to 10 pm, it would be out of concern, not to praise his daughter for her scholastic dedication. And when I read about how much homework today’s kids are slaving away over, I see that not that much has changed since I was a kid.

When evaluating the many weak spots of modern education, homework often comes up among parents and teachers alike as perhaps an outdated form of educating children. Excessive and needless homework assignments, that read more like busy work than critical exercises, are considered just one of my factors that are stressing out our children at younger and younger ages.

Vicki Abeles, a filmmaker, lawyer and mother of three recently told The New York Times that homework is part of much larger overbearing scholastic culture that doesn’t really teach our kids anything:

Many of our children are already stretched to unhealthy breaking points, loaded down with excessive homework, extracurricular activities and outside tutoring because they’re led to believe high test scores, a slew of Advanced Placement classes and a packed résumé are their ticket to college and success. This has led to an epidemic of anxious, unhealthy, sleep-deprived, burned-out, disengaged, unprepared children…

Academically-driven children who want to do well are faced with skipping other enriching activities, like the arts, which ultimately contribute to a child’s ability to learn. But with so many assignments, time with say a musical instrument is scarce.

Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins, writes that excessive homework is not only cutting into children’s other interests, but also their physical health. With so much time sitting down at a desk, many children aren’t getting nearly enough exercise which in turn prohibits learning:

Exercise, too, is vital to children’s learning. Research has demonstrated that physical activity boosts attention and motivation and reduces behavioral problems, and may even enhance the ability to think and reason. An article in the journal Health Psychology reported earlier this year that overweight children who began exercising for 40 minutes a day increased their scores on an intelligence test, and scans of their brains showed greater activity in areas responsible for complex thought.

Lastly, the arts — music, drama, drawing and painting — are not only valuable in themselves, but also promote the development of academic skills. A recent study of two New York City public schools — similar but for the fact that one school offered intensive music training beginning in kindergarten — found that second-graders who’d been given the instruction in music had reading skills superior to those of second-graders who’d received no musical education.

Some schools, like the Montessori school for example, take a different approach to homework. According to “the Montessori way,” children should be allowed to develop in other ways once exiting campus. Montessori doesn’t assign homework until students are in late elementary school or middle school. As stated on their website, the theory behind Montessori is that children don’t need homework after a long school day:

Children work hard in school, just as their parents do at the office. All of the usual arguments that parents and mainstream teachers use to justify homework miss the point. Homework does not teach children responsibility, time management skills, self-discipline, or more of what they should be learning during the day. What it teaches is how to put up with a job that they dislike. Many teachers seem to think that they can help their students become better educated by requiring them to do tasks that few would ever do voluntarily.

Their website also states that, “Even though most Montessori schools do not require homework, many ask children to read and write daily.” Kids write in journals or do creative exercises that they invent themselves. Even though Montessori does send home assignments eventually, they are far from the traditional assignments you’d find in the folders of many kids. Montessori suggests interviewing a grandparent, finding a pen pal on the other side of the United States, or researching a city that you have never been to.

The debate about homework is far from over, but with some parents openly admitting to doing their children’s homework for them, we clearly have a problem. Whether it’s ineffective, a waste of your child’s time, or costing them sleep at night, in the long run, conventional homework can seem pretty pointless to a child’s development and education.

(photo: Shutterstock)