The internet, if not the world, breathed a collective sigh of relief when the story of a Texas teacher ditching homework assignments for her students went viral.
It was as if something most knew to be true was confirmed in one fell swoop: Homework stinks and we shouldn’t have to do any of it, especially when we could go out and play, hang out with friends or go to the mall.
But just how much of a toll does homework take on students?
According to U.S. News & World Report, students are spending more and more time on homework. A 2014 survey found that children in grades K-5 average about three hours of homework a week; middle school students see about 3.2 hours of homework per week; and high school students could see as much as 17.5 hours of homework during the school week.
That’s up significantly from 2011 when research found that high schoolers dedicated about seven hours to homework, and from 1994, when 39 percent of 17-year-olds who were surveyed claimed to have spent just one hour each night on homework.
So did this Texas teacher get it right?
According to elementary and early childhood professors in FIU’s School of Education and Human Development, there is value to homework assignments but it depends on the type and age of the students.
What this teacher actually did was say her second grade students wouldn’t be assigned any formal homework. They would, however, have to finish any assignments they didn’t complete in class.
For the youngest children it makes more sense for parents to talk to their children nightly, talk to them often, and include them in many of their daily activities, according to Charles Bleiker, a professor of early childhood education.
He adds, though, that teachers may not be the culprit. “In my experience, it is not the teachers who are asking for homework, but the parents.
“Parents often equate learning with worksheets, flashcards and other didactic learning materials. Young children, however, learn much more by engaging in applied tasks in a real world or fantasy context.”
Shopping for groceries, for example, is a good activity for learning the names of fruits and vegetables and counting, Bleiker says. Most activities parents do can be turned into a learning activity, no worksheets needed.
Math games and other thinking games can also help young children learn more effectively.
When children get a little older, homework should reinforce skills taught during the day, says Alicia Mendoza, associate professor of elementary education.
“Some things require repetition for reinforcement and generally, the time needed for this repetition is not available during the school day,” she says. “Large numbers of math problems don’t really make sense and become boring and tedious. The youngster does them just to get them done and not to reinforce learning.”
Another way teachers can make homework relevant is to adjust assignments based on the skill level of each child.
“My older son is a visual learner,” Mendoza says. “He looks at a word and knows how to spell it so he didn’t need homework in the subject. I tried to convince him to use it as an opportunity to practice his handwriting instead. It never really worked.”
Bleiker suggests appropriate activities that reinforce learning but also support healthy family engagement. For example, parents could enlist their children in helping to organize clothes, identifying all the different components of clothing. This could lead to a vocabulary lesson articles of clothing in English and Spanish.
Bottom line, teachers and parents often have limited time to spend with their child; let’s not make them use that precious time fighting over a homework assignment that is going to add little to their learning.