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Homework as Superstition


by Cathy Vatterott - July 19, 2011

The reform of K-12 homework practices has been impeded by unrealistic fears which share many attributes with superstitions. Homework can be an effective tool for learning, but to truly reform the practice, we must move beyond superstitious beliefs about homework.

Homework is a long-standing educational tradition that, until recently, has seldom been questioned. As a growing number of educators and parents examine the practice of homework, the pace of homework reform in K-12 schools has accelerated. This wave of reform has been driven in part by the intersection of stressed out families, increased student diversity, test prep fatigue, and the move toward standards based grading.


Educators familiar with the research know that while some homework may help learning, the research does not support the value of excessive amounts of homework. Educators also know that quality is more important than quantity, that children differ in readiness, motivation, and persistence, and that downtime, play, and sleep are important for a child’s physical and mental health.  


K-12 districts that are implementing homework reform are typically moving in the direction of less homework, more meaningful homework tasks, restrictions on weekend and holiday homework, and limiting the amount homework may count in the grade. While some in the K-12 educational community have “seen the light”--that homework is not producing the results we would like, a large segment of the general public fear any change in homework practices.


Among those opposed to homework reform, a rather simplistic view exists—wrongly labeling today’s reform as anti-homework and that there are only two positions about homework—for it or against it (a false dichotomy). To make matters worse, a sort of mass hysteria exists among many parents about their child’s ability to compete and be successful in the world. Parents assume an automatic relationship between hours of homework and future success, i.e., acceptance to an elite college (the documentary Race to Nowhere is an excellent expose of this hysteria).


Homework has long been the scapegoat for what ails us in education. For some, a blind faith exists that homework is always a good idea and that more homework is better than less, regardless of the worth of the task or the amount of time it takes. For the most zealous, this belief in the inherent goodness of homework is almost cultlike.


Attempts by schools to lessen or diminish the homework load often provoke a kneejerk reaction of opposition and accusations of “dumbing down” our children’s education. Those of us in favor of such reform are labeled both whiners and slackers. Even something as benign and sensible as eliminating homework on weekends and holidays can stir up a controversy worthy of coverage in the national media. These over-the-top reactions reveal a faction paralyzed by fear—that changing anything about homework will:


lower our standardized test scores.


ruin our children’s sense of responsibility, leaving them morally bankrupt, unmotivated and unproductive.


make our children “soft” and doom them to a future of laziness and underachievement.


seal our country’s fate as a second class nation.


But none of these unrealistic fears are supported by evidence. These beliefs that are impediments to homework reform are superstitions. They share many traits with other common superstitions.


Homework superstitions are beliefs not based on reason or knowledge. Some evidence contrary to the superstitious beliefs about homework is as follows:


Fifteen years of meta-analyses of research indicate the limitations of K-12 homework to influence achievement (Cooper, 1994, 2001, 2007).


In a comparison of 50 countries, the research shows that the highest achieving countries actually do less homework than lower achieving countries (Baker & LeTendre, 2005).


There is no research to support that homework promotes responsibility or discipline in children (Kohn, 2006).


Homework superstitions attach “super powers” to the practice. People opposed to homework reform will often claim “If our kids just did more homework our country would be more competitive, or our country would __________” (fill in the blank with any number of predictions).


Homework superstitions maintain that future events may be influenced by one’s behavior in some magical or mystical way. The simple act of doing homework will assure success in a child’s future life, either by instilling a virtuous work ethic, getting them into a prestigious college, or paving the way to a successful career.


Opponents to any type of school reform often dismiss it by claiming they’ve seen it before and that we are just revisiting an old educational fad. They claim that current homework reforms are simply a reincarnation of earlier anti-homework movements, the pendulum once again swinging from pro-homework to anti- homework.


But this time is different—K-12 homework reform today is not so much anti homework as it is anti-thoughtless homework, anti-busywork, pro-reasonable and effective homework, and pro-equitable practices for all students. What’s different this time is deeper than “Is homework good or bad?” or “How much is too much?” Educators are actually examining how homework should best be used—what we should do, what quality tasks should look like, which tasks actually enhance learning and how to make homework equitable for students who either can’t or won’t work at home. This new deeper reform is happening all over the country -- individual teachers, school principals, and superintendents tell us quietly that they have made changes in homework practices and “nothing bad happened.” But fearing criticism from the superstitious, teachers often don’t share their policies with other teachers, principals often don’t publicize the changes, and districts often post vague and carefully worded homework policies on their websites.


If we can just get it right, homework can be an important asset for learning. If we can face our fears for what they are—superstitions—we can improve the practice of homework. Superstitions persist because they comfort us—they relieve anxiety about things we feel we lack control over. But they also trap us into obsessive patterns of behavior—“If I don’t do it something bad will happen,” or “If I change this behavior it may produce catastrophic results.” Superstition is holding on to a behavior when rational thought says to let go. It is time to let go of antiquated homework practices and embrace change. So let’s knock on wood, toss salt over one shoulder, take a leap of faith, and jump into homework reform.


References


Baker, D.P., & LeTendre, G. K. (2005). National differences, global similarities: World culture and the future of schooling. Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press.


Cooper, H. (1994). The battle over homework: An administrator’s guide to setting sound and effective policies. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.  


Cooper, H. (2001). The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers, and parents (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.  


Cooper, H. (2007). The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers, and parents (3nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.  


Kohn, A. (2006). The homework myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

 





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 19, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16482, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 5:06:04 AM

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About the Author
  • Cathy Vatterott
    University of Missouri-St. Louis
    E-mail Author
    CATHY VATTEROTT is an Associate Professor of Education at University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs (2009).
 
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