personalized learning classroom

What the debate over homework is getting wrong


Apr 30, 2019

Debates over the purpose and benefit of homework seem to be cyclical. A recent Atlantic article summarized the state of affairs with regards to homework, tracing its history and analyzing debates for and against homework in today’s schools. Is homework a proven best practice for increasing achievement? Is it a lot of hot air that only persists because of tradition? Or is it a mixed bag that should only be assigned based on what’s needed to actually further student learning?

In the hubbub of these mixed opinions, the debate gets muddled on two fronts: diagnosing the homework experiences that different students most need, and understanding the sorts of experiences students themselves demand.

A matter of circumstances, not seat time, too often we fail to recognize when both sides of the homework debate perpetuate an assumption that seat time equals learning. The “10 minutes per grade level” rule of thumb exemplifies this assumption by trying to right-size homework time based on age, not actual learning (or the time that learning takes). Proponents of homework often cite a popular study correlating amount of homework with test scores, a result that is hotly contested by a second camp that contends we’re mistaking correlation for causation. People with this latter perspective argue that homework should be judged by how meaningful it is. But even this camp can slide into a fixed seat-time mindset—whether it’s assigning 20 minutes of pleasure reading instead of worksheets, or maintaining that students should have zero minutes of homework so they can enjoy other activities outside of school. (This is not to say that time spent reading has no value—only that it should be considered as a variable that factors into a learning goal, rather than number of reading minutes as an end in itself.)

The debate about the “true” effect of homework rages on at the expense of considering the possibility that there is no single best practice. Research offers no clear answer about whether homework has an effect on quality time with family, social development, success in life, and other desirable factors. Instead of holding out for the best gold-standard research that will offer a universal answer, we might work on growing comfortable with the idea that the purpose of homework is circumstantial rather than universal. What works for which students in what circumstances varies—and more circumstance-based research can help explain how.

In adopting this mindset, educators could start making decisions about homework by thinking about what students need based on their circumstances. For example, students who tend to have less shared family learning time could benefit from an approach that involves learning or practicing concepts with family members. Organizations like PowerMyLearning are working to enable this through Family Playlists. Students in flipped classrooms might spend homework time working through content in order to do collaborative and real-world projects in school. On the other hand, students whose school day is heavy on instruction might enjoy homework assignments that invite them to explore the world around them, build original creations, and make meaningful connections to what they’re learning in school.

One word of warning: even a circumstance-based approach could slide towards prioritizing seat time over learning. For a given student in a given circumstance, it might be tempting to say that the student “needs” an hour of math practice per night to come up to speed. Instead, schools would be wise to ask what kind of math supports best help that student move towards a learning goal outside of school time.

Bridging need and demand

Given that determining what kids need is one of the sanctified roles of the education sector, no doubt there is plenty of room to run with a circumstance-based approach to homework. Understanding these various circumstances, however, is only half the battle. Even with precision that moves beyond seat-time based policies, homework could still feel like the place students’ dreams go to die. Differentiating by what students need is not the same as understanding what they actually demand.

Enter a second way to cut through the homework debate: in addition to considering what students need, we might start trying to understand what students are trying to get done in their lives on their own terms. In the Jobs to Be Done framework, a job represents the progress people are trying to make as they strive toward a goal based on their particular life circumstances. Just as people “hire” contractors to help them build houses, people search for something they can “hire” to help them when “jobs” arise in their lives. Needless to say, homework itself is not a job to be done in students’ lives—but might students “hire” homework to help fulfill a job they do have? We’ve hypothesized that two jobs common among all students are to feel successful and to have fun with friends. Schools that have eliminated homework may help students fulfill those jobs by leaving after-school time to feeling successful in extracurricular activities or hanging out with friends. Other schools that have a strong culture of homework may have discovered how homework itself can help students fulfill those jobs.

As schools consider more student-centered learning environments, homework should absolutely be on the table for debate. But the contours of that debate should recognize that seat time is a variable and not a constant for learning, and that numerous circumstances are more likely than singular best practices to determine the need for homework. Lastly, schools should consider homework as part of what shapes the student experience and take into account what students are trying to get done in their lives. That way, homework could get a makeover as something that effectively meets the learning needs of individual students, and actually engages them.

Chelsea is a research fellow at the Institute, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the evolution of student-centered learning and the advancement of student agency. As part of this work, she leads the Canopy project, a collaborative effort to build better collective knowledge about school innovation.