On Campus

Is homework dead?

Without homework, where will students learn to do work they can't do at school?

Homework, that fabled warrior in the fight against ignorance, is on the defensive these days. Students, have always reviled it, of course, parents have feared it, and teachers have accepted its rule as necessary if unpleasant.

But more and more one reads stories like this one, which recast the image and utility of homework. Where it was once seen as a vital chance to practice important skills, it is now increasingly seen as a needless burden that, if anything, actually impedes learning by stressing out the kids, and the parents, too, for that matter.

Fair enough. If elementary schools can teach kids more effectively without homework, who am I to say nay? Or yea. Or whatever. But as a university professor, I worry about what happens down the road. If homework can’t be justified in grade eight, say, how is it justified in grade ten, especially if those grade ten students have never been expected to do it before? Won’t homework in high school be even more stressful to those who have never had to do work out of class before? Will high schools ban homework, too? If they do, what will become of assignments that cannot be done during class because they require long periods of time to do properly? That is, what will become of the formal essay, that mainstay of education in the humanities and social sciences, and bedrock assignment in most university arts programs?Some high schools have already dropped formal essays in favour of in-class exams with essay questions, and university-bound graduates of those schools are already disadvantaged when they are asked to write real, university-level papers. The ones where you have to, you know, do research and write multiple drafts, and use a computer.

In other words, while homework may not be a help to elementary school students immediately, it may help in the long run by helping establish in them the discipline needed to work on learning outside of school hours. Has anyone studied whether developing the habit of doing work outside of school is valuable in itself? If not, we may be asking the wrong questions, and if we are, our misguided answers may leave us with students who are even less prepared for university than they are now.

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