Reflecting on priorities of family & work

Homework – What is it good for?

Homework has become an ingrained part of our American educational system and an expectation of hard-charging parents in affluent communities across our country. I’m often frustrated with the homework that my children get from school and have asked myself this exact same question – what is it good for? Unlike the song, the answer is not always “absolutely nothing”. Although, some think so. This year, my kids’ homework is fairly manageable – though not always meaningful. Far too often, the homework assigned to my kids amounts to nothing more than either busy-work or work for us as parents.

Creating and assigning meaningful homework is one of the more difficult tasks of teaching. The goal is to create activities all students can complete independently with minimal or no adult intervention in a prescribed period of time that challenges each student at their own level – a nearly impossible task with classes full of students of varying abilities. This nearly impossible task has lead some school districts to cancel homework altogether. I don’t see that as an answer either.

So, homework – what is it good for? Effective homework achieves at least 2 or 3 of the following purposes:

  1. Reinforce prior learning – Give students an opportunity to practice a skill or concept they learned previously in class and do not need further assistance to be successful. Think math facts or reading comprehension.
  2. Apply prior learning and create connections – Give students an opportunity to take what they have been learning and apply it to a real-life situation, relevant to their world. Think well constructed word-problems or an essay defending a thesis statement based on something learned in history class.
  3. Prime learning for whats to come – Provide students with a taste of something they are going to learn the next day by allowing them to connect it to prior knowledge or relevant experience. Think interviewing a relative about immigration or examining a family recipe for common fractions.
  4. Discipline – Build the habits and dispositions of students in order to prepare them for college and career where they must be able to work independently to complete tasks and assignments with no guidance from their parents.

I see “discipline” as the number one reason why schools and teachers say they assign homework and agree that homework can be an effective tool to build discipline in a child. Through homework, children begin to understand that not all work is fun and that fun happens after work. You have to do what you need to do in order to get to what you want to do.

This is stark for my son. Homework used to be a big battle in our house with him. Our daughter would mow through it (*see P.S.) and be on her way. She would even complete random workbooks just for kicks. Our son, would complete two simple math problems at a time and then stall. 15 minutes of homework would stretch to 45 – and a contentious 45 to boot; until my son figured out, mostly on his own and with some parental guidance, that homework is not supposed to be fun and fun happens after homework. Fun for him is computer time. Now, he comes home, empties his backpack, pulls out his homework, and completes it without being asked. Makes for a much more pleasant afternoon household, too, when we don’t have to fight with him over his homework.

Is this any different than what adults struggle with in the workplace? Part of this on-going journey for me in work-life compartmentalization is to get my work done during specific work hours so that I can do the things that are fun for me – spend time with my family, cook and drink, and exercise (so that I can cook and drink without gaining weight). It’s also about getting the mundane parts of work time (e.g. time and expense reports) to get to the more enjoyable creative problem solving challenges.

I am not on a crusade to make homework meaningful or eliminate homework from our schools altogether. I am going to challenge my kids’ teachers on the amount of homework they assign if it starts to creep up to being unmanageable. Just as I don’t want a job where 75% of the job is mundane, I don’t want my kids with excessive homework that detracts from more meaningful activities. A good rule of thumb for me (and research) is that homework should take 5-10 minutes per grade level. So, for my third graders, they should have between 15-30 minutes of homework a night. When they hit 10th grade, I expect that to by between 50-100 minutes. For those interested in this topic I encourage you to check out Challenge Success. They have great resources for schools and parents on homework and other stressors related to it and school in general. Meaningless homework is a great opportunity to build those habits of mind in our kids to persist through drudgery in order to get to what you want as long as the time commitments are realistic as well.

As an aside, my wife and I have very differing views on how to deal with our kids when they don’t want to do their homework. Her idea is to make them sit at the kitchen counter until they complete it. Mine is to let them return to school with incomplete homework and deal with whatever the consequences. Neither way is necessarily right and I see merits in her approach as well. We’ll continue to try both approaches and probably others as well to see what works best with each kid.

* P.S. I drafted this blog this past weekend and wouldn’t you know it – when I got home from work yesterday, my wife and daughter were at a homework standstill. Figures.

2 comments on “Homework – What is it good for?

  1. Matt Cavender
    April 9, 2015

    I’m enjoying your blog, Rob.

    I agree that homework can be effective to build discipline and that it’s good for kids to learn that fun comes after work. I always tell the girls that first they need to do the things they have to do, then they can do the things they want to do. But I don’t particularly like the idea of their “work” continuing after they get home. The average school day is about as long as most people’s average work day, and I think that’s enough. Going to school is their work.

    What I would like to see is more independent study time at school where kids can do the work that they would otherwise be doing at home. That would serve the four goals of homework that you mentioned, it would take the homework burden off parents, it would also allow kids to have access to the teachers who are teaching the material to them, and, probably most importantly, it would allow kids to take that time after “work” to just be kids.

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. DadWorking
    April 9, 2015

    Allowing kids to be kids is another important aspect of limiting the amount of homework. I advocate for some homework to be done at home as it builds not just discipline, but habits that will serve kids well in college when they will have to do work outside of class and have tons of temptations/distractions to attend to.


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This entry was posted on April 8, 2015 by in K-12 Education, Parenting and tagged , , , , , , , .
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