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Re-Thinking Homework

It doesn’t happen often, but this morning I find myself in agreement with Jay Mathews.

In the quarterly Education edition of the Post Magazine (a great place to sell ads for private schools and colleges), Mathews says we should eliminate almost all homework in elementary school.

Except for reading.

So, let’s get rid of elementary school homework. Toss those 50 addition problems in the trash. Stop cutting up your magazines. Forget about flashcards.

Instead, let’s have children that age sit in a nice comfortable chair, with the television off, and read something they choose for 30 to 60 minutes a day. It can be a classic novel, such as Charlotte’s Web. It can be a comic book. It can even be — forgive me for sounding so desperate — this newspaper.

If they need help with their reading, a parent can sit with them. But we ought to make reading a fun habit, like feeding the ducks or playing Monopoly or having pancakes on Sunday morning.

Great idea. But why stop at elementary school?

The idea of dropping all the trivia that makes up most homework assignments and emphasizing non-academic reading is a good one for kids at the secondary level as well.

However, we should also add a writing requirement.

High school kids especially should also be writing about what they’re reading. And that writing should be for an audience outside of the closed classroom and go beyond the formal, structured assignments traditionally imposed in class.

Whether this is on a blog available to the whole world, a closed discussion board, or somewhere else isn’t as important as students having the experience of reflective writing in a format that can be read, and commented on, by other than the teacher.

Mathews is right that we need to drastically restructure the concept of homework. He just doesn’t take it far enough.


  1. Eric Hoefler

    Just wanted to throw in a strong agreement here, and highlight the importance of parents serving as models. This is not always possible, unfortunately, but one of the best predictors of a student’s academic success seems to be whether or not his/her parents read and read to/with the student at an early age.

    I also agree with your comments about writing. I’ve seen even the limited audience of a closed discussion forum do wonders for the writing ability of former students.

    This seems like such a small and simple step to take … if only we could take it. (Of course, in individual classrooms, this may be possible …)

  2. Karen Janowski

    Alfie Kohn makes the same recommendations about abolishing homework especially at the elementary school level in his book “The Myth Of Homework,” based upon his review of the research. With my youngest now entering his senior year of high school, we have seen our share of mindless, kill and drill assignments over the years.
    If you want to take your view of homework “far enough,” I highly recommend reading this book. Share it with your administrators, colleagues and parents to establish a new homework policy in your district.

  3. Tim

    I also highly recommend Kohn’s book. While I don’t buy everything he has to say, Kohn is exactly right with his central point that the vast majority of homework assignments are instructionally worthless.

  4. Kathryn

    As a parent, I do think doing some math review in the evening is helpful, at least it has been for my kids, from elementary school on up. We definitely could have done without all the shoe box dioramas, silly word finds, etc.

  5. Susan

    Great idea! We’ve tried it for year, but many parents won’t honor it as real work. Even when we were working in a parent choice whole language school, many families would see that math worksheets were finished, but couldn’t find time for their children to just read, when we assigned that instead. Even with all the parent ed with did on the importance of reading, unless there was a reading log or book report or book club role page attached to it, may families wouldn’t buy into it. Some of the more cynical ones even seemed to think it was a ploy on our part to avoid creating and correcting homework!

    So I support this idea completely, but need someone to show me how to build parent buy-in.

  6. Jonathan

    I agree at the elementary level, but not at the high school level. Some sort of phase in would work (from reading, to writing, and then eventually other subjects), gradually, from upper elementary through the beginning of high school.

    As a high school math teacher, I find having kids check their understanding at home to be invaluable. Everything seems clear Tuesday in class. But Tuesday evening they find out if anything stuck, and Wednesday they are starting class with real questions.

    On the other hand this math teacher/blogger/all around 2.0 guy assigns no homework whatsoever. He’s interesting and worth reading, but wrong. He does generate nice discussions, though.

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