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A School without Homework

Introduction

Today both adults and children live in a busy world; however, we don't often stop and think about why we engage in certain activities every day. I realized homework was one of such activity when I heard the news that a "No Homework" policy had been introduced at my son's elementary school in the beginning of the new school year in August 2009. Why do children do homework?

My son, who completed the 4th grade in May 2011, has been attending the elementary school of the American School in New Delhi since he was a kindergartener. The School, known for its excellence, consists of an education center that provides early childhood (age 3-4) to high school (grade 12) education. The "No Homework" policy was introduced for the elementary school i which accommodates approximately 740 students from all over the world. The school is based on an American curriculum, incorporating a number of multicultural elements that enrich children's experiences to become responsible global citizens.

Prior to August 2009, elementary school children had to do homework, ranging from a couple of worksheets and reading logs to an experiment or project to be explored at home. Although my son was still in the lower grades at the time and the content and amount of his homework were manageable, I still had to nag him to do his homework every night after dinner. Since quite a few parents had warned me that the homework amount would increase drastically starting from the third grade, the No Homework announcement upon my son's promotion to the third grade came as an unexpected surprise to me. In a way, I was relieved. At the same time, I became anxious.


The rationale behind Home Learning and its background

The official name of the policy introduced is called Home Learning as opposed to Homework. Unlike the one-size-fits-all homework packets given from the school, Home Learning encourages children to 1) read for leisure, 2) play, 3) spend time with their families, and 4) pursue one's interests and passions after 3:30 pm.

The school, confident that children were being provided a quality learning experience during school hours (Monday through Friday, 7 hours a day from 8:30-15:30), made the decision based on the following research findings, according to a handout from the school to the parents.

  • - Reading has the single greatest impact on student achievement.
  • - Students often sacrifice time for authentic reading in order to complete their homework.
  • - Unstructured, imaginative, child-centered play and physical activity enhance student performance and lead to better behavioral choices.
  • - The brain develops in childhood through active play and exercise.
  • - There is no conclusive evidence that homework increases standardized test scores or improves academic achievement in Elementary School.

While the announcement and the implementation of Home Learning happened out of the blue, at least for the parents, I learned that there has been a movement in the U.S., which challenges the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001" that became effective in 2002 under the Bush Administration. The law emphasizes the accountability of public schools by expecting each school to bring about higher standardized test scores, while strongly supports the longtime tradition of homework. ii In turn, some scholars and stakeholders in education question the validity of the law, including that of homework, as they show concern regarding the education system that relies heavily on test scores for its assessment.


The inception of Home Learning in the Fall 2009

Home Learning was received with bewilderment among the parents as well as some teachers at its inception two years back. On campus, my friends particularly those of Asian origin and native English speakers (e.g., Indian-Americans, Koreans, Americans in general) shared their anxieties over how we could supplement or cope with what our children were missing by not having homework. There did, however, seem to be a few parents who welcomed the policy or simply didn't take much note of it, which reflected their homeland schooling (e.g., parents from some European countries), or their values (e.g., homework adds more stress to the life of children and parents). This appeared, though limited in number, more common among the dual income families.

In response to many parents' reaction (e.g., "it cannot be true!"), the elementary school promptly organized an elementary school parent meeting which gave the school an opportunity to explain the rationale behind Home Learning face to face. On another front, when I attended the first parents' meeting held in my son's 3rd grade homeroom at the beginning of the school year, most of the time was spent having the teacher defend the school position over Home Learning against a series of concerns raised by the parents. The major apprehensions addressed were a loss of connection with the child's learning (e.g., identifying the area where a child needs learning support) and a shift in burden imposed on parents for their children's academic learning. Concurrently, we also sensed that teachers were puzzled about how to adjust the curriculum so that the children could acquire the required knowledge and skills during school hours.

I was ambivalent. By and large, I agreed with what the school believes and adheres to. Like many other parents and children, both my son and I were content with the school, including its curriculum (e.g., unit study, emphasis on skills such as creativity, problem-solving), since his enrollment in Feb. 2007. Thus, I always encouraged him to participate in various physical activities (e.g., soccer, baseball, or cricket) or have play dates with his friends once school was over at 3:30 pm. Further, one of my son's favorite activities at home had been reading since he was little. In fact, being Japanese, I was more concerned about his Japanese competencies than his academic performance at the American School. In short, as I had a series of agendas for my son while we stayed in New Delhi as expats, homework seemed to be the last thing we needed at the end of the day.

Still, it was hard for me to let go of homework because I was raised (or brainwashed) to think that homework was something beneficial, not harmful to children. Also, I felt that my energetic and mischievous son, who had no interest in doing quality work, was at an age to start developing his good studying habits sitting at the desk at least about 15 to 30 minutes a day at home. As I never meant to neglect the importance of play, free reading and physical activities, my immediate reaction was "Why one over the other? Why not both?"

In the end, my son continued to do what he had been doing (e.g., play dates, physical activities, kanji drills or journal writing in Japanese with me a couple of times during the week before dinner and over the weekend). One immediate change that took place at the outset of Home Learning was that we started to have the whole evening free after dinner (6:30 pm - 9:00 pm), giving us ample time and space to do what our hearts desired at the end of the day.


Two years since Home Learning

By now, the majority of elementary school parents, both old-timers and new parents, take Home Learning as a fact of life. While some parents continue to be weary and long for the comeback of homework, I doubt that the school would reverse the policy.

Are children better off or worse off? While there is much literature in the U.S. or Canada that challenges the practice of homework, I am reluctant to draw a universal conclusion on the topic without looking into the details of each case, such as the content and amount of the homework, school hours, curricula and the characteristics of students and parents' bodies in a different school context. For instance, I believe that rote learning is sometimes necessary to acquire fundamental skills, such as written competencies in Japanese kanji characters, and thus may be done as a homework assignment. Also, I wonder how the children adjust or develop homework habits once they enter the middle school or transfer to another elementary school with homework.

Considering the nature of my son's current school, however, it may be fair to argue that the children at his school are better off not having homework. Foremost, the majority of parents value the quality of teaching and their children's experiences at school. The school also provides the parents with a range of opportunities to learn about and/or observe their children's learning at school. Second, the school mainly serves for children of the expatriate parents most of whom are well-educated and affluent. Subsequently, the parents are able to make wise decisions on what they want their children to pursue after 3:30 pm. Likewise, since a large portion of children attend the school only for a few years while one of the parents is stationed in New Delhi, it makes sense to keep the children and parents free after 3:30 pm as it takes some time for them to get used to the life of New Delhi, including schooling.


What do children have to say? The case of my son

How do children perceive a school without homework? What could be the immediate impact on their learning? I asked my son who will be a 5th grader from Aug. 2011. (I: the author, C: my child)

  • I : "Do you like homework?"
  • C: "Are you kidding? No children like homework except a few nerds who may show up in some fiction books."
  • I : "OK. That was a silly question. Let me put it in a different way. Do you think homework supports your learning?"
  • C: "I don't know because I am so used to not having homework for the past two years."
  • I : "Right...but think deep. For instance, don't you think you could do even more fun or exciting stuff at school if you did the basics at home?"
  • C: "Mom! I think homework would only make our learning at school chaotic because some kids forget to do it and some kids don't know how to do it, so they end up interrupting our classroom learning at school."

I was intrigued by his insight. According to his argument, the classroom learning for the children is less chaotic, thus more meaningful, when they don't have homework. As for the teachers, perhaps it is less stressful not having to manage the homework and facilitate the children's learning based on the assumption that the whole class is on equal footing. Concurrently, unlike what many parents claim, the responsibility of the school as well as the teachers over each child's learning has increased, because now the school is more liable to be blamed for the poor child's academic performance as opposed to the school accusing the children or their parents for not completing homework. In short, knowing there would be resistance from parents, the school could not have taken the courageous and bold step to implement Home Learning unless they also knew the parents were confident in the quality of education.


Homework to Home Learning: "the more the better" to "the less the better"

The introduction of Home Learning provided me with an opportunity to ponder the pros and cons of homework and the role of school and parents in children's learning and growth.

For me, a longtime advocate of children enjoying being children, Home Learning served as a test to see if I could walk the talk, believing in my son and the power of childhood in line with the values of his elementary school. In retrospect, what I was doing was shoving a piece of childhood in his crowded schedule rather than honoring his childhood in totality, rushing through the day thereby exhausting ourselves. After letting go of this "have-it-all" or "the more, the better" syndrome, I now have time and mental space to listen to my son attentively and enjoy the moment, while he has his own time to do what he desires at the end of every day. The days filled with "hurry up" or "first, finish your homework" are long gone.

The truth of the matter is, though, I still don't know if homework supports or discourages my son's learning in the long run. However, I trust a fully explored childhood together with his multi-national friends will be an indispensable asset for him as he grows into a responsible global citizen.

"We worry about what child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is already someone today." by Stacia Tauscher.


Recommended articles and books about Home Learning by the school

Articles:

Books:
  • - Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh - Pasek
  • - A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
  • - Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  • - Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner
  • - Brain Rules by John Medina
  • - Smart Schools by David Perkins
  • - The Homework Myth by Alfa Kohn (a meta analysis)
  • - The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon by David Elkind


i At my son's American school in New Delhi, the elementary school refers to ECEC (age 3-4), Kindergarten and Grade 1-5.

ii Homework tips for parents (May 2003) by U.S. Department of Education.
http://www2.ed.gov/parents/academic/involve/homework/homeworktips.pdf

Helping your child with homework: For parents of children in elementary through middle school by U.S. Department of Education. First published in September 1995. Revised 2002 and 2005.
http://www2.ed.gov/parents/academic/help/homework/homework.pdf

Comment

Hello my name is Summer. I am just finishing forth grade and was interested in reading about your son.


Thank you for your comment, Summer. I would love to hear what you think of having/or not having homework.

It has been over 4 years since the time that I wrote this article. In retrospect, "No Homework Policy" enabled my son to enjoy his childhood at full, which meant more hours for playdates, playing with Legos, reading books such as "horrible histories" and "diary of a wimpy kid", and playing football in local football leagues. Now my son is a 8th grader at a boarding school in Japan. Though soaked in mountains of academic workloads, he is enjoying his busy life on campus while being on a scholarship.

My son used to say, "To be wise and old, I first have to be young and stupid." I am not sure about the "stupid" part, but should it be "playful" instead, I certainly agree. What do you say?


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